Kati Parppei "The Battle of Kulikovo Refought – 'The First National Feat'"
On February 8, 2018, in frames of the seminar “Boundaries of History” Kati Parppei, an Academy Research Fellow from the Department of Geographical and Historical Studies of the University of Eastern Finland presented her book “The Battle of Kulikovo Refought – 'The First National Feat'”.
Being interested in how the battle of Kulikovo was depicted in Russian historiography the author has examined the ideas, images and perceptions that emerged concerning this event throughout the history. Thus, the main focus was on the inclusion of the battle of Kulikovo in the national narrative from the 15th century up to date. Pursuing the truly collective images Professor Parppei drew on a wide range of sources including school textbooks, paintings, poetry, fairy tales and even cartoons.
In her presentation Kati Parppei gave quotations from the school textbooks describing battle of Kulikovo in a very detailed way, including wide explanation of the main actors’s motives. Such descriptions were believed to represent the commonly shared image of the battle significance. Taking this reproducing narrative as a starting point author started tracing the initial sources of it.
According to the Kati Parppei, initially such descriptions come from the 15-16th centuries. Those sources were already deeply studied, however mostly in a way of extracting facts for historical reconstruction rather than trying to understand the motives of bringing these texts into light.
Early descriptions (those of 1440-ies) consisting of church chronicles were made in a stereotypical way for medieval texts and did not give much information about the event. However, later texts of 1480-ies onward presented lots of new details. The emphasis was mostly given to the role of Moscow and Muscovite rulers which reflected the consolidation of the status of Moscow in the given period.
The next turning point in the representation of the Kulikovo battle took place in 16th century. As Kati Parppei stated, such texts as the Tale of the Mamai Battle (Сказание о Мамевом побоище) once again contained new colorful and emotional details. While at the given period Moscow already secured its leading positions, process of updating such texts must have served the legitimization of these changes. Another layers of meanings included the connections with contemporary politics and religious narratives about the struggle between Christianity and Muslims.
In the 18th century onwards the emphasis of the Kulikovo narrative gradually shifted from religion to politics. The significance of the battle for the development of the Russian nation was emphasized. More emotional narratives of the readiness to sacrifice lives for motherland were developed. Especially often the Kulikovo battle image was used during various conflicts with the Ottoman Empire. However, the symbolic concept of Kulikovo proved to be versatile and was successfully adopted and interpreted during the Napoleonic wars as well, when, for example, Alexander the First was compared to Dmitrii Donskoy.
Next, following the growing literacy the Kulikovo narrative entered the school textbooks, effectively distributing images and meaning to very large receipting audience. Special attention was given to the courage of Dmitrii Donskoy and his warriors. That might have been important as many of the pupils later entered military service.
During the Soviet times theme of the Kulikovo battle was also popular. Though religious context was abandoned for obvious reasons, images of Dmitrii Donskoy and Russian Medieval warriors had been actively used in the propaganda posters. The military challenges of soviet soldiers had been called contemporary Kulikovo battle.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union the figure of Dmitrii Donskoy and the image of Kulikovo battle once again proved to be appropriate for rebuilding collective identities once again. Kati Parppei finished her presentation by once again pointing out the diversity of the layers of meanings that were created throughout the history. Though the battle itself supposedly was rater an ordinary event, it was chosen to represent contemporary issues over and over again allowing the symbolic significance to grow for centuries. Texts concerning the battle could often tell more about the time of their production. Ideas of unity and strong central power were applicable in various contexts which made this particular narrative popular.
The discussion that followed the presentation touched upon several issues. First, the sources and historiography of the Kulikovo battle was discussed. Kati Parppei stressed that her work takes the Kulikovo battle as a case-study while a number of historical events of that time can be studied in a similar manner. One of the probable reasons and initial impulses for using the past events for the contemporary politics’ motives might have emerged due to the increased demand for the narratives explaining how to meet Islamic threat.
Another point discussed was about the connections between the figures of Dmitii Donskoy and Alexander Nevskiy. Kati Parppei explained that we mostly can speak about intertextual connections that appeared through various borrowings. Finally, seminar participants discussed the shift from the earlier medieval religious and cosmological narratives towards national historiographies and the problem of homogenization of the concept of national history itself. It was agreed that it can more productive to speak about multiple layers of national history.
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