Battle history finds meanings in hindsight
Stories of famous battles are essential material for any national histories. The powerful images attached to them have consolidated the idea of a society’s collective, honourable past. In Russian national history, the battle of Kulikovo, fought between Muscovite and Tatar troops in 1380, has been represented as one of the crucial turning points, leading to the liberation of Russia from the so-called “Tatar yoke”, and to the unification of medieval principalities under the leadership of Moscow. A new study from the University of Eastern Finland shows that the mythical meanings of the battle were created in hindsight, layer by layer. Those layers, in their turn, reflect the political and ideological interests of each given time, rather than actual historical events.
The first preserved chronicle representations of the battle of Kulikovo are from the first half of the 15thcentury. They are short and laconic descriptions of a relatively ordinary medieval skirmish. Soon they, however, began to build up. In the 16thcentury, the representations were already colourful, detailed and dramatic stories of Moscow bravely fighting the evil with the support of the Orthodox Church.
Further, the rise of nationalistic ideas and national history writing from the 18thcentury onwards established the battle of Kulikovo as a symbol of unity against diverse threats and invaders. It was represented as “the first national feat”, and the imagery concerning the battle was applied to, for instance, Napoleonic wars, controlling the expansion of Ottoman empire, and both World Wars. The battle was gloriously refought on the pages of school textbooks, poems, plays, and visual artworks.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the battle of Kulikovo was used in earnest in the construction of new collective Russian identities. This construction work has been carried on by the representatives of secular as well as ecclesiastic power structures.
For its part, the study shows how the ideas of the past are created “backwards” from the reality of each given time. It can thus be claimed that hindsight has been the essential driving force of national history writing, giving new meanings to events – such as famous battles – and arranging them into logical developments. These developments, in their turn, have been used to support the politics of each given time, and the idea of the unity of each given nation.
The study by Academy Research Fellow Kati Parppei was published by Brill Academic Publishers in the series “Russian History and Culture”. The three-year project was funded by the Academy of Finland, and the writing of the study was financially supported by Kone Foundation.
For further information, please contact:
Academy Research Fellow Kati Parppei +358 50 531 3543
Kati Parppei. The Battle of Kulikovo Refought. “The First National Feat”.