Rivers of blood: Illustrating violence and virtue in Russia's early modern empire

by Valerie A Kivelson

06 Apr 2016
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Full text posted to Journal of the British Academy, volume 3, pp. 69-105.

Abstract: In the 16th and 17th centuries, between the reign of Ivan the Terrible and that of Peter the Great, Muscovite Russian forces swept eastward, conquering, colonising, and controlling territories reaching from the Volga to the Pacific. Unlike contemporary Western European empires, Russians left few theoretical considerations of what this imperial advance signified to them or how they understood their role as imperial conquerors and overlords. They did, however, leave a colourful collection of illustrated chronicles depicting their battles with the many varied peoples of the steppe and Siberia. Filled with blood and carnage, these images employ surprising visual tropes that distinguish moral from immoral and just from unjust uses of violence, with significant implications for understanding early modern Russian policies of imperial incorporation. 

Keywords: early modern Russian, imperial, violence, illustrated chronicles, moral, just, visual tropes

Raleigh Lecture on History, read 6 November 2014 (video recording)

Text printed 2016 in British Academy Lectures 2014-15

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