Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive




Cartographies of Tsardom. The Land and its Meanings in Seventeenth Century Russia

by Valerie Kivelson
Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2006
312 pp., illus. col. Trade, $65.00; paper, $29.95
ISBN: 978-0-8014-4409-8; ISBN: 978-0-8014-7253-4.

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent


When I was at primary school, our teacher proudly showed us the maps of Gerard Mercator, a native from ‘my’ county, and told us this was how the world looked. Only much later, in high school, did I find out that Belgium was not just two or three times smaller than our erstwhile colony Congo, and that the maps of the famous cartographer grossly exaggerate the sizes of the countries away from the equator, even leaving out altogether the largest part of the southern hemisphere. Maps, so it transpired, did not present a truthful image of the state of matters and the matter of states, but were more or less a product of the dominating worldview. With some effort, I laid hands on a Peeters projection of the world, and I grew accustomed to another ideologically laden but at least more ‘fair’ flattening of the planet.

I could of course recall a similar anecdote about my history lessons, where we got fed an entirely skewed, Eurocentric narrative in which China, India and the Americas only acted as supporting characters. As with the maps, history seemed to center round the Mediterranean, gradually spreading out when the proverbial white spots in olden maps were filled in by fearless conquistadores, settlers, discoverers and missionaries. Even after many years of reading, I could only write ‘Hic est Leones’ or something similar on some parts of the map. One of these blank areas, both historically and geographically, was Russia and the vast Siberian expanse east of the Urals. To be honest, about the other countries east of the Iron Curtain I couldn’t bring up even the most basic historic data. The Kingdom of Kiev, which dominated Eastern Europe for much of the Middle Ages and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which spread from the Baltic to the Black Sea and included part of what is now Poland and Byeloruss, were — and I think still are for most people of my generation — entirely unknown. Russia, as far as I was concerned, had been christened by Cyrillus and Methodius and then left over to the absolutist power of the Tsars, as it had, in my mind, always been.

I can think of no better, more entertaining and more informative way to get rid of all these misconceptions than by reading this beautifully written analysis of early Russian maps. For the first part of the book, Valerie Kivelson browsed through hundreds of small-scale maps drawn by civil servants, mayors and military men for use by magistrates from Moscou when dealing with conflicts about mills, fields, groves and ponds. Using these maps and the accompanying documents, she gradually gives us insight in how the people from the Muscovy era (about a century before the times of Peter the Great, who quickly modernised Russia and Russian cartography along Western lines) thought about their environment, about their land and about the complex rights of ownership. In the process, she unravels the delicate power structures of the Muscovy state, where every piece of land was nominally owned by the Great Prince, who graciously left it to some landlord or abbey or township to be managed. In their turn, village farmers who were bound to the ground worked these feuds. On each level, the people involved kept a sense of ownership, establishing a threefold structure of responsibility. Serfs thus could act as witnesses in lawsuits between lords, even if most of them were probably illiterate.

In the second part of the book, Kivelson interprets some beautiful maps of the whole Muscovy realm, outlining the colonisation process and the particularities of the Russian conquista of Siberia. Unlike Western maps, most of the Muscovy ones include the names of the local peoples and indicates the regions where they live. And unlike the enslaving and dispossession of original populations by Spanish, Portuguese, French and British conquerors, the ‘rights’ of these peoples were preserved — at least up to a certain level. As long as they paid tribute to the Tsar, in the form of sable hides, they were left to their ways, their religions and customs. And baptism was only reluctantly bestowed on the ‘heathens’ because that would turn them in full citizens with all the accompanying rights. Compared to the Spanish and the Portuguese, Tsarist imperialism seems downright enlightened — at least in this respect.

Of course, there is much more to be learned from studying the maps of the Seventeenth Century. Students of Russian history will find in this book a balanced and very careful re-evaluation of some aspects of the Muscovy worldview. How did people think of Nature, the power structure they were living in, and the right of colonised and colonisers? As well, they will get access to reproductions in full colour of some of the most extraordinary maps made in that period. For the lay reader, with little or no background in either cartography or Russian History, this is simply a delightful treasure of novel ideas and eye-openers. From now on, forget about Mercator, and remember Semen Remezov!




Updated 1st February 2007

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@sfsu.edu

copyright © 2007 ISAST