The Vita of Prince Boris Ivanovich "Korybut"-Kurakin: Personal Life-Writing and Aristocratic Self-Fashioning at the Court of Peter the Great

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This article argues that the autobiographical "Vita del Principe Boris Korybut-Kurakin de la Familia de Polonia et Litoania," an astrologically-inflected, macaronic, personal chronicle of the life of one of the leading diplomats of Peter the Great, is not merely the first eighteenth-century Russian memoir, nor simply an eyewitness account of the reformist reign of Russia's first emperor. It also constitutes a unique, early modem "ego-document," which expresses how one extraordinary member of Muscovy's hereditary service elite understood and experienced the processes of "modernization" and "secularization" that were the hallmarks of Peter's "cultural revolution." Kurakin's Vita not only enriches our understanding of these long-term cultural processes, but also offers an unprecedented opportunity to examine them from the inside-out, so to speak, that is, from the point of view of a member of a social group (dvorianstvo or shliakhetstvo) frequently depicted as a blank slate upon which a reforming tsar and faceless historical forces left their indelible marks. In Kurakin's case, these marks included not only the prominently-displayed insignia of the chivalrous Order of St. Andrew, or the cravat and periwig that he sported in his personally-commissioned, engraved portrait (1717), but also the oozing, "scorbutic" sores and "melancholic" thoughts concealed in plain sight among all these fashionable trappings of worldly success, like the anamorphic death's head in Hans Holbein's "The Ambassadors" (1533). Indeed, from a certain angle of vision, Kurakin's complaints can be seen as psychosomatic manifestations of a disaffected courtier's desperate and, ultimately, not unsuccessful attempt to use all the tools at his disposal - including practices associated with such arcane and esoteric fields of knowledge as iatromathematics and balneology - to reconcile his astrological 'complexion' with his professional aspirations, and thereby to take control of his own fate. From this perspective, Kurakin's personal "book of nativity" (kniga rozhdeniia or libro della mia nascita) constitutes not only an act of self-justification (designed to counter the impression that its author was a shirker of duty), but also of aristocratic 'self-fashioning.'





Zitser, Ernest A. The Vita of Prince Boris Ivanovich "Korybut"-Kurakin. Personal Life-Writing and Aristocratic Self-Fashioning at the Court of Peter the Great. Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas. Neue Folge. Band 59, Heft 2 (2011): 163-194.



Erik Zitser

Librarian for Slavic & Eastern European Studies

Ernest (“Erik”) Zitser is the Librarian for Slavic and East European Studies, library liaison to the International Comparative Studies (ICS) Program, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University.  He is an active member of a number of professional organizations, including the East Coast Consortium of Slavic Library Collections (ECC); the Association for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies (ASEEES); and the Eighteenth-Century Russian Studies Association (ECRSA). He is also the co-founder and managing editor of ВИВЛIОθИКА: E-Journal of Eighteenth-Century Russian Studies, an open access, peer-reviewed, scholarly journal, hosted by Duke University Libraries.

2000, Ph.D., Columbia University
1995, MA, Columbia University
1992, BA, University of California, Los Angeles

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