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.