Friday, June 25, 2021

Russell E. Martin's "The Tsar's Happy Occasion"

Russell E. Martin is Professor of History at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. His publications include A Bride for the Tsar: Bride-Shows and Marriage Politics in Early Modern Russia (winner of the W. Bruce Lincoln Book Prize), and, as co-author, Konstantin Makovsky: The Tsar’s Painter in Paris and New York.

Martin applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Tsar's Happy Occasion: Ritual and Dynasty in the Weddings of Russia's Rulers, 1495-1745, and reported the following:
An internet browser opening The Tsar’s Happy Occasion to page 99 would plop the reader down in the midst of a summary of chapter 3. Here she or he would read how four royal weddings in the 1680s—of tsars Fedor III (who married twice), Ivan V, Peter I (his first wedding)—were performed differently from previous weddings in the sixteenth and earlier in the seventeenth centuries. The reader’s eye might land on the lines: “Royal weddings from 1680 on were smaller affairs in comparison to those during the previous century and a half. Fedor III’s first and Ivan V’s were grander and larger weddings than Fedor III’s second or Peter I’s first, but all four appear to have been considerably smaller court happenings than any previous wedding ritual in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries.” The reader’s eye might then move to the question posed in the next paragraph: “The question remains: why were the four weddings in the 1680s celebrated so differently from the ones before it?” and to my response: “A perhaps better explanation emerges when one steps back a few paces from the details and observes the larger context in which these changes occurred. Royal weddings were not the only rituals undergoing transformation in the last quarter of the seventeenth century.” And finally the reader might then be enticed to turn to page 100 to find the end of the truncated sentence expanding on that response, which reads that “underneath and responding to all these visible changes in the ritual life of the court were a number of fundamental transformations in the political culture that spanned the second half of….”

Page 99 provides a good glimpse into one of the key themes of this book: change over time. The Tsar’s Happy Occasion covers more than three centuries of early modern Russian history. It traces fundamental changes in the way Muscovite rulers married and the different symbols and meanings of nuptial rites over time. These changes reflected underlying developments in the political culture of Muscovy as it grew from being just one of the principalities of Rus’ into a significant power ruled by a tsar from an ancient dynasty, underwent a change in dynasty to the Romanovs after a bloody war of succession, and became the Russian Empire under Peter I the Great. Page 99 captures one of the key moments of transformations in this story—the end of the old Muscovite political culture and the rise of a new one to be shaped by the personality and agenda of Peter I. A reader landing on page 99 might not here see all these changes, but would certainly grasp that the book was about change, and about the relationship between that change and the underlying political culture.

There are other themes that might be missed too, if all one read was page 99. First would be the relationship between ritual and power. The Tsar’s Happy Occasion makes the case that court politics in early modern Russia was kinship politics: membership in the highest rungs of power in Muscovy was determined by kinship ties, direct or indirect, with the ruler. To be related to the tsar by marriage was both the pathway to, and a reflection of, one’s position at court—a pattern that holds, in muted form, even in Petrine Russia. Second, page 99 gives no hint about the focus in the book on royal women: the brides, to be sure, but also the other women of the court who participated variously in royal wedding rituals and the politics behind them. And page 99 does not mention the role of religious belief and liturgics in royal nuptial rites, especially when Russian royals married non-Orthodox foreigners. But page 99 includes enough of the story to entice the reader to turn the page or flip back to earlier chapters. It would not at all be a bad place to crack open The Tsar’s Happy Occasion.
Learn more about The Tsar's Happy Occasion.

--Marshal Zeringue