The Sacralisation of the Battle of Poltava in the Eighteenth-Century Russian Empire

The calendars published in the late eighteenth-century Russian Empire, and assigning one date (or several dates) out of the year for each and every canonised saint to be remembered (svjatcy), included over 600 non-movable feasts. Among these, the one dated 27 June appears rather intriguing — “a feast about the victory over the Swedish king Charles XII at Poltava given by God to the All-Russian autocrat Peter the Great in the year 1709 from Incarnation”. Notably, the “victory” (pobeda) mentioned therein was the only non-religious commemoration included in the Church calendar of the time. It goes without saying that appealing to God for His help neither turns a profane into a sacredly charged event nor can transform it into a Church feast, and even more so in the premodern period. Moreover, it can be understood from the passage above that the celebration for the success of Poltava was not being commemorated because of the work of the heavenly Powers (as, for example, in the case of the miraculous appearance of icons and the alike), but essentially as a strategic victory reaffirming tsarist authority. In considering the arrangement and mechanisms beyond the lists of holy days, historians have long drawn attention to the political implications of the canonisation process (see, for instance, Chorošev 1986). The spread of cults, as Gary Marker has shown in respect to the cult of St. Catherine which in the Russian Empire was used to support and consolidate the newly established power of a (female) Empress, played an important part in state ideology (Marker 2007).

The present paper analyses the way by which a secular event such as the battle of Poltava has been invested with religious meaning. More precisely, I investigate the reasons why during Catherine ii’s reign this military event acquired its own specific entry into the Church calendar, thereby embodying the features which Zitser attributed to what he calls ‘political theology’ of the Russian imperial throne (Zitser 2008). I also examine he circumstances that led the Synodal Church to the sacralisation of the very victory over the Swedes at Poltava. For purposes of this study, I use the term ‘sacralisation’ to refer to the adaptation process which transforms and legitimises, with the consent of the Church hierarchy, a profane (either social or political) into a sacred event that reveals God’s active participation and consequently becomes an object of religious and ritual worship. In other words, ‘sacralisation’ is the process of becoming or making ‘sacred’. A key feature related to veneration and worship, in addition to Church authorisation and liturgical service, is the inclusion of the event in question in the Church Menologion (if a person is being canonised, an icon has to be painted). The analysis of the objectification and institutional concretisation of the ‘victory’ at Poltava as a sacred symbol has been mainly disregarded by historians. This paper aims to bridge this knowledge gap and demonstrate that such an investigation allows us to better comprehend the ‘mobilising role’ of Church holidays in the eighteenth-century Russian imperial policy: these proved to be, in fact, powerful and effective strategies for motivating and engaging the Orthodox population.


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