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The History of Kazan


This combination of literary and publicistic invention is found not only in The Book of Degrees but in other sixteenth-century works of historical narrative. It is seen most clearly in The History of Kazan. Written in 1564-1566,20 The Short Legend About the Beginning of the Realm of Kazan differed from the chronicle compilations and The Book of Degrees in its more concrete nature—for it dealt mainly with the capture of Kazan in 1552; but at the same time The History of Kazan was not a separate historical tale like The Tale of the Battle Against Mamai. The author sought to give an account not only of the capture of Kazan under Ivan IV, but of the whole history of the Kazan state. He began this history with a legend which is not found in Russian historical narrative and appears to have been borrowed from the Tartar feudal lords of Kazan, about the legendary ruler Sain of the Horde, who marched against the Russian land after the death of Batu, delivered a place “on the Volga, on the very border of Russia”, from a terrible two-headed dragon and set up a rich kingdom—flowing with milk and honey—Kazan.

The History of Kazan combines several different literary influences. A number of threads link the work with official publicistics of the sixteenth century, The Tale of the Princes of Vladimir and the epistles of Ivan the Terrible. It was also close to the historical narrative of the preceding period—it contains direct borrowings from The Tale of Tsargrad (Constantinople) by Nestor- Iskander and The Russian Chronograph of 1512. And, finally, this “fine new tale”, as the author called it, also resembled such works of fictional prose as the Alexandreid and The Trojan History.

The mixture of literary influences was bound to affect the style of the History. Specialists have already noted the “blatant flouting of literary convention” characteristic of this work: contrary to the canons of the military tale, the enemy is shown in heroic colours—“a single Kazaner fought a hundred Russians, and a pair two hundred”; the “fall of the brave Kazaners” is accompanied by the looting of mosques, murders and cruelties committed by Russian warriors. But the portrayal of the ruler of the Khanate of Kazan, Queen Sumbeka, is most unexpected. Sumbeka is far from a positive figure in the History. The author tells of “the illicit love of the khan’s relative Koshchak and the queen”, of the queen’s readiness in concert with her lover “to kill her son, the young prince”, and how after being forced to marry Shigalei, Sumbeka tries several times to poison her second husband. Nevertheless, Sumbeka is not only an adulteress and criminal for the author of the History. For all this she still remains the wise queen, “fair as the sun”, and when she is deposed this is lamented by the whole realm—both “honest wives and fair maidens” and “the whole royal court”; “and hearing this lament, the people came from all over to the royal palace and likewise wept and sobbed inconsola­bly”. The deposed Sumbeka even recalls her beloved first husband, Sapkirei and, as befits heroines in Old Russian literature, addresses him through her tears; she also remembers “her infant son” (although it is said earlier that she planned to kill him).

There were political reasons for this idealised picture of the Tartar Queen in The History of Kazan. In the period of the Oprichnina many of the generals who helped to take Kazan in 1552 fell into disfavour and were executed; to counter the old noble families Ivan IV created a new aristocracy of Tartar descent. In his desire to extol Sumbeka, the author attributes to her certain features of heroines from translated fictional literature, those of the beautiful Helen in The Trojan History or even Roxana in the Alexandreid (cf. her lament over her husband’s coffin is similar to that of Roxana over Alexander).

But the use of fifteenth-century tales in The History of Kazan, as in The Book of Degrees, was somewhat superficial and artificial. These historical works were, first and foremost, official works, whose authors were deliberately seeking to inculcate certain political ideas in the reader. The style of these works is also in keeping with their official nature, e.g., the use of conventional formulae that had ceased to be expressive. The authors readily made use of rhetoric, artificial phrases and expressions: the Volga in The History of Kazan is called “the gold-streamed Tigris” (after the river in Babylon), Ivan IV is “strong-handed” and his soldiers are “fierce-hearted”. Similar high-flown rhetorical expressions are found in The Book of Degrees, for example, in the eulogy to Prince Vladimir, son of Svyatoslav: “That Vladimir is a valiant, pious branch! That Vladimir is an Apostolic zealot! That Vladimir is the affirmation of the church!”, etc.

In such works as The Book of Degrees and The History of Kazan the emotional style that developed in Russian literature of the Pre-Renaissance is formalised. “Individual devices become ossified and begin to be repeated mecharlically.” A high-flown, pompous, yet dry and formal style arose, which is known as the “second monumental style” in Old Russian literature.21

What proved to be fruitful for the development of Russian literature in the following period was not these semi-official works, in spite of their authors’ attempts to introduce diverting elements into the narrative, but the expressive elements that found their way into historical narrative from live observations. It could have been the record of an eyewitness, as in the chronicle account of the death of Basil III, or a tale by a talented publicist who created the illusion of authenticity, as in the description of Ivan IV’s sickness in The Tsar’s Book These lifelike elements can be found in other sixteenth-century works, particularly publicistic ones.