For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being – Introduction

I’m very pleased to launch the eleventh “issue” of this blog’s book conversation series. Today we begin discussing Alison Smith’s For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia (Oxford University Press, 2014). Alison is well known to regular readers of this blog, not least for her fascinating multi-part series of posts on the “dead cheese master” over the past year. One can only admire her ability to write engagingly for the blog, compellingly for articles in the most prominent journals in the field (among them the American Historical Review and the Journal of Modern History), and in an equally attractive way in her most recent book.

The University of Toronto’s historian of the imperial era, Alison has always been interested in looking across long periods of time in her work. Her first book, Recipes for Russia: Food and Nationhood under the Tsars (Northern Illinois University Press, 2008), ranged from the eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth century. In this book, Alison covers the period from Peter the Great through 1917 and proves able to make many interesting arguments on the basis of a longitudinal study of practices surrounding soslovie membership. I will leave the substantive comments to our panelists, all of whom are more expert on this topic than I am, but I will say that I was particularly interested in the way that Alison describes not only the multiple ways that soslovie functioned in the early imperial period but also the implications of this complexity in the post-reform period. Most notably, an institution that had been (from the perspective of the central state especially) primarily about defining specific tax and military obligations came to carry increasingly important entitlement implications as the rudimentary welfare state developed in the last decades of tsarist rule. Alison proves able to show not just how soslovie persisted after emancipation, but why.

We have a terrific set of commentators for this conversation. John Randolph, another core contributor to the blog, is an associate professor of history at the University of Illinois. The field is of course familiar with him for his award-winning first book, The House in the Garden: The Bakunin Family and the Romance of Russian Idealism (Cornell University Press, 2007). He is also the co-author (with Eugene Avrutin) of Russia in Motion: Cultures of Mobility, 1850-present (University of Illinois Press, 2012) and is working on a book-length study of the Imperial Russian post-horse relay system and the “world it made possible.”

Alexander Martin is a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and one of our leading voices on the early nineteenth century. His excellent work on conservative thought, Romantics, Reformers, Reactionaries: Russian Conservative Thought in the Reign of Alexander I (Northern Illinois University Press, 1997) is a mainstay of many an undergraduate lecture on Russian intellectual history, and his most recent book, Enlightened Metropolis: Constructing Imperial Moscow, 1762-1955 (Oxford University Press, 2013) is an equally important contribution to Russian urban history.

Charles Steinwedel is an associate professor of history at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, where he has taught since 2001. He is the author of several important articles on migration and colonization, especially in Bashkiria, and he will publish Threads of Empire: Loyalty and Tsarist Authority in Bashkiria, 1552-1917 with Indiana University Press next year.

Lindsey Martin received her PhD from Stanford University just a couple of months ago in June 2015 (congratulations!!) She specialized in eighteenth-century social, administrative, and urban history in her thesis, “Policing and the Creation of an Early Modern City: Moscow under Catherine the Great, 1762-1796,” and she’s well-positioned to comment on the role of soslovie in those domains as a result. She has just begun a three year stint as the coordinator of Making History Work, the AHA-Mellon Career Diversity for Historians pilot program in the University of Chicago History Department.

Each of our panelists will contribute their initial thoughts at some point over the next few days, and Alison will respond as she thinks most appropriate, either in the comment section of those posts or as separate blog postings. This is intended to be an inclusive conversation, so readers are encouraged to contribute their thoughts to the comment section too. If you don’t see your comment pop up within a day, please let me know. Thousands of spammers require us to approve comments for publication. I’ll try to keep checking the comment folder, but if I miss something (or it goes straight to spam), it certainly helps to get an alert directly from a comment author. As a certain presidential candidate has said (but hopefully has not trademarked) “Let the conversation begin!”

About Joshua Sanborn

Professor and Head, Department of History Chair, Russian and East European Studies Program Lafayette College (Pennsylvania, USA)
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