18.03.08 , Dimnik, Power Politics in Kievan Rus'

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Simon Franklin

The Medieval Review 18.03.08

Dimnik, Martin. Power Politics in Kievan Rus': Vladimir Monomakh and His Dynasty, 1054–1246. Studies and Texts. Toronto:PIMS, 2016. pp. xxii, 432. ISBN: 978-0-88844-202-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Simon Franklin
University of Cambridge

Rulership in Rus was a family business. In the beginning there was... who? Perhaps Riurik, the (probably) legendary ninth-century Scandinavian prince whom later chronicles claimed as the progenitor of the ruling dynasty in the lands of the Rus. Or perhaps the dynastic founder should be regarded as Vladimir, prince of Kiev from 980 to 1015, who brought baptism to his people (or had them dragged forcibly to baptism if they objected). Almost all of the many hundreds of recorded members of the ruling family over the next quarter of a millennium can be traced to the offspring of Vladimir. However, the sources for the early decades are fragmentary in their narratives, late in their composition, and vague in their representations of how dynastic rule operated--or of how it was supposed to operate, or even of whether it was 'supposed' to operate in any regular or norm-bound manner beyond the victory of the strongest. From the second half of the eleventh century the chronicles not only become fuller, thicker, increasingly unbroken and multi-stranded; they also begin to depict and measure the functioning and malfunctioning of the ruling family, if not in accordance with a fixed system, at any rate in relation to an evolving set of conventions. And the conventional starting point for this more convention-guided dynastic history is 1054.

In 1054 Vladimir's son Iaroslav died. After the protracted and murderous fraternal power struggle that had followed the death of his father, Iaroslav emerged as the eventual sole winner. From the mid 1030s, after the death of his last serious rival, he enjoyed sole rule in Kiev and its associated territories. Part of Iaroslav's legacy was visible and cultural in his programme of monumental construction that would define the city: his Cathedral of Saint Sophia stands to this day. And part of his legacy was--or was believed to be--political. According to the Primary Chronicle, Iaroslav left his sons a brief set of instructions regarding the apportionment of lands and the hierarchy of authority among them. This text in the chronicle, sometimes known as Iaroslav's 'testament', is the baseline for the latest in the sequence of Martin Dimnik's voluminous accounts of dynastic politics in early Rus. Iaroslav's 'testament' refers only to arrangement among his sons. Dimnik perhaps reads into it more cross-generational prescription than the text can comfortably sustain. Nor is he distracted by the possibility that it was composed retrospectively. For him, whatever its authenticity, it serves as a kind of constitutional template, a foundational document, whose implications, interpretations, modifications and violations can be followed across the generations, through the ever-increasing diffuseness and complexity of Rus dynastic politics for the next two hundred years, until the age of the Mongol invasions.

The central and most durable elements of the dynastic conventions, as they evolved over this period, were never articulated in detail. A prince 'sat on the throne of his father and grandfather', patrimony was declared inviolable, and priority in succession and authority was supposedly conferred by a notion of 'seniority'. In practice, however, family life was far messier than these ostensibly simple guidelines may imply. The lands seem to have been regarded as a collective possession of the rapidly expanding dynasty. Every son and nephew and brother and cousin of a prince was also a prince with some stake in the family enterprise. 'Seniority' was not conferred by primogeniture, but moved down the line of brothers, and then, sometimes but by no means regularly or always, reverted to the offspring of the older brother, then to their cousins the offspring of the younger brother, and so on. A degree of inbuilt restriction was imposed by the phrase to 'sit on the throne of one's father and grandfather': that is, the pool of potential throne-sitters was limited to those whose fathers had themselves survived long enough to take their own turn in sitting on the throne.

Not surprisingly, all this left plenty of scope for creative interpretation, for rule-bending that then evolved into new and conflicting precedents, for rival claimants each convinced of legitimacy, for the threats and manipulations and negotiations that are the subject of Dimnik's account of 'power politics'. Dimnik's previous studies of dynastic politics have focused on branches of the family that tend to have been sidelined by the main surviving chronicles and (hence?) by a majority of historians: specifically, the descendants of Iaroslav's son Sviatoslav, whose patrimony was the territory of Chernigov. In his latest book he moves to the mainstream, to the descendants of Iaroslav's younger son Vsevolod, and of Vsevolod's son Vladimir 'Monomakh', prince of Kiev from 1113 to 1125. Although not from the senior line of Iaroslav's offspring, Monomakh's progeny contrived to gain and, for the most part, to sustain control over most of the lands of the Rus. The takeover was far from smooth. The proliferating Monomakhovich princes jostled with each other as much as with their cousins. But their collective domination is striking nevertheless. This is Dimnik's story.

Martin Dimnik has developed his own, deeply unfashionable genre of historical writing. He is a chronicler: infected by, elaborating upon, collating the accounts of, and ultimately reconstituting the narrative mode of his medieval predecessors. Sequence trumps theme or shape. Sequence determines shape. Dimnik plots--or tracks the plots of--the interactions and interrelations of his ever-expanding cast of characters, the alliances and the betrayals, the conflicts and the truces. If there are thematic leitmotifs, they are notions of legitimacy on the one hand and Monomakhovich ambition on the other hand. But one cannot speak of a consistent plot or of a developing argument. Stuff happens, and here, in strict order, is the tale of the stuff happening.

The chapter headings convey the flavour. Some do suggest the detailed narrative of particular episodes: chapter 3, "Vladimir Monomakh Successfully Occupies Kiev"; chapter 4, "Monomakh's Son Mstislav Succeeds his Father to Kiev"; chapter 6, "Vsevolod Ol'govich of Chernigov Usurps Control of Kiev", and so on. Elsewhere, however, Dimnik's chapter headings more or less give up on episodic focus: chapter 8, "Interdynastic Disputes'; Chapter 10, 'More Succession Rivalries"; Chapter 15, "The Princes at War." Within each chapter Dimnik provides equally pithy and characteristic subheadings. Indeed, if one were to amalgamate the subheadings, one would produce the kind of surreally inconsequential résumé that one sometimes finds in nineteenth-century novels. Thus: chapter 8, in which Yury Occupies Kiev the Second Time, the Mstislavichi Go to War, Ivan Berladnik is Pretender to the Throne, Yury Dies, Iziaslav Davidovich goes to Kiev, Rostislav Iziaslavich Is Acknowledged as the Senior Prince, Andrey Bogolyubskiy Allies with Izyaslav Davidovich, and The Novgorodians Ask Andrey for a Prince.

Dimnik is relentlessly upbeat, even lively, in his chronicling, but it has to be said that the relentlessness can be a challenge for the reader. It is hard to avoid the 'so what?' question. Can we reasonably be expected to follow every twist and turn in the extended retelling of internal squabbling across half a dozen generations of a huge family? And why should we care? This is history as surface noise, with little or no concern for deeper stirrings, processes and interests by which the surface noise may, in some measure, have been prompted and shaped. Moreover, Dimnik has by now become so intimately familiar with his subjects that he tends not to see a need to argue his interpretations. He has spent so many decades retelling the stories of the princes in so much detail that he may well feel he has acquired, and has the right to assert, a sure ear and instinct for their motivations and aspirations, his ascriptions of motive and thought.

For example, Dimnik writes of Monomakh's "dream of making his descendants the hereditary rulers of Kiev" (383). Now, Vladimir Monomakh is unique among Kievan princes in that we do actually possess a cluster of works on political principles and dynastic relations that can plausibly be attributed to him personally; but one would search them in vain for any articulation of such a 'dream'. Moreover, despite the aura of plenitude in the narrative, Dimnik can be damagingly selective when it suits him. Thus he asserts that 'the procedure for succession to Kiev' implied in Iaroslav's testament "had gone uncontested up to the time of Monomakh's occupation of Kiev" (55)--that is, from 1054 to 1113. This is false, or at any rate fundamentally misleading. In the first place, in the late 1060s the Kievan throne was occupied, albeit briefly, by a member of a parallel branch of the family, Vseslav of Polotsk (who does not even figure in Dimnik's index). Secondly, and more seriously, in the mid 1070s the order laid down in the 'testament' was blatantly violated by Iaroslav's own sons, two of whom (Sviatoslav, with Monomakh's father Vsevolod) expelled their older brother Iziaslav, whose authority they are expressly enjoined, by the 'testament', to respect 'as a father'.

Dimnik is not alone in his fascination with the workings of the Rus dynasty. As his bibliography shows, dynastic politics have, of course, long been among the traditional concerns of historians of Rus. But, perhaps surprisingly, there has been a recent strong resurgence in the detailed study of 'Riurikid' family history. Some of the major publications are listed by Dimnik: the onomastic investigations of the Russian scholars Fedor Uspenskii and Anna Litvina; the very extensive account of the descendants of Monomakh's son Mstislav by Dariusz Dąbrowski, published in Polish in 2008 (but not its expanded and updated Russian version of 2015) with over 150 'biogrammes.' Unfortunately Dimnik was not able to take into account the most recent book on the subject, Christian Raffensperger's Ties of Kinship: Genealogy and Dynastic Marriage in Kyivan Rus', published in 2016. However, I suspect it would have made little difference to the product. From time to time Dimnik does mention the fact that some scholars see events differently. In places (e.g. pp. 65-68) he usefully summarizes a range of interpretations. Nevertheless, he rarely engages with the specific arguments of others in order to justify his own.

One final piece of nitpicking: the bibliography could have done with some more careful final-stage editing. The works of Oleksii Petrovych Tolochko have very oddly been split between him and a phantom medievalist Anatoly Pavlovych Tolochko (so far as I can tell, the closest Anatolii Pavlovich Tolochko is a historian of twentieth-century Siberia). Dariusz Dąbrowski is likewise split into two people: one with the Polish spelling of his name, the other with a transliterated Russian spelling of his name.

Dimnik's genre is easy to criticize, yet there is something admirable about the enterprise: the sheer persistence and monumentality, the very imperviousness to historiographical fashion, the oeuvre that this book brings to completion. And we know about the proof of the pudding. Though fastidious readers may stumble over the flaws, Dimnik's books are and will remain enviably useful. They will not only stay on the shelves, but they will continue to be taken off the shelves: to be dipped into and tasted even when not swallowed whole. Nobody is likely to cover the same ground in quite this way again.

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