I became interested in Russia at the height of the Cold War and initially studied Russia and Russian with an eye to the foreign service. History lured me way, especially after spending a junior semester at Leningrad State University in 1970 and having the chance to travel around the Soviet Union a bit. In graduate research and since coming to Stanford in 1982, I have focused on the early modern period (from the fourteenth century through the eighteenth). In almost all my work I have been explored the question of how politics worked in an autocracy. Theoretically I am interested in how early modern states, particularly empires, tried to create, at best, social cohesion and, at least, stability, by ritual, ideology, law and the measured use of violence. My early research focused on structures of power at the Kremlin court and the influence of kinship and marriage in politics and on social values from Muscovy to the Enlightenment (Kinship and Politics: The Making of the Muscovite Political System 1987); these themes encouraged my abiding interest in the roles of women in political ideology and practice. I have written two books on legal culture, one on disputes over honor (By Honor Bound 1999) and one on the practice of the criminal law (Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Russia 2012). Here I’ve contrasted the letter of the law with the workings of local courts, how people used the law, how judges and other officials played roles in the system, how the law was written and interpreted. In all this I’ve tried to place Russia in a comparative context where appropriate, trying to break down clichés of Russia being fundamentally different from European history or unknowable.
My current work goes in several directions. One is a turn to the visual -- I have written several articles on the production and use in Russia of icons, frescos and miniatures as a medium for political communication. I am now finishing up a project on images of Russia produced by foreign engravers in early print publications and maps. The tension in these images between stock tropes of the engraver's trade and eye-witness information, is one fascinating aspect; another is the challenge to assess the impact of text and image on the reader. All in all, I have found that most illustrated works about Russia present a more nuanced understanding than the image of “despotism” that has caught a lot of scholarly attention. Finally, I am interested in how Russia functioned as an empire. I recently published a synthetic history (The Russian Empire 1450-1801 2017) of Russia as a “Eurasian politics of different empire,” and I plan to follow up this theme and return to the practice of the law by studying the implementation of Catherine II’s judicial reforms (1775) in the non-Russian provinces.