A People Born to Slavery: Russia in Early Modern European Ethnography, 1476-1748

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Overview

Many Americans and Europeans have for centuries viewed Russia as a despotic country in which people are inclined to accept suffering and oppression. What are the origins of this stereotype of Russia as a society fundamentally apart from nations in the West, and how accurate is it? In the first book devoted to answering these questions, Marshall T. Poe traces the roots of today's perception of Russia and its people to the eyewitness descriptions of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European travelers. His fascinating account—the most complete review of early modern European writings about Russia ever undertaken—explores how the image of "Russian tyranny" took hold in the popular imagination and eventually became the basis for the notion of "Oriental Despotism" first set forth by Montesquieu. Poe, the preeminent scholar of these valuable primary sources, carefully assesses their reliability. He argues convincingly that although the foreigners exaggerated the degree of Russian "slavery," they accurately described their encounters and correctly concluded that the political culture of Muscovite autocracy was unlike that of European kingship. With his findings, Poe challenges the notion that all Europeans projected their own fantasies onto Russia. Instead, his evidence suggests that many early travelers produced, in essence, reliable ethnographies, not works of exotic "Orientalism."

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"As Poe observes in the introduction to this extraordinarily well-organized, exceptionally well written, profusely illustrated, and handsomely produced monograph, historians of Muscovy have always been ambivalent about the utility of account written by Europeans, valuing their unique information but remaining skeptical of their biases and ignorance. Poe presents a comprehensive analysis of their view that the tyrannical ruler of Muscovy had unlimited power, owned all land, and abased even his noble subjects. . . .His conclusions should stimulate much useful debate about Muscovite society and politics. Poe's book is certainly the definitive account of the evolution of the theory of Muscovy as a tyranny in early modern European ethnography."—Charles J. Halperin, American Historical Review, April 2002

"If you always wanted to know what underlay Western characterizations of Muscovy as a tyranny or despotism, take an intellectual ride through Professor Poe's exhaustive comparative study. . . This is a remarkably erudite and thoughtful book, an excellent companion to the available accounts, which raises a host of questions for further investigation concerning political practices, rituals, imagery, theory, and crosscultural interfacing."—David Goldfrank, Georgetown University. The Russian Review, Vol. 61, January 2002

"This work makes a significant contribution to early modern studies. The careful scholarly apparatus includes extensive bibliographies."—Choice, November 2001, Vol. 39, No. 3

"In A People Born to Slavery Marshall Poe examines accounts of European visitors to early modern Russia and offers a means of determining the validity of their content, particularly their reports on the Muscovite political system."—Charles J. Halperin, Slavic Review, Vol. 61 No. 2, Summer 2002

"Poe's mastery of his sources will probably remain a model in the genre. His study will undoubtedly remain a must for anyone seriously studying the contacts between Russia and Europe in the early modern period and Muscovite political institutions during the same period."—Jean Levesque, University of Toronto. Canadian Slavonic Papers, XLIII nos 2-3 June-Sept 2001

"Marshall Poe considerably advances the subject with a thoughtful and well-researched account of early modern European accounts of Russia. In this he explores the potent impression of Russian tyranny and argues that, far from being a projection of traveler's fantasies, the impression rested on an informed assessment of Russian developments. . . . This incisive study is of wider importance for its analysis of how national images were created."—Jeremy Black, University of Exeter, Journal of Early Modern History , 2002

"'A People Born to Slavery' is a gem, a remarkable accomplishment that demonstrates its erudite author's deep familiarity with a wide range of sources, from Greek and Renaissance political theory to Muscovite historiography. Marshall Poe's ease with the literature is simply stunning as he writes with easy confidence and draws the reader in with his sharp, enthusiastic argumentation."—Valerie Kivelson, University of Michigan

"As Marshall Poe's well-written book both criticizes previous histories and shows in what ways they are useful, it also goes beyond the scholarship on early modern Russia and deftly asks to what extent Russia's political culture is distinct from that of Western Europe. 'A People Born to Slavery' is a significant contribution to our understanding of Russia, both early modern and modern."—Daniel Kaiser, Grinnell College

"Marshall Poe's comprehensive synoptic analysis of foreigners' accounts of Muscovy is certain to stimulate widespread discussion of both the accounts and the reality they claimed to describe. That discussion will be greatly enhanced by the author's provision of very useful bibliographic and tabular information on all the foreign sources."—Edward Keenan, Harvard University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801437984
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2001
  • Series: Studies in the Humanities Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.20 (d)

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