Lecture Report on Endre Sashalmi’s “From Tsar to Emperor”

On 12 November 2012, Endre Sashalmi, Prof. at the Department of Medieval and Early Modern History at the University of Pécs in Hungary, gave a talk at the IWM. The topic of the lecture made it a perfect fit for the “Colloquia on Secularism” at the IWM. The approach of the lecturer, which looked at the complexities of the process of secularization in eighteenth-century Russia through the changing iconography of the Tsar’s public portraits, harks back to well-familiar scholarship as, for instance, the work by Michael Cherniavsky in the 1960s (see Cherniavsky’s book Tsar and People: Studies in Russian Myths (1961). Prof. Sashalmi gave an interesting twist to this material by incorporating it into contemporary discussions of secularization. In fact, the opening of the lecture drew on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007).

By considering such a highly controversial figure as Peter the Great, Sashalmi attracted attention to some of the problems and even paradoxes at the heart of the process of secularization in the very specific context of Imperial Russia. Peter’s project, which imposed secularization from above, relied on borrowing Western political concepts with the aim of strengthening Russian autocracy which is different, in important ways, from royal absolutism of a Western type. Within this framework, Sashalmi demonstrated the transformations that the public image of the Tsar underwent under Peter. The striking visual examples – as, for instance, the comparison between the portrait of Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich, the father of Peter, which relied heavily on Christian symbolism and Peter’s clearly Westernized portrait which stressed the young Tsar’s conception of himself as an Imperator – were shown as illustrations of Prof. Sashalmi’s multifaceted analysis of the dramatically changing notions of rulership and statehood in Russia at the time. One could appreciate the deep implications in the ideological move from the idea of the Tsar as a guarantor of salvation, in the religious sense, for his people to that of the Tsar as a ruler whose duty is to promote the well-being of his people and the state in practical, earthly terms.

The lecture ended with two images alongside each other – a Christian icon and a poster of Lenin – which were based on an obviously similar compositional and colour scheme. The images problematized, in visual terms, one of the ideas running through Sashalmi’s lecture which is also at the heart of the IWM Colloquia, namely that secularization, which frequently appears as a radical departure from tradition reveals itself as a much more complicated process that draws from tradition, even religious traditions.

Clemena Antonova is Lecturer in Art History and Theory, American University in Bulgaria (Blagoevgrad).