Friday, May 31, 2019

Crossing the Streams

It’s ages since I last saw Ghostbusters, but there are still lines I remember with fondness. The title of this post recalls one of them.

In the movie, crossing the streams is a bad thing. The term refers to the streams of energy emitted by the ghostbusters’ weapons, and crossing them has awful if unspecified (at least, I remember the threat as being unspecified) consequences.

But in real life, crossing streams—in the sense of bringing in a different perspective–allows people to see what they might otherwise miss. This point was brought back to me recently in an unexpected way.

As I mentioned last week, the novelist P. K. Adams and I are planning a joint project. As part of the initial stages, we are outlining general ideas for the plot and dividing the main characters between us. But this is historical fiction, and even for a historian that means research. No one can anticipate the answer to every question that might arise, and in this case I’m very familiar with one side of the story (although I’m researching that too!) and have at most a general knowledge of the other.

So not to give too much away at this early stage—in part because the story is still in flux, so who knows where it will ultimately go?—I was reading a set of documents about Tudor England that happened to include letters from Ivan IV “the Terrible” (r. 1533–84) to King Philip of Spain and his wife, Mary Tudor, as well as Mary’s successor and sister, Elizabeth I.

The correspondence in itself is not news: I first heard about it as an undergrad—not least because the story behind it was too good to leave out of a survey course: Ivan IV, having wreaked havoc on his own land, was trying to arrange a bolt hole in case the people at home lost patience with him to the point that he had to flee if he wanted to keep his head. And Elizabeth, in particular, assured Ivan several times that he could, if he wanted, find a refuge in England. She promised financial support and even a guarantee that no one would attempt to convert him from his own Russian Orthodoxy to Protestantism.

Whether she meant any of it, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know. But that’s not the point. Because I had heard of Ivan’s requests for asylum but never read the actual letters, I’d accepted the usual conclusion: that Ivan felt an exceptional closeness to the kings and queens of England, expressed by his use of the terms “brother” and “sister” in reference to them.

But as soon as I read the letters from the perspective of a historian of Muscovy, I knew that the usual assumption was untrue—or at least unproven. Ivan is not particularly cordial in his missives to the English court (that is, the letters produced on his behalf by his clerks). He chides Elizabeth, in particular, for focusing too much on the mercantile interests of her own ignoble subjects at the expense of princely affairs. He repeatedly emphasizes, in a manner one can only consider derisive, that she is a “maid” (that is, a virgin) who hides behind her maiden state and gives her counselors free rein. Indeed, as a never-married royal woman ruling in her own name, Elizabeth must have seemed completely unnatural to Ivan despite his own mother’s (ultimately unsuccessful) grab for power.

So where do the “brothers” and “sisters” come in? The same place that the “crossing streams” come in. The men (and they were all men) who wrote Ivan’s letters for him were trained in the formulas of steppe diplomacy, like all the other bureaucrats and bureaucracies that emerged from the remnants of Genghis Khan’s empire. And those formulas drew heavily on the fictive kinship that determined power relations in the nomadic hordes. In the early years, Muscovite princes addressed the Mongols as “fathers” and described themselves as grateful, obedient “sons.” After the conquests of the mid-sixteenth century, the tsars became the “fathers” and the high-ranking descendants of Genghis were demoted to “sons.” But in the middle—and in general between states regarded as equal—rulers addressed each other as “brother” and, in the case of the strange English with their Tudor queens, “sister.”

That’s all it means: no special closeness at all, just a recognition of equality. A similar origin lies behind the odd description of Russia and its ruler, in other letters directed at European powers, as “white” (a usage retained in today’s Belarus—White Russia). That comes from steppe diplomacy too, and it has nothing to do with race. In Chinese—and therefore Turkic—cosmology, “white” is the color associated with the west. We think of Russia as an eastern state, barely part of Europe, but if your center is located at Karakorum or Sarai, Russia is almost as far west as you can imagine.

And that’s why it sometimes pays to cross the streams. Strange things may emerge from the shadows, and not all of them are scary.

Images: ghost with placard (edited in Photoshop),, no. 294239; Viktor Vasnetsov, Ivan the Terrible (1897), public domain via Wikimedia Commons; white tiger (symbol of the west), no. 311747 (iClipart images purchased via subscription).

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