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Ivan the Terrible and His Women

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image of Russian History

This article presents the text of two lectures delivered by the author in the Kathryn W. Davis Lecture Series at Wellesley College on January 31 and February 21, 1980. In the first lecture, the author describes the “grammar” of the Muscovite political system, which was established after the Muscovite dynasty's victory over its rivals (and relatives) in the civil wars of the mid-fifteenth century and which established succession by primogeniture in the ruling house. That system was, according to the author, founded on a collaborative power arrangement between the grand prince and his boyars, and was united and reinforced by a web of interconnecting marriages over several generations, the most important marriage in each generation being the ruler's. Politics in this system was marriage politics, and the product of it was an oligarchical political system built on kinship and consensus. In the second lecture, the author focuses on the role women played in Muscovite political culture. Here the emphasis is on both elite women—the wives, mothers, sisters, and aunts of the rulers—and the nannies, drawn usually from humbler backgrounds, who served in the Kremlin and introduced to those living there many of the conventions of language and literature that remain a foundation of modern Russian. These lectures offer a synthetic approach to the political culture of Muscovy, uniting an innovative anthropological perspective on court politics with a pathbreaking analysis of the lasting impact women had on the culture—political, social, biological, and linguistic—in the Kremlin.


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