Friday, January 8, 2016

The Sources That Aren’t

Contrary to plan, I spent little of my two-week Christmas vacation revising The Swan Princess. I thought about revisions. I made a list of points to address in the final draft. I entered minor corrections suggested by my beta readers. But what I actually did was research—lots and lots of research.

The shift came about by accident. As I put Swan Princess on the back burner while waiting for comments—always a good idea, because it takes a month or so of downtime to make the essential switch from writer to reader that reveals the flaws in a book—I turned to Legends 4, The Vermilion Bird, only to realize that I didn’t know enough about the political situation in Muscovy in 1537 to construct a plot free of major howlers. As I dug through chronicle variants and historical literature, I remembered seeing a review of a book devoted to the minority of Ivan the Terrible (1533–47). Figuring this book must have something to say about the dramatic events of 1537, I set out in search of it.

The usual sources proved disappointing. Prices were high, availability low. I turned to WorldCat, which listed a couple of nearby copies. Russia in 1533–47 is not most scholars’ cup of tea, so the chances of obtaining the book seemed promising. I trotted over to the local library and put in a request, causing hilarity among the staff (882 pages in Russian—is she nuts?). And within a week, I was holding a copy of Mikhail Krom’s The “Widowed Kingdom”:  The Political Crisis in Russia in the 1530s–40s, with a generous six-week loan period. Better yet, one of my colleagues made a brief trip to St. Petersburg, where at my request he secured a copy of Krom’s book for $10 plus US postage. It arrived at my door two days after my vacation began. At that point, I returned the library copy and could have left the book for later.

But I didn’t, because I was hooked. I realized within the first few pages that I had a treasure trove in my hands. Krom spent fifteen years of his life studying every document he could find on this short but troubled period in Russian history. If I’d had the book when I was plotting The Golden Lynx, it would have enriched that story. I saw information I could use in Swan Princess, as well as a detailed account of the 1537 events that had brought me to the book in the first place—and the repercussions of those events, which extended into 1538 and will form the background to Legends 5, The Shattered Drum. That’s why I put the revisions on hold while I took notes.

Krom’s book is a doorstop. I find it fascinating (although I’ve only made it through 300 of the 882 pages so far), but I’ll be the first to admit that people who don’t have a mad yen to know everything possible about the court during Ivan the Terrible’s childhood are unlikely to share my enthusiasm. Even if I had fifteen years to spare, there is no way I could duplicate the wealth of information and analysis here: it is the kind of topic that demands a scholar resident in the country being examined, not a visitor flitting in and out of the archives.

Yet for all the anticipated and unsuspected gems in this book, there are questions that it cannot answer, because of the nature of the sources. Chronicles are the premodern equivalent of Pravda: they present official history—with a strong religious bent, since they were often written by monks—and thus offer a snapshot of their world as those in power wanted that world to be seen. If a story is told one way and then another way, we can weigh the differing versions, read them against the grain while keeping in mind when they were written, test them against non-chronicle sources, and hope for a glimpse of the truth. But sometimes the story is too dangerous to tell, so the chronicler abbreviates it or eliminates it. These are the “sources that aren’t.”

For example, I wanted to know whether Prince Andrei of Staritsa attended the funeral of his older brother, Prince Yuri of Dmitrov, in August 1536. Seems like a simple enough question, right? One can assume, given the mores of the time, that the answer must be yes. Prince Andrei (and Prince Yuri, too) had been present for the deathbed farewells and the funeral of their oldest brother, Grand Prince Vasily III, in December 1533. The chronicler is all over that one—pages and pages describing every action taken and word said, some of it quite moving. But a week after Vasily’s death, the boyars imprisoned Yuri for plotting to put himself on the throne, and Yuri remained in a Kremlin cell until he died. The entire chronicle entry on his passing—in Krom and in every version available to me—says, “In that same year on 3 August, on Thursday at three o’clock in the afternoon, Prince Yuri Ivanovich died in suffering, of hunger, and was put in the Archangel [Michael Cathedral, where all male members of the dynasty were buried] in Moscow.” The next sentence talks about a fortress being built, and the one after that about improving the fortifications of Vologda earlier in the summer (which happens to be important for Swan Princess, although I won’t say why). But not a word about Yuri’s funeral and who presided over it or attended it, even though he was Ivan the Terrible’s uncle and heir to the throne from Vasily’s accession in 1505 to Ivan’s birth in 1530. And of course, no hint that Yuri’s belief in his right to become grand prince was justified, to a degree: succession in Russia had traditionally gone brother to brother, and while the royal house of Moscow had been moving away from that practice, this case was a textbook example of why the old ways might work better. Ivan was three years old when his father died and in no way comparable to an adult uncle in his capacity to rule. That was the very circumstance that made Yuri and his story so dangerous.

We can guess that Yuri—a prisoner who died of mistreatment if not deliberate murder and an embarrassment to the royal dynasty—received a hurried burial attended by no one except the officiating priest. Orthodox burials typically took place on the day of death or the next day, which didn’t leave much time to summon kinsfolk from other towns. But starvation is not a rapid death, and Yuri’s jailers in the Moscow Kremlin must have seen him weaken. If nothing else, one would expect them to have alerted the higher-ups. Certainly, members of the government headed by Grand Princess Elena Glinskaya could have notified Prince Andrei had they chosen to do so. Staritsa is about 100 miles from Moscow: a healthy rider on a series of good horses and unencumbered by baggage could cover that distance in two to three days. Yet either no message was sent, or Andrei did not respond, or he did respond but the chronicler chose not to mention his arrival. We don’t know which.

A month later, Grand Princess Elena, in the name of her son, summoned Andrei to military service against Kazan, and he refused. That tale the chronicler gives us in full, in a one-sided and tendentious presentation that nonetheless permits glimpses of the underlying story. Was Andrei sick, as he claimed? Was he angry at being denied the opportunity to see his dying brother? Did he fear ending up in the same Kremlin cell? The answers rest in part on whether Andrei had visited Moscow in August and returned unscathed to his own principality, but that information we do not have. What we have instead is a picture of a family in disarray, so riven with suspicion that it turns against its own members, to the point of letting them die in ignominy and want. For a novelist, that picture is, perhaps, compelling enough.

But that, as they say, is a story for another day.

1 comment:

  1. That all sounds so exciting!And serendipitous!I often find in doing research that the info I need turns ups in the most unexpected way! The brain must put out some signal and before you know the answer leaps out at you! A lucky find indeed.

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