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Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2013 DOI ./-
Russian History 40 (2013) 428450 brill.com/ruhi
How Old Magic Does the Trick for Modern Politics
Claudio Sergio Nun-IngeromCNRS, Paris and Universidad Nacional de San Martin, Buenos Aires
This article attempts to interpret the insurrection led by Razin in the seventeenth century as
the beginning of modern politics, because it was founded on the immanence of the social in
contrast to the transcendent conceptions of power maintained by the court and church.
This advance was made possible by the working of magic. Through performative speech,
magic permitted the creation of a verbal presence for the non-existent tsarevich Alexis, who,
however, was never given material form. In keeping the self-appointed heir invisible and by
declaring his fathers rule illegitimate, the rebels reduced the role of the tsar to a pure signi-
er. The proof that this uprising represented a turn toward modern politics is that it did not
rely upon the invocation of an intangible philosophical or spiritual ideal (as in the West); itwas built instead upon an armed people, expressing itself in a language that was still archaic
but already oriented toward a new representation of power as socially legitimatized. This
analysis opens an important line of argument that has power beyond this specic case.
Razin Rebellion; self-appointment; Invisible tsarevich; magic; political expression; modern
political formation; immanence
No empty place is ever sacred.
(Variations on a Russian theme.)
I. The Topic
In the last few years, the historiographical renewal in the study of magic,including its relationship with religion and politics in Russia, has beenremarkable. Magic has been studied from many perspectives, including as
Valerie Kivelson, Patrolling the Boundaries: Witchcraft Accusations and Household
Strife in Seventeenth-Century Muscovy, Harvard Ukrainian Studies, XIX (1995): 302-323;
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a means for revealing collective representations of power and as a politicalweapon used, for instance, by individuals against the tsars. It will be consid-
ered here as a vehicle productive of political innovation, during the insur-rection led by Stepan Razin.
In August 1670, Razin asserts that Tsarevich Aleksei, the death of whomhad been announced months earlier by the court, had in fact joined theinsurrection, sent by his father to help the Cossacks in their ght againstthe traitors to the crown. It is unclear whether somebody acted as the falseTsarevich because, strangely enough, he was never publicly exposed.Researchers have expressed their inability to grasp this mystery. Yet, if onetries to elucidate this question, sources lead towards magic, which wascollectively practiced by the rebels. Hence the question the followingpages will try to answer: what was thefunctionof this massive recourse tomagic?
II. Mainstream Interpretations
Without any pretense to being exhaustive, I will recall some of the most
widespread theses advanced by previous scholarship, in order to better sit-uate my argument.
1. According to Martin Malia, this peasant uprising negates thestate. For Paul Avrich, it was an outright revolt against the state.
Ibid., Political Sorcery in Sixteenth-Century Muscovy, ed. A. M. Kleimola, G. D. Lenhof,
Culture and Identity in Muscovy 1359-1584(Moscow: ITZ-Garant, 1997); Ibid.., Male Witches
and gendered Categories in Seventeenth-Century Russia, Comparative Studies in Society
and History45, no. 3 (2003): 606-631; William F. Ryan, The Bathhouse at Midnight. An histori-
cal survey of magic and divination in Russia, (Stroud: Sutton, 1999); A.S. Lavrov,Koldovstvo i
religiia v Rossii, 1700-1740 gg. (Moscow: Drevnekhranilishche, 2000); E.B. Smiliianskaia,
Volshebniki, Vogokhulniki, Eretiki. Narodnaia religioznost i dukhovnye prestupleniia v Rossii
XVIII veka(Moscow: Indrik, 2003).
K. V. Chistov,Russkie narodnye socialno-utopicheskie legendy(Moscow: Nauka, 1967), 84.
E. V. Chistiakova, V.M.Solovev, Stepan Razin i ego soratniki(Moscow: Mysl, 1988), 54-55.
Martin Malia, La Tragdie sovitique. Histoire du socialisme en Russie 1917 1991 (Paris:
Seuil, 1995): 98. For a critique of this formulation, see Michael Khodarkovsky, The Stepan
Razin Uprising. Was It a Peasant War?Jahrbcher fr Geschichte Osteuropas, 42 (1994): 119.
Martin Malia, Comprendre la Rvolution russe, (Paris: Seuil, 1980): 43.
Paul Avrich, Russian Rebels, 1600 1800, 2 ed., (New York: W. W. Norton and Company,
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By conating the modern concept (state) the elaboration of whichstarts with Hobbes and materializes institutionally with the French
Revolution and the older word.State, which is used to convey theconcept, these authors apply a modern juridical category to an earlierform of government and endow the rebels with intentions that theycould not have had. It is enough to consider the meaning of against thestate (protiv gosudarstva) in the language of the seventeenth century tounderstand the extent to which the expression against the state is atthe same time anachronistic and impossible to translate in the contextof Razins Muscovy.
Reinhart Koselleck, III. Staat im Zeitalter revolutionrer Bewegung, in Staat und
Souvernitt, ed. Otto Brunner, Werner Conze, Reinhart Koselleck, Geschichtliche
Grundbegrife. Historisches Lexicon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, vol. VI,
(Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1990); Quentin Skinner From the state of princes to the person of
state, in, Idem, Visions of Politics, vol. 2: Renaissance Virtues, (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2002); Sandro Chignola, Giuseppe Duso, Storia dei Concetti e Filosoa
Politica, (Milan: Franco Angelli, 2008).
Let us remember that until the 17th centurygosudarstvo the rst form of which was
gospodarstvo was used rst and foremost in two ways: the dignity of the gosudar(domi-
nus,Master), rst the grand prince and later the tsar, and the lands that belonged to him. It
follows the model of the Polish panstwowhich copied the Latin words dominumand domi-
natio, Zoltan Andrs, Fejezetek az orosz skkincs trtnetbl, (Budapest, 1987): 14-50. The
word gosudarstvo was understood at the time as the sovereigns property (gosudarskaia
votchina), see A. I. Zaozerskii, Tsarskaia votchina XVII veka, (Moscow: Gosudarstvennyi
sotsialno-ekonomicheskoe izdatelstvo, 1937 [1 ed., 1917]): 43). It also denoted the power of
the gosudarover that which belonged to him, hence its meaning of government (pravle-
nie) and possessions of the gosudar, over all the land and those living on it. During the
Times of Trouble, when there was no stable gosudar, gosudarstvo also designated the
population of a certain territory;Slovar russkogo iazyka XVIII veka
, v. 4: 135; v. 5: 198-9;
Etimologicheskii slovar russkogo iazyka, ed. N. M. Shanskii (Moscow: MGU, 1968), v. 3: 196;
A.V. Tolstikov, Predstavleniia o Gosudare i Gosudarstve v Rossii vtoroi poloviny XVI
pervoi poloviny XVII veka, Odissei, (Moscow: Nauka, 2002): 295-6. Gosudarstvocould also
signify the throne: M.M., Rozhdenie gosudarstva: iz istorii moskovskogo politich-
eskogo diskursa XVI veka, inIstoricheskie poniatiia i politicheskie idei v Rossii XVI XX veka,
ed. N.Koposov, St Petersburg: Aleteia, 2006): 60-1. The rst meaning of gosudarstvo, in the
general sense, was empire or kingdom (tsarstvo). Gosudarstvowas also understood as coun-
try (strana) but also a part of the country, a particular region, a province of the Russian
Empire, For example, it was common to say in thegosudarstvoof Siberia:Pisma i bumagi
imperatora Petra Velikogo, ed. B. B. Kafengauz, 9 vols, (Moscow: Gosudarstvennaia TipograiaSankt Peterbourg, 1887-1952), v.9/1: 291. See also: Bog dal nam na vse gosudarstva
Rossiiskogo tsarstviia gosudarem, tsarem i velikim kniazem vseia Rusii, Gramota
announcing the election of Mikhail Romanov, in Irina V. Pozdeeva, Pervye Romanovy i
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2. For Malia, this movement is purely destructive, purely negative, itproves to be incapable to create anything. According to Avrich, Razin
was resisting the modernization and secularization of Russian life; hisprogram was essentially destructive. He argues that it was a conictbetween growth of the state on the one hand, and a reluctant peoplewho remained deeply conservative and steadfast in their resistance tochange on the other. Yet, in contradictory fashion, Avrich adds to hisargument about Russian revolts in the seventeenth and eighteenth cen-turies that despite their traditionalist framework and backward look-ing orientation, in their determination to sweep away the existing orderthey were profoundly revolutionary.
3. Ethnologists have undertaken the study of the magic component thathas been largely ignored by historians in their interpretation of theinsurrection. The latter tend to consider magic as superuous, as part ofthe backward-looking orientation they ascribe to the Razin revolt. Thus,Philip Longworth reviews the magical powers attributed to Razinwhile Avrich recalls that Razin was regarded as a sorcerer and that heoperated by magic. He concludes that t