Book Review: Scenarios of Power

Wortman, Richard S. Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in the Russian Monarchy. 2 vols.. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1999.

Richard S. Wortman’s two-volume study, Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in the Russian Monarchy, clears new ground for the study of nationalism in Imperial Russia. This review focuses on the recently released second volume. In addition to presenting some subtle interpretations of Russian history, Wortman has much to tell us about the conceptualization and use of nationalism in the second half of the nineteenth century.

If nationalism is in part the process of constructing an "imagined community," then Wortman provides us with extensive detail about how that community was imagined by the rulers of Imperial Russia and their ideologues. Each ruler had a "scenario." Scenarios are "individual realizations of the [governing] myth." The governing myth was the symbolic role the autocrat adopted to "embody the office of emperor" and enact the "dominant political and cultural ideals of his era." Scenarios were displayed in a variety of ways, through court rituals, art, architecture, ceremonial visits, parade reviews, depictions of the imperial family, etc. They could be modified over the course of a reign, although Wortman demonstrates that rulers tended to adhere to their original scenarios long after the governing myth had lost its efficacy and when court and ruler were weary of enacting it. Still, scenarios were vital. Anna Tiutcheva, a lady-in-waiting who observed several different emperors and their scenarios, explains why: "The prestige of authority to a large degree is sustained by the etiquette and ceremonial surrounding it, which has a strong impact on the imagination of the masses. It is dangerous to deprive authority of this aura" (23). The authority of any given ruler—the ability he had to attract loyalty and compel obedience and thus his effectiveness as a ruler—rested in part on the scenarios he generated. Scenarios were therefore part of the means by which Imperial rulers upheld their power; through their scenarios, rulers generated images of a national Russia.

Wortman posits the active role of the ruler, court, and state apparatus in crafting Imperial Russia’s national image. "After 1825… Russian nationality was presented as a nationality of consensual subordination, in contrast to egalitarian Western concepts" (25). The Russian people were depicted as willfully submitting themselves to the emperor, and the ruler himself was depicted as a triumphant conqueror, removed from the people and indeed beyond them. However, the incorporation of the Russian people into ruling scenarios became more important as the nineteenth century wore on. A primary motif of the scenarios of Alexander I and Nicholas I prior to 1855 was the binding of elites with the ruler. After 1855, scenarios worked on bonding the ruler to the people. In the case of Nicholas II, this symbolic connection involved bypassing not only the elites and nobility through which he ruled, but merchants, educated society, and urban populations, in order to bond directly with the peasantry. Nicholas became ever more lost in the Potemkin villages created by his scenario, and ultimately mistook the myth for reality. Nineteenth-century scenarios, then, shifted from depicting the ruler as above and apart from Russia, to seeing him as Russia’s embodiment. The primary image of the ruler moved from that of "Westernized emperor" (a scenario that failed decisively with the assassination in 1881 of the reforming tsar-liberator, Alexander II) to that of Alexander III, a tsar who was "Most Russian of Russians" (525).

According to Wortman, the result of the ruler’s association with Russian national identity was a truncated sense of that identity, in which the activity of the state "actively discouraged or forbade the concept of a civic nation and by identifying the nation with the monarchy made it difficult or impossible for society to construct an independent concept of civic nationalism" (525, n.1). For Russian rulers, the nation could not serve as a source of legitimacy; their legitimacy lay in pre-national concepts of divine right. The challenge was to incorporate the nation as a potential source of support without shifting the legitimacy to rule out of Romanov hands. Carefully avoiding a pathological assessment of Russian difference, Wortman clearly and persuasively depicts how Russian nationalism became associated with the state and linked to the exercise of absolute power.

However, it must be said that while the autocracy certainly made the articulation of a civic vision of Russia difficult, it did not make it impossible. Civic life in late Imperial Russia has long been assumed to be weak and inconsequential, but recent research is painting a more dynamic picture. Civil society (whether one considers it to be existing or in the process of formation) was loath to associate itself with the autocracy not only because the autocracy’s transcendental claim to power left society little room to breathe, but also because of autocratic bumbling and mistakes. Indeed, the actions of the autocracy did more to undermine its claims to power than its rhetorical monopoly.

The role that imperial subjects actually played in scenarios varied. The imperial regime did not encourage active engagement by the population, nor did they want to craft widely interpretable scenarios. Nicholas I and Alexander III in particular desired their scenarios to be monologues; the autocrat spoke and the people listened. In such monologic scenarios the people were, in the words of a contemporary, merely a "majestic living decoration" (362). Such a view perhaps explains some of the callousness and instrumentality with which Russian rulers treated their people, all the while professing (and seemingly feeling) deep affection for them. Wortman does not deal systematically with the question of how scenarios were received; this is because the focus of his book is on the scenarios themselves, and their construction. He does discuss individual reactions to different scenarios, or parts of scenarios, but does not offer a general statement on reception (Wortman does specifically note that he does not deal with what the peasantry thought of these scenarios (14)). Interesting work no doubt awaits us on this topic.

Wortman makes a strong case for constructivist and idealist positions regarding nationalism. The nation is an idea described through a set of symbols. These symbols are deliberately employed for specific purposes. These symbols may or may not correspond to other existing conceptions of identity, but they do influence individual and collective adoptions of national identity. Three ramifications of Wortman’s argument for larger questions of Russian identity should be noted. First, Wortman’s argument helps explain the persistence of local, particularistic identities in the imperial period. The development of a Russian national identity independent of the state was retarded, and expressions of collective identity remained located around or fractured along the lines of smaller social groupings. Second, as the state-created scenarios were irreducibly wrapped up in myths of conquest and domination, the image of Russia as bent on conquest was adopted by western sources as constituting the essential character of the imperial and Soviet states and their inhabitants. The association with aggressive domination has currently made the peaceful expression of Russian identity difficult. Finally, the Soviet state that succeeded Imperial Russia was similarly able to effectively construct identities for its citizens, and Lenin, Stalin, and their successors created their own ruling scenarios. Soviet leaders benefited from the linkage of identity with the state and the exercise of power. It is to be hoped that recent work on the construction and meaning of Soviet identities will take this imperial heritage into account.

Wortman’s text contains many interesting tangential interpretations and arguments. Obviously such interpretations are not his main point, but it is a testament to the vitality of Wortman’s scholarship that there are so many of them. For example, Wortman quietly emphasizes the importance of the 1891 famine as a disillusioning, crystallizing moment, a moment that revealed the incompetence of the autocracy and suggested to educated society its own potential for positive action. Wortman considers the famine as important as the Crimean war for galvanizing a reassessment of autocratic power (296). This is a bold statement given that the Crimean war is universally accepted as one of the major impetuses for triggering the emancipation of the serfs.

On a more general note, Wortman’s exploration of the personalities of emperors Alexander II and III is useful. These two monarchs have not been the subject of recent biographies in English, and are thus less well known than the other rulers included in Wortman’s study. The nexus that Wortman focuses upon between the personalities, style of governing, and relationship to policy of the two men is even less well covered, and his efforts here are useful. Wortman provides a sober assessment of Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, welcome given the overheated prose of the cottage industry of books surrounding that ill-fated couple. Furthermore, he tantalizingly suggests a reason for that industry, in that Nicholas and Alexandra "shared a cult of the family, more British that Orthodox, which may be one reason why their plight seems so familiar and touching to present-day sensibilities" (333). Some forty-two photo albums of the last immediate Imperial family exist (Nicholas, Alexandra, their four daughters and son Alexei); Wortman posits that this photographic self-absorption is another indication of Nicholas’s Imperial scenario devolving into solipsism.

Wortman presents a fascinating and atypical depiction of Nicholas II as an active ruler, one who until the bitter end refused to concede any authority to the legislature that he agreed to create in 1905. Nicholas’s decision to move into politics after 1905 both alienated his supporters and fatally compromised the image of the autocrat as above mere politics. His attempts to "restore [his] autocratic prerogatives and deliver himself from the encumbrances that hampered his personal will in government and society" (527) set him on a collision course with an increasingly confident, frustrated, and articulate society. The collapse of the empire then emerges as very much influenced by Nicholas’s actions.

Wortman writes pithily, and both volumes of Scenarios of Power read well. They are not overtly theoretical, but informed by theory, which will no doubt suit some readers more than others. In the five years since the publication of the first volume, conference papers and theses by younger scholars have demonstrated the positive reception and incorporation of Wortman’s work. It is possible that the second volume will receive more critical scrutiny than the first, given the larger number of scholars who work on the latter half of the nineteenth century. However, it seems more likely that the second volume will reach the same appreciative audience as the first.