Before reading Alison K. Smith’s new book, I had two broad visions of sosloviia in Imperial Russian life, one a dream, the other a nightmare. Both centered on its meaning for collective, rather than individual, life.
It is a pleasure to comment on Alison Smith’s For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being. Her careful examination of the mechanics of changing estates through painstaking research on individual cases demonstrates her central point—that estate mattered. It mattered enough to many Russians that they were willing to endure lengthy engagement with local estate administrations and at times costly bribes to move from one category to another. Alison combines archival work on particular people with memoir literature to show how changing estate status made possible ways of imagining themselves and their futures. Beyond Alison’s work in the capitals, she has worked in a half dozen regional archives to show that estate status had a powerful geographical/spatial dimension as well as a social hierarchical one. The chronological sweep of her study matches its geographical breadth. Her work addresses urban estate institutions from the eighteenth century to their demise after 1917, which makes her argument about the larger importance of estate all the more sweeping.
Many thanks to Josh for organizing such great panel and inviting me to participate, and also to Alison for writing such an insightful and engaging book. Her study of soslovie provides much food for thought, and I’m looking forward to reading everyone’s comments over the coming days.
It would take far too much space to enumerate all the things I liked about Alison’s approach to soslovie, and thankfully Alexander Martin has helped me by so concisely summarizing the book and its many merits. In particular, I’d also like to add that I am grateful for the reassurance that “confusion” really is the right response to the mess of laws and practices related to soslovie and cities in the eighteenth century. During the early stages of my dissertation research, I spent a great deal of effort trying to make sense of the conflicting regulations surrounding the phenomenon of trading peasants. I can now definitively put to rest any lingering worries that I had overlooked the magical law (if only!) that would have reconciled the contradictory strains of legislation and made everything clear on the matter.
Along those lines, while reading the chapters on the eighteenth century I found myself pondering the challenges historians face when undertaking a study that spans the entire imperial period. As Alex noted in his post, source limitations inevitably shape the narrative one can construct for this century. Alison skillfully handles this challenge by focusing on legislative developments related to soslovie and the complexities of how magistrates interpreted these laws in practice. But laconic sources mean that these chapters lack the rich insight into how individuals and communities negotiated the various meanings of soslovie that appear in subsequent chapters on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The source limitations are unfortunate, because it seems to me that a fundamental question underpinning this study is not just the evolving meaning of soslovie in the eighteenth century, but also how soslovie came to have any meaning at all. As Alison reminds us at various points throughout the text, the eighteenth century was a period when new social categories emerged yet older, pre-Petrine ones persisted. How and why did soslovie come to subsume these other categories, and what compelled individuals to opt in and choose to “fit” themselves within this new system?
This may be a relatively moot point for groups like the nobility or serfs whose status coincided more neatly with soslovie prescriptions, but it’s quite a different story for the jumble of urban residents that legislation struggled to corral and categorize throughout the eighteenth century. My experience digging through the Moscow Police Chancellery archives for this period made it clear to me just how easily individuals could—and did—lead prosperous lives that openly defied soslovie regulations, and also the tangible benefits one gained by transgressing category boundaries and opting not to fit within the system. These benefits ranged from the financial, such as avoiding taxes and other fees registered merchants had to pay, to the social. Serfs in Moscow could turn to an owner or, in the case of non-serf peasants, a chancellery to advocate on their behalf in moments of conflict, and very often with successful results. From this perspective, it always struck me as remarkable, not inevitable, that so many individuals opted to forsake these advantages by joining the merchant or townsmen ranks by the end of the eighteenth century.
Following this train of thought, I wonder what insights might be gained by considering how the eighteenth century may have been a period where rulers aimed not simply to categorize, but to co-opt subjects so they would adopt this new social framework. For example, I think Catherine’s legislation can be seen not simply as an effort to organize and reshape urban society, but also to raise the status of merchants and townsmen in order to entice her errant urban subjects to register in categories that better corresponded to their socioeconomic status.
Similarly, this perspective might allow for a study of how broader social changes throughout the eighteenth century connect to the evolution of soslovie. For example, land disputes adjudicated by the Moscow Police in the 1770s and 1780s show that individuals who engaged in commercial activity, including peasants, were more likely to view the Moscow Police or documents produced by the General Survey as a source of authority in times of conflict. In contrast, other segments of society like the city’s iamshchiki (which John knows more about than I do!) continued to articulate an older conception of the city where neighborhood elders served as the primary source of authority and where communal precedent, not state records or regulations, provided the ultimate standard for right and wrong. Perhaps viewing the decision to change soslovie as part of a larger process whereby urban residents came to increasingly accept the conception of authority, society, and the city Catherine promoted could shed new light on what compelled individuals to change their official status.
These are complicated questions, but I’ve always enjoyed the space this blog provides for more informal and forthright conversations about history, exemplified by Alison’s recent posts on the dead cheese master. I’d love to invite Alison and others to wade into the waters of speculation with me and hear their thoughts on the eighteenth century and the murky beginnings of soslovie.
I’m honored to have been invited to contribute to this conversation about Alison Smith’s new book For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being. This is, unless I’m forgetting something, my first-ever blog post, which makes the occasion doubly exciting!
If you have followed Alison’s posts on this blog about the dead cheese master of Gatchina, you have an idea of how she approaches history. Her overarching project is to understand how social identity worked in Russia, especially before the Great Reforms. Social identities, she argues, were constructed through a process of negotiation that included individuals, their local communities, and the state. She looks for evidence of this process primarily in the intermediate, mostly urban layers of society, because here (a) people moved actively between social statuses and (b) extensive documentation survives in the form of administrative records and ego-documents. Alison draws on massive archival research for her evidence, and as with the cheese master, she has an eye for the intriguing individual story that sheds light on wider social processes.
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. Continue reading
My posts on the dead cheese master may have made one thing about me as a researcher very clear: whenever I come across a list—of people, of things, of places—I am drawn to copy it. Last summer, as I started work on my project on Gatchina, I obviously copied down a fair number of lists, like those of the dead cheese master’s possessions that appear in several earlier posts. I did manage to stop myself from copying down every plant and tree in the gardens of Gatchina palace at the time Nicholas I inherited it from his mother, but there were many, many other lists that made it into my notes. There’s something about them that make places and people feel more known. Through them I see the sometimes unexpected variety of names that actually existed in a particular place (yesterday I found two Kleopatras and two Olimpiadas in early 19th century Vladimir province), or the foods bought for a noble family’s table (asparagus bought every day in May), or household goods left behind by a serf or a merchant (surprisingly long lists of icons).
I’m drawn to lists as I sit in the archives. As an academic writer, though, I always find them very difficult to use. I sometimes wonder if things would be different if I were writing different kinds of prose. One of the things that I particularly appreciated about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is the way she incorporates things like these sorts of documents into her narrative. It’s most explicit here, in a passage from Wolf Hall:
He rubs his eyes. Sifts his papers. What is this? A list. A meticulous clerk’s hand, legible but making scant sense.
Two carpets. One cut in pieces
7 sheets. 2 pillows. 1 bolster.
2 platters, 4 dishes, 2 saucers.
One small basin, weight 12lbs @ 4d the pound; my Lady Prioress has it, paid 4 shillings.
Mantel is completely right. Lists like these make scant sense. Or, rather, in one way they make completely literal sense: this is a list of things that were, that existed, at this point in time (always assuming the list maker was telling the truth, and not hiding a thing of greater value or inflating the cost of a small basin). That may explain the attraction of lists—they seem to be history in its purest form, a recovery of an actual lived past. Continue reading
Many thanks to Josh for getting back with such wide-ranging elaborations on my, David’s, and John Paul’s original posts. In the interest of keeping things going, let me take up just one of Josh’s points here, hoping to chime in on others as the discussion continues.
On decolonization as a useful frame for understanding of Russia’s Great War: I agree with Josh’s sensible defense of the term in his post on the topic. For all of the unavoidable shapelessness of the concept, “decolonization” as a way of understanding the formal end of empire shouldn’t be thrown out. In fact, if anything, Josh should be credited for bringing this conceptual terminology into our vocabulary on the Russian side.
The great benefit of Josh’s decolonization framework, as David suggested in his post, is that it places the messy, even torturous social politics of empire at the very center of the analysis. We’re used to thinking of the conflict as a contest of imperial alliances and have no trouble citing “nationalism” and “imperialism” among the various “-isms” on our list of the war’s causes. But we’ve done far less to explore the way that Russia’s “empire-ness” – that is, its possibilities and limitations as a sprawling multiethnic society and polity – affected all the dynamics of the time, high and low, including how the country experienced the momentous and ultimately uncontainable upheaval of 1917. Josh gives us a new way to perceive the relationship between empire and the Great War in the Russian context, all of which is a good thing, in my view.
But can one have too much of a good thing? One of the unavoidable perils of a singular provocative thesis is that it overshadows other dynamics and, perhaps unavoidably, takes on its own seemingly unassailable logic. Decolonization – yes, but did the tensions of empire drive everything? The war tested the form of empire that characterized the Russian state at that particular moment, and the white heat of the conflict ultimately proved too much. There is no denying that much — the empire, indeed, cracked apart, not least because Petrograd lost control of huge swaths of the country as the war progressed, including parts of its Central Asian hinterland.
But did “empire” make this so? If Russia hadn’t been the kind of empire it was at the time, couldn’t one argue that the grinding pressures of the conflict, especially when we add the leadership’s clear missteps to the mix, would have been enough to do in the government anyway? That is, “empire” is surely critical. It affects so much on the Russian side, even developments that we might not assume it would. But, for all that, states that are not empires can collapse, too. Perhaps “empire” in regards to the particular question of regime failure, then, is more a question of context than of cause?
On a related note: In his most recent post, Josh suggests – and I agree with him – that the Russian state was stronger than we might think at the start of the war. I’d only add here, amplifying Josh’s view, that it’s helpful to see the imperial state as both strong _and_ weak as the war begins. Obviously, some of the state’s limitations at the time proved to be terribly dangerous ones to expose to what eventually became the first truly “total war” in the country’s history, and these weaknesses took their toll. But I’m not convinced that they were inherent weaknesses of “empire,” even weaknesses of the particular sort of empire that Russia was at the time.
Alongside terrific tensions and seemingly unresolvable “imperial challenges,” Russia’s “empire-ness” also provided the country with abiding solidarities and much-needed resources during the conflict. Perhaps most of all, “empire” was simply the way one did things within Russia’s historical space. As William Appleman Williams might have put it, at the time at least, empire amounted to “a way of life.”  And indeed Josh seems to suggest as much himself by reminding us in Imperial Apocalypse of the final stage of decolonization – phase four – the “state-building” phase that actually witnesses the “rebuilding [of] the empire” (258-62), albeit in changed form, under the Bolsheviks.
 William Appleman Williams, Empire as a Way of Life: An Essay on the Causes and Character of America’s Present Predicament Along with a Few Thoughts about an Alternative (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).
OK, after a couple of rambles, this one will be a shorter post, and I’ll frame it around a question for all the panelists and for the readers of this blog. David McDonald remarks in his final point: “Finally, in Sanborn’s telling, the forces unleashed by the war and autocracy’s gathering failures took shape relatively quickly during the war itself. Does taking this view unduly underestimate the extent of social, political and ethnic fissures that had become so dramatically apparent in 1905 and that underlay imperial politics even amid the patriotic celebrations in July 1914? Had the empire—not least the “state”—fully recovered by 1914?”
My view, which I treat probably too briefly in my book, is that the Russian state was quite strong at the start of 1914, strong enough that independence-minded Polish and Finnish nationalists were rightly pessimistic about their future prospects and dynamic enough that Russia’s enemies (Germany in particular) feared for the future. This was not just the result of the post-1905 military reforms (and increasingly robust military budgets) but the result of a whole series of what we might call the “little reforms” on and around 1910, many of them spearheaded by Stolypin with the express purpose of bolstering state power. To be sure, the autocracy had its share of weaknesses, a whole Achilles flank rather than just a heel, and these would prove fatal in the war, but I don’t believe it was on the verge of collapse. Collapse, I argue came during the war, not as the amorphous outcome of “war” or “defeat,” but as the result of a series of self-destructive decisions made by political leaders: the imposition of martial law, the refusal to impose “discipline” on army and front commanders, the resolve to fight inflation through a scapegoating anti-speculation campaign and price controls, and the impetuous move to conduct a scorched earth campaign on their own territory in 1915, to name just a few.
I’d like to hear from others, though, who may see the Russian state as weaker in the months leading up to the war than I do. And how would this thesis of a weak state affect the interpretation of the war as a whole? Feel free to leave comments in the thread below. I and/or other members of the blog will “approve” them when we see them, as unfortunately the volume of spam prevents us from having instant commenting on these posts. If time passes and your comment isn’t posted, feel free to email me or another member of the blog so we can check the spam folder in the system too!
One of the pleasures of a forum like this is that an author can see how his or her work is read and used by colleagues in “real time.” John Paul Newman’s comments about mobilization and ideas, more specifically the “limits of the Russian imperial idea to mobilize its peoples,” are particularly interesting for me in this regard. I had not expected this line of analysis, as I have actually long seen this project as a departure from my first book, Drafting the Russian Nation, which was very consciously about the relationship between ideologies and mobilization. Nevertheless, John Paul is right. Ideas – including ideas about empire – were certainly important to the war and to my book. Continue reading
I too want to begin with more than formulaic thanks to Alison, John Paul, David, and Willard. Alison did a wonderful job of soliciting commentators for this conversation, and (shameless plug #1!) readers should keep an eye out later this summer for a conversation on her own excellent new book, For the Common Good and Their Own Well Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia. John Paul, David, and Willard were not only kind in their comments but also unusually reflective and probing. Thanks!
Those who have read the previous three posts know that there is a lot of terrific food for thought there. This is the stage in a blog conversation where it would be terrific to get lots of back and forth going, not only among the “panelists,” but the “audience” as well. Readers should feel free to use the comments section to question or hold forth on points briefly or at length. I will be responding to these comments in a series of posts over the next few days rather than writing one long response, as that seems to fit the idea of “conversation” a bit better. Plus, I need time to chew on this “food for thought!”
In this first response, though, I’d like to address some of the questions related to the concept of decolonization, as the use of this term has been one of the most controversial aspects of this project as I have presented parts of it in various venues over the years. Criticisms along this line are certainly valid. As Willard notes, the term is both central to my monograph and yet not fully explored in a theoretical or comparative way. This is an issue, naturally, that I have long been aware of. At a certain point in this project, I had to decide what the fundamental nature of my book was. If my core concern was to make a point about decolonization in its global context, with the Russian war experience as a particularly important case study, then I would need to write a comparative and theoretical text that left out much of the various aspects of the Russian war experience that interested (and still interest) me. If my core project was to describe and interpret the apocalypse of the war years, then I felt I had to have a somewhat lighter comparative and theoretical touch. In the end, I chose the latter, largely for reasons having to do with audience. Continue reading
Josh Sanborn’s Imperial Apocalypse is a remarkable book. With so much written about World War I, including the relatively less studied Russian fronts of the war, it’s easy to lull yourself into thinking that no single work is likely to deliver much that’s new. Yet this is precisely what Josh does. As David and John Paul both point out, his interpretation of the conflict is deeply researched, written with flair and power, and, perhaps most of all, fresh and provocative in the best of ways. As every good book should, Imperial Apocalypse has already begun to stir rich discussion in the Russian field and is bound to resonate with Great War specialists far beyond as well.
Since David and John Paul have already described the scope and themes of the book, let me continue by adding to the discussion they’ve begun of the work’s key contributions, most of which cluster around Josh’s central premise: the contention that the war in Eastern Europe is best understood not as a breathtakingly miscalculated game of chicken fought out between stubbornly expansionist powers or, alternatively, as a rising-up of would-be heroic captive nations against their intolerant imperial masters. Instead, it was a conflict over the very “existence of imperial control as such.” (4) “The Great War,” Josh states directly, “was a war of European decolonization.” (3)
Josh’s argument, in fact, is that the process of decolonization shaped the entire sweep of the war-revolution continuum on the Russian side. He breaks the arc of the times into four stages: a period of “imperial challenge” that helped ignite the conflict, the intertwined stages of “state failure” and “social disaster” that followed as the misery of the war churned on, and, finally, the “state-building” phase, which begins with the civil war and seems to end as the Bolsheviks gradually get the better of their enemies and reassemble much of the empire according to their own avowedly anti-imperialist devices. (I say “seems to end” because Josh leaves open the intriguing possibility that the “state-building” phase could still be with us. As he notes in his conclusion, “the building of a postcolonial state and society [in Russia]…might still be incomplete a century later.” )
Decolonization is thus the intellectual lynchpin of the book, the idea nestled at the heart of the argument, but what is it exactly? Josh offers hints of a definition but stops short of actually giving us one. One might say that as long as there have been empires, there have been decolonizations, since empires, like all state forms, are historical. They come and go. If decolonization, broadly speaking, is a process that leads to the undoing of imperial states, then it has been around since the days of the Akkadians. But this also means that it’s a highly varied process since imperial states themselves are nothing if not a motley crew. After all, if empires are put together differently and endure differently, it follows that they come apart differently as well.
Josh writes in his preface that the imperial idea wasn’t his main concern when he began his research on the war. It was only as he immersed himself in the sources that he began to see “a striking resemblance” between the events of the Eastern Front and “the world-historical process of twentieth-century decolonization.” (vii) I’d be curious to know more from him on this score. Even just limiting the view to the twentieth century, one comes across strikingly different forms and processes of “decolonization” – compare Algeria and Hong Kong, for example, or the Philippines and Ireland. How tight, then, is the arc of decolonization that runs from Russia’s Great War and Revolution to these cases and the countless others that mark the 1900s? If we use decolonization for all of these different moments of imperial undoing, does the term itself end up being too baggy and generic to be helpful?
I have more questions – the book is so rich! But since I’m already a little behind with this post, I’ll hope to pick up on them as the discussion unfolds.
In deference to emerging tradition on this blog, let me begin by thanking Alison Smith for her invitation to participate in this conversation about Josh Sanborn’s important new book on Russia’s Great War. Accessible to specialists and the proverbial “general reader,” alike, Imperial Apocalypse succeeds at an improbable goal: in a mere 250-odd pages it provides a lucid, engagingly written and clear account of the accelerating maelstrom that overtook and overthrew the Russian Empire (as well as its Hohenzollern, Habsburg and Ottoman rivals) after the summer of 1914. Along the way, he deals with the welter of challenges and failures associated with the strains of a total war for which none of the combatants had adequately prepared. In Russia’s case, these challenges included: equipping and maintaining an army led by an often incompetent senior command; managing the huge influx of refugees and POWs along roads and rail-lines that also served as lifelines for the front and the cities; growing distrust or outright hostility between the autocratic state and a self-professed “civil society” organized as Duma fractions and also, increasingly, as managers of transportation and industrial production; and, throughout, the erosion of the state’s monopoly on authority and violence in tandem with the widening gyre of non-state violence on Russia’s imperial peripheries and, ultimately, in the heart of empire itself. As with Sanborn’s scholarship in general, Imperial Apocalypse rests on an impressive source-base, while also casting its subject in comparative perspective.
Sanborn’s study is the latest entrant in a burgeoning literature on World War I’s eastern theatres. As such Anglophone readers will find Imperial Apocalypse an interesting complement to Peter Gattrell’s books on the period—most notably Whole Empire Walking, or Karen Petrone’s recent study on The Great War in Russian Memory, Peter Holquist’s many writings on the period, Eric Lohr’s book on “nationalizing” the Russian Empire or Russian Culture in War and Revolution, edited by Melissa Stockdale, Boris Kolonitskii, Steven Marks and Murray Frame (part of Russia’s Great War and Revolution, 1914-1922). These works form part of a larger trend to revisit the war as its participants experienced it, rather than as a prelude to 1917. They approach the years of war and revolution as an important and contingent period of both continuity and transformation that bound the Soviet order to its imperial predecessor.
At the same time, Sanborn parts company with his counterparts by incorporating another historical literature that has undergone its own dramatic expansion since 1991, the “imperial turn.” He understands the war and its impact as perhaps the first instance of a “decolonization” process that we more readily associate with the two decades following the end of the Second World War. From this point of view, the Russian state proved incapable of governing and/or mobilizing its imperial peripheries, provoking chaos or resistance in turn. In the zones of military rule along the western and southern fronts, the brutal treatment and expulsion of local populations—Poles, Germans, Ukrainians and, most often, Jews—whose deportation to towns and cities in central Russia only added to already overburdened reserves of food and housing, exacerbating mutual suspicions among ethnic and religious communities that saw one another as strangers or worse. After 1916, the same processes would serve as a vector for epidemic illnesses from typhus to influenza. (Here, his attention to doctors, medics and nurses proves an especially useful lens on the contrast between the state’s and army’s incapacity and the patriotic spirit in large parts of civil society). In Central Asia, the effort to recruit indigenes as labourers sparked such events as the 1916 risings in present-day Kazakhstan. In both instances, state incapacity created zones in which the capacity for organized and sustained violence slipped from the state’s hands and into those of any force that could maintain itself, as vividly demonstrated by the appearance of rogue paramilitary detachments and the phenomenon of “warlordism” from late 1916 and throughout the revolutions and civil war that raged throughout the former empire—and, indeed, much of eastern and southeastern Europe—into the early 1920s. Sanborn sees signs of the emerging new order of things in the line of succession linking many tsarist bureaucrats, the Provisional Government and administrators under Whites and Reds, all of whom espoused a technocratic and instrumental approach to mobilization, requisitioning, markets and surveillance
Thus, in brief, Sanborn’s new book makes a welcome addition to our growing body of scholarship on the Russian experience of World War I. It largely avoids the teleologies of 1917 by tracing a rolling process of disarray that began at the empire’s edges and made its way in- and upward along various paths in dissolving the autocracy. In doing so, it draws our attention to processes and forces that don’t often appear so distinctly on accounts focused on the capitals or the conflict between “state” and “society.” For this perspective alone, it has much to recommend it. I will certainly use it in my undergraduate and graduate seminars on the period.
Rather than continue with a detailed discussion of this book and its many virtues, however, I would rather honour this blog’s invitation to a “conversation”—and spare the reader’s patience—by offering some questions that occurred to me in reading and reflecting on Imperial Apocalypse, in the hope that they elicit responses from Josh, the other participants and, of course, the blog’s readers.
- As he explains on pp. 4-5, Sanborn organizes his analysis in a schema that characterizes each successive period in what he defines as a process of decolonization: imperial challenge; state failure; social disaster; and state-building. I’d be interested to know what led him to identify these four phases as part of a general process of decolonization in the case of imperial Russia. (I can’t help noting in passing that this structure recalls S. F. Platonov’s categorization of the Smuta in the early seventeenth century as comprising “dynastic,” “social” and “national” phases.) What do historians gain and lose in using such analytic structures or, put another way, what do they reveal and what do they obscure? Such questions seem all the more germane with regard to these periods of systemic convulsion, whether the Smuta, the “imperial collapse,” or the more recent collapse/unraveling of the Soviet order.
- In a related vein, one of the great merits of the “decolonization” interpretation lies in the alternative it offers to the older national-liberation narratives that long predominated in the histories of the Habsburg, Ottoman and Russian (and, more recently, Soviet) successor states. That noted, what are the limits of the “decolonization” concept, particularly when comparing Europe’s “east” with the former colonies in the global south? How might the different trajectories of interwar European and post-colonial history in the global south lead us to rethink or refine our understanding of “empire” or “imperialism” in the early twentieth century? Here, thinking of John Newman’s post, how might an imperial Russian “Staatsidee” [gosudarstvennost’?]—have framed the ultimate outcome of self-determination among the aspiring successor states that emerged from the rubble of Russia’s collapse?
- Given the growing attention to the Great War as a link between two periods we long saw as qualitatively distinct, how might we reconceptualize our canonical periodization of modern Russian history? In the same context, Sanborn brings his account to a close in 1918, with a cursory prospective look into the 1920s—what other dates might have formed a plausible end-point for the story and what interpretive implications would flow from each?
- Finally, in Sanborn’s telling, the forces unleashed by the war and autocracy’s gathering failures took shape relatively quickly during the war itself. Does taking this view unduly underestimate the extent of social, political and ethnic fissures that had become so dramatically apparent in 1905 and that underlay imperial politics even amid the patriotic celebrations in July 1914? Had the empire—not least the “state”—fully recovered by 1914? We often treat the coming of the war in 1914 as an exogenous factor that disrupted Russia’s “normal” development. Might one not make the case, following Chris Clark’s Sleepwalkers at least part way, that the decision to enter the war stemmed as much as anything from Russian leaders’ concern over the maintenance of the empire’s Great Power status as an imperative buttress for the autocracy’s legitimacy and authority at home? Might not the failure to defend that status on the battlefield have reopened these old fissures? P. N. Durnovo seemed to fear precisely that in January 1914.
Many thanks for inviting me to participate in this blog discussion. I am delighted to participate in the lively scholarly discussion that Sanborn’s work has already sparked. I should make some excuses for myself before I begin in earnest: I am not a Russianist, I cannot speak authoritatively on the work’s contribution to Russian History; I am only tangentially connected to research on the First World War (being more interested in its aftermath and the ‘shadow’ of the conflict in the interwar period); and I am a novice blogger! Perhaps these shortcomings do not matter too much. Sanborn’s past work on military mobilization in the Russian Civil War has transcended the boundaries of its immediate field, it has found its way into the bibliographies of works on a range of topics. Imperial Apocalypse will not be different. Indeed, the very title could apply to a number of states, for the First World War was also an apocalypse for the Habsburgs, the Hohenzollerns, and, eventually, the Ottomans (although not the British, the French, or the Portuguese). Indeed, the author himself has drawn out the comparative dimensions of his work: he makes very good use of the concept of ‘cultural mobilization’, first used by the contributors in the volume edited by John Horne, State, Society and Mobilization in the First World War to express the ways in which states at war need to imaginatively and culturally – as well as militarily – mobilize their populations towards the prosecution of total war.
Sanborn argues convincingly that this was a decisive failure on the part of the Russia’s imperial rulers, one to set alongside their equally dire failures on the battlefield. The First World War took on the form of a war of Russian decolonization. The problem of the Russian colossus is not per se one of manpower or materiel , but rather the limits of the Russian imperial idea to mobilize its peoples. Perhaps in times of peace these limits would not be exposed, but the frailty of imperial institutions is revealed because the imperial state must impose itself upon its subjects in an unprecedented fashion. As the war stretches on, the more the Russian state needs of its subjects, the more it demands, the less it gets, leading to a fatal breaking point. Historians of France’s First World War have described this as a ‘refusal’, the nexus can be applied throughout the belligerent societies, the critical refusal was never reached in France or in Great Britain, but it was in Russia, and in Austria-Hungary (and, I would argue, in Bulgaria, whose collapse says something about the limits of the Balkan nationalizing state idea). Sanborn’s great comparative insight is that the war was not simply a great gladiatorial battle between states and their leaders, it was also a matter of ideologies and ideas behind which people could rally.
And what a proliferation of ideas we are faced with. I think that anti-imperialism is actually one of a many political impulses to which the war gives birth. The First World War is marked by a great contemporary public discussion about the future, one that broadens as the war goes on…and on. Ideas about how international relations and states should look once the war is over, about how the great empires should reform themselves, dualism, trialism, Mitteleuropa, utopias of the far left and right (and of the liberal centre, too). Look at the would-be decolonizers: people like Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Edvard Beneš, or anti-Habsburg émigrés of the Yugoslav Committee in London. In retrospect, they look like prophets or messiahs of the coming kingdom, the men of the hour, but this is to read the war backwards: at its outset they looked more like fanatical chiliasts raging and ranting at the edges of reasonable opinion. So, too, for that matter, did Lenin and his fraction. But my point is that these waking dreams were not simply the preserve of those who will for the imperial apocalypse: there is in fact a wide spectrum of ideas about the future, a panoply of voices and opinions about the architecture of post-war Europe. And they are vying with one another. I wonder if such a spectrum exists in Russia, of which decolonization was one, albeit the most significant, of many shades of opinion. If there is an antithesis to this decolonizing impulse, an alter-ego, perhaps one place to look for it would be in the occupation policies employed by the Russian state in those lands it temporarily gained during the war. I am thinking here of Jonathan Gumz’s work on the Habsburg occupation of Serbia, in which the author argues that the occupation was the monarchy’s attempt to boldly re-assert its Staatsidee in the heart of its nationalizing/decolonizing opponent, Serbia. Was something similar happening under Russian occupation?
Finally, this process of mobilization and imposition does not only have implications for states: it shapes the individual, too. This is present in Sanborn’s book, even though his emphasis, as the title suggests, is on the great Russian state cataclysm. We must also make a case for the transformative effect the war had on political and social subjectivity, in Russia certainly, but throughout Europe. As Saonborn notes, the war ruptures traditional ties, it uproots men and women from their homes and hearths, either as soldiers or as refugees. It scatters people across continents, it tears asunder families, it kills and maims. It permanently changes the relationship between state and individual. Even those men and women who, at war’s end, will retreat into ‘private’ spaces and abjure political or public life will likely carry with them an altered outlook on their relationship with the state, their expectations of it, and so on.
The war is a transformative event, its white heat burns away many traditional political and social relationships, but it does not leave merely ashes in their place: the conflict is both destructive and generative, it forges new forces, new phenomena. I’ve always been unsatisfied with George Kennan’s famous remark about the war being the ‘Ur-catastrophe’ of the twentieth century. It was more than that: it cleared the space for the foundations of much of what we still have today: the nation-state system, internationalist movements, international institutions (for the League of Nations, despite its manifest failures, is a crucial precursor to the United Nations). The war is more like the ‘Ur-event’ of the twentieth century, a century in which Fortuna did not smile upon the imperial rulers. Sanborn’s terrific book depicts a portentous early turn of her wheel.
Welcome to the second blog conversation of summer 2015. Our next conversation is Russian History Blog contributor Josh Sanborn’s great Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire (Oxford University Press, 2014). Josh has brought a particular focus on Russia’s imperial dominion to this study of the effects of the First World War in the region; he views the Russian Empire’s experience of the war as part of a larger twentieth-century history of war and decolonization.
Because of the wide-ranging nature of Josh’s argument, we’ve asked specialists not just in Russia’s experience of the First World War, but also in its colonial holdings and oinrelated non-Russian experiences, to discuss the book. Participating in the discussion will be:
David McDonald, the Mortenson-Petrovich Professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. David has written widely on topics related to Imperial Russian foreign policy and military history, and has most recently been one of the project managers/general editors of the Russia’s Great War and Revolution project.
John Paul Newman, lecturer in history at Maynooth University. John Paul is a specialist the history of the Balkans, focusing on the role of veterans of the First World War in the new states of the region. His book Yugoslavia in the Shadow of War: Veterans and the Limits of State Building, 1903-1945 (Cambridge University Press, 2015) is just now available.
Willard Sunderland, associate professor at the University of Cincinnati. Willard’s work has focused on stories of Russia’s colonial expansion, most recently with his remarkable The Baron’s Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and Revolution (Cornell University Press, 2014).
And, of course, the author, Josh Sanborn, professor and chair of the Department of History at Lafayette College. He has written or co-written two previous books: Gender, Sex, and the Shaping of Modern Europe: A History from the French Revolution to the Present Day (Berg, 2007) with Annette Timm, and Drafting the Russian Nation: Military Conscription, Total War, and Mass Politics, 1905-1925 (Northern Illinois University Press, 2003); as well as many articles and chapters on related topics. He’s also a regular contributor to Russian History Blog–his previous posts are all here.
Thanks to David, John Paul, and Willard for taking part in this discussion; to Josh for letting them discuss his book; and to Oxford University Press for facilitating the discussion. I look forward to reading your discussion.
First of all, I want to thank: Steve Harris and Steve Barnes for taking the time to organize these blog conversations; Ana, Ekaterina, Asif, Wilson, and Jeff for taking the time to read my book with such care and offer their comments; and Yale University Press for facilitating the discussion. Second, I want to apologize for how long it’s taken me to formulate my first response. I’ve been traveling, and this has prevented me from sitting down to write something that is equal to the very high standards set by my fellow participants!
I’ll now take some time to respond to some of the questions and comments that the panelists have offered, in the hopes that this will then spark more questions and conversation about my book. I’ll start with what seem to be some common themes in the responses.
The main question Alan Barenberg urges us to ponder is the question of space. Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, and others have conditioned us into thinking of Gulag space as separate space. Alan’s book, however, explicitly “aims to free the Gulag from Solzhenitsyn’s metaphorical ‘archipelago.'” (p. 14) As already noted, Alan traces the myriad points of interaction and overlap between the Gulag and the town. Indeed, one aspect of the book that works especially well is the author’s use of specific buildings (for example, the neoclassical children’s hospital in Vorkuta’s main square – see Chapter 3) as a starting point for discussions of the gray areas between free and forced (and even semi-free and semi-forced) labor. What I’d love to open up for discussion is how these gradations of forced/free labor and gradations of Gulag/non-Gulag space relate, if at all, to the old idea of the “little zone” and the “big zone.”
To recap: The idea that the whole of the Soviet Union was somewhat like a prison (the “big zone” – bol’shaia zona), perhaps only somewhat more free than the Gulag (the “little zone” – malaia zona) has been around for a long time, a well-known characterization of those with first-hand experience of Stalinist repression.1 In the context of a perceived separation between the Gulag and society, Alan himself briefly mentions the big zone vs. little zone characterization in his article in the online social sciences journal, Laboratorium. I have generally been dismissive of the idea of Soviet society as a “big zone,” a large prison. Clearly, individuals did not want to go to the Gulag, and thus implicitly recognized that there were key differences in the lived experiences of these two “zones.”
Yet Alan’s research reveals the lack of a clear distinction between Gulag space and non-Gulag space, at least in the “Gulag Town.” My own research on Novosibirsk and Tomsk–hardly Gulag towns–echoes Alan’s characterization of forced labor in Vorkuta. There was often a lack of clear boundaries between prisoners and non prisoners, even at key defense enterprises like the enormous Combine no. 179, a massive munitions factory in Novosibirsk, situated on the left bank of the Ob’ River. The Novosibirsk Provincial Party Committee (Obkom) would often allocate workers to Combine no. 179, drawing from the regional Gulag, but also from “free” workers at other regional enterprises, and even other provinces. If human resources–both “free” and “forced”–could be allocated in such a manner, can we really speak of a clear distinction between free and forced labor in the Soviet Union? Kate Brown writes of a “continuum of incarcerated space,” and Alan’s research supports this description.2 Can we, in this sense, call Soviet society the “big zone”? As Alan writes in his introduction (p. 9),
… the straightforward distinction between “free” workers (vol’nonaemnye) and prisoners (zakliuchennye) that one often encounters in archival documents and memoirs, and in much of the historiography of the Gulag, falls short of being able to describe the social intricacy of camp complexes and their surrounding communities.
Clearly, one would rather have been “free.” But, in light of Alan’s book, what did that mean?
Thank you to Steve Barnes and to Steve Harris at the Second World Urbanity blog for organizing this forum. And a special thanks to Alan, of course, for allowing his fascinating book to be discussed in such fashion. To start my own contribution to this conversation, I would like to offer focus on two themes: the re-adjustment of prisoners after release and the idea of the “Company Town.”
To me this book offers two central contributions. First, it explores in intimate detail the porous boundaries between freedom and unfreedom, showing how patronage networks and economic realities created a town with a surprisingly high level of interaction between prisoners and non-prisoners. Wilson Bell has begun this discussion, so I will not discuss it further here. Rather, I would like to focus on what I consider to be the second and no less important contribution: the transition of Vorkuta to a non-Gulag (or only lightly-Gulag) city. After Stalin’s death, the Gulag was vastly reduced in size, and most of the large camp complexes, including those around Vorkuta, were dismantled. Alan provides excellent detail on how the municipality and economic structures of Vorkuta were able to manage this transition. Of particular concern were the related issues of released prisoners and labor shortages.
Scholars of the Gulag have long told tales of how difficult it was for released inmates to readjust to society after many years behind barbed wire. This has been treated at length by Nanci Adler, Anne Applebaum, Orlando Figes, Miriam Dobson, Amir Weiner, and others. Yet Alan presents a picture that is to a large extent different from theirs. Sure, he tells of some job discrimination and other barriers to re-entry. But he also writes about how many inmates, upon release, stayed in Vorkuta, the very place where they had been incarcerated. Given the opportunity to leave, they chose to continue(!) building their lives at the site of their punishment. And many, he claims, were able to forge (pardon the Soviet terminology) fruitful lives marked by meaningful employment and valued social networks. To me the take-away point here is this: re-adjustment to society after incarceration is difficult in any society. Ex-cons globally are marked by social stigma and often beset with certain legal disabilities (not that you will find much acknowledgement of this in discussion of former inmates in the Soviet Union). Perhaps, if we are to believe that Alan’s conclusions can be extended Union-wide, the Soviet Union was not (much?) worse than other regimes in this regard. Certainly the scale of the problem was much larger, with millions being released from the Gulag in the 1950s. But qualitatively, we may be led to the conclusion that released (non-political?) prisoners in the USSR fared no worse on average than those released from American, Brazilian, French, South African, Indian, or Japanese prisons. That is a provocative conclusion and I’d like to hear Alan’s, and others’, thoughts on the matter.
The second question that I would like to briefly raise is that of the “Company Town.” This term, I think, should have been given more theoretical and comparative discussion, seeing as how it stands in the title of the book. It is a concept that is non-Soviet in its origins, and its applicability to the Soviet Union is questionable, seeing as how one could broadly define every town in the USSR as a “company town” under Sovnarkom. Or if Alan chooses a more narrow definition, why is the work of Stephen Kotkin (Magnetic Mountain) or Kate Brown (Plutopia) not engaged (Alan mentions them only briefly)? I wonder if others, particularly those at the Second World Urbanity blog, have further thoughts on this question.
I look forward to a fruitful discussion. Please comment in the space below!
Thanks, Steve, for inviting me to participate in another Blog Conversation on the Gulag! Since we have almost a complete handful of Gulag specialists in on this conversation, I thought it might be useful to place Alan’s excellent book within Gulag historiography. To my mind, in any case, Gulag Town, Company Town marks a break with all previous English-language book-length studies of the Gulag, in that it focuses on one particular camp system, from its origins to its legacy to its place within the local community, without particularly trying to write a history of the Gulag as a whole. This is a history of Vorkuta. As Alan states in his introduction, his book is “the story of a particular place.” (p. 6) Yet, as he goes on to demonstrate, by narrowing the focus to a particular place, the details–day-to-day interactions between prisoners and civilians, shifting camp boundaries, and so on–can reveal much about the system as a whole. So my question for conversation is as follows:
- To what extent does Gulag Town, Company Town represent the maturation of “Gulag studies” as a subfield of Soviet history?
In other words, perhaps the broad, over-arching interpretations (of which I include Steve Barnes’ key work, Death and Redemption, which of course has a local focus on Karaganda as well as a broader interpretive framework) have paved the way for more focused studies that can excavate deeper and deeper layers of the Gulag’s history. What do you think? Anyway, I have a lot to say about this book, but I thought I’d start with a broad question, first.
We are excited to be trying something new with the latest in our series of blog conversations. We are co-hosting this blog conversation in conjunction with the Second World Urbanity Project blog. You can follow part of the conversation here at Russian History Blog, but should see the rest of the conversation (and check out the project!) over at Second World Urbanity. (And don’t forget to follow Russian History Blog on Twitter (@RussHistBlog) or on Facebook.) Now on to our book:
Alan Barenberg, a past blog conversation participant here at RHB, has published a magnificent new work on the history of the Gulag and its legacy. Gulag Town, Company Town: Forced Labor and Its Legacy in Vorkuta (Yale University Press, 2014) takes us north of the Arctic Circle to one of the Soviet forced labor camp system’s most notorious locations. Through an in-depth study based on archival research in Moscow, Vorkuta, and Syktyvkar, Gulag Town shows that the Gulag was thoroughly enmeshed in the Soviet system. It is a meticulous ground-level study of Soviet life–the history of the coal-producing city of Vorkuta from its foundation as a Gulag town in the 1930s to its transition from Gulag town to company town after Stalin’s death. Alan shows the deep integration of the Gulag into the local community spatially, economically, and through its personnel, an integration that left lasting traces well into the post-Stalin era. As such, he has provided a concrete picture of the legacies of the Gulag in post-Stalinist and ultimately even post-Soviet history.
I am looking forward to this conversation and will add many of my other thoughts about the book as we go. For now, jump below the fold to see Russian History Blog’s participants in the conversation and don’t forget to check out what’s happening with the conversation over at Second World Urbanity. My thanks to Steve Harris for his willingness to consider this kind of joint venture.
I blogged a couple of months ago about the controversy regarding the Cohen-Tucker Fellowship. After hearing from a large number of ASEEES members, the board held a special meeting and reversed its earlier decision. It has also changed its procedures to allow for more transparency in the future.
Full statement here: http://www.aseees.org/news-events/aseees-news-feed/board-statement-special-meeting
Hopefully, Prof. Cohen and Ms. van den Heuvel will now renew their offer to support the work of graduate students in our field!