Historiography Imperial Russia Ivanovo Research & Practice


I have a memory from graduate school of driving up to Northwestern University to hear a talk by Sheila Fitzpatrick. This is a little bit odd because I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and therefore had ample opportunity to hear Sheila speak. I know I went with my friend and fellow graduate student Jenifer Stenfors, and I think it was the lure of a day, or at least an afternoon, away from school playing hooky, or so it felt, that was the real pull. I remember stopping in at the Bahai temple on the way, still the only time I’ve been in that space, and being struck by the contrast between its opulent exterior and the very ordinary chairs scattered about its interior. Even there, I’m not sure of why we stopped—had we planned it, or were we running ahead of time and decided to stop, on a whim? (And, in fact, I now realize, looking it up to give a link, that it is not on the way, but past Northwestern, and so we had to have made some decision about going there.)

At the talk Sheila said something—or at least, I remember her saying something—that has stuck with me ever since. This would have been sometime between 1995 and 1997, and so Stalin’s Peasants had recently come out and Sheila must have been working on Everyday Stalinism. My memory is that Sheila mentioned that she was thinking of writing a book that looked at the relationship between Stalin and Molotov—clearly an early version of the project that became On Stalin’s Team—and that one of the reasons the idea appealed to her was that as a social historian she was constantly seeing little bits of people’s lives, but only little bits, never a full story, never people you could really know. In contrast, focusing on just a couple of figures, and well documented figures, to boot, would let her get to know these people in a way that writing social history didn’t allow.

(Incidentally, I asked Sheila about this when she came to give a talk here last fall. She said that she did not remember saying it, but that it sounded like something she could have said.)

I’m thinking of this right now because one of the things that has pulled me to writing some of these blog posts has been a desire to grapple more fully with a few individual lives. That was certainly true of the dead cheese master, but it’s even behind why I wanted to write several posts about one random serf turned merchant turned honored citizen, Ivan Baburin. When I was working on my soslovie book, I had that same feeling of seeing glimpses of individual lives, intriguing, evocative, but often frustrating and unsatisfying in their incompleteness. I have read so many petitions that had no resolution, and always wanted to know what happened next. I have read so many petitions that gave bland, anodyne reasons for their existence, and always wanted to know what the real motivations behind them actually were.

As I’ve been writing about Ivanovo I’ve been grappling with this question of motivation. I seem to have come up with a vision of a relationship between the residents of the village of Ivanovo and of the town of Voznesenskii posad in which the merchants of the latter are consciously opposed to Sheremetev, and enjoy someone standing up to him, almost taunting him. But of course that motivation is nowhere in anything written down about those events, at least that I’ve seen. So I seem to have come up with a motivation that has not very much to support it.

So why do I have that feeling? Well, some of it comes from other sources. The merchants did regularly challenge the decisions made by Sheremetev and his administrators, but of course that doesn’t actually have to represent personal animosity, just as the language they use, always respectful, doesn’t mean they felt actual respect. There are also a few reports from the 1850s, in particular, in which the relationship between the two sides is represented as a rivalry, or even as being based in “hostile feelings.” In a journal article from 1859, M. Vlasov, a visitor to the village, wrote that those feelings “flowed from a very proper source: the manufacturers and merchants cannot watch with equanimity how, thanks to their efforts, capital, and enterprise, profits constantly flow from the village to a person who has never and by no means taken part in their work, has never and by no means helped to develop industry and trade there.” That seems clear. But later that same year two local residents sent in counterarguments taking issue with many of Vlasov’s claims, including his description of a simmering hostility.

And yet, I seem to give more weight to the statement of the outsider than of the local residents, and have been drawn to an interpretation of events in the region based on this particular understanding of motivations based in hostility. In a draft of an article, I wrote about Ivanovo and Voznesenskii posad in a battle over trading rights: “Ivanovo fought back,” I claimed at one point. One of the issues was over market days. Once Voznesenskii posad had been formally established, its resident merchants decided to establish a weekly market. Ivanovo already had a weekly market, held on Mondays, and Sheremetev petitioned the Vladimir provincial administration asking that they ban the new settlement from competing directly with the market that brought money to his village. He suggested that they hold the market on a different day of the week, on Wednesdays, perhaps. Instead, the Voznesenskii posad merchants decided to hold their markets on Sundays. I first read about this in an account by one of the participants that flat out stated that this was in opposition to Sheremetev’s wishes, although not that that opposition was based in any personal feelings. And yet I found myself thinking about it in personal terms. (I even wrote this in my notes: “ha, take that!, Sheremetev!” (Not very properly academic, I know.))

But just this week I came across the words the Voznesenskii posad society used in its formal decision opting to hold their market on Sundays. “We, the merchants and meshchane of Voznesenskii posad,” it says, “have considered the matter of which day should be named for the market. By careful attention and discussion of all the circumstances pertaining to this matter, we find that founding the market would be most useful on Sundays, both because on that day peasants and other residents are free from their daily occupations, and also because the inhabitants of nearby settlements, coming to the village Ivanovo for the Monday market, may sell their wares and provisions first in the posad, and can go to the market the next day in Ivanovo with whatever leftovers of their wares remain.”

So does this support my version of animosity? It’s certainly stated as a purely rational decision, full of “careful attention,” and a practical one, too, giving local residents access and letting outsiders travel only once. But then there’s the reference to the “leftovers” going to Ivanovo. To me that suggests a certain degree of animosity—or perhaps animosity is too strong, but something going on that’s not based in pure rationality. I wonder, though, if I read it that way because I am somehow already convinced that the motivations of the actors were, at least a little bit, intended to cause discomfort or inconvenience.

I’m also thinking about a conversation I had this week with a graduate student, about the difficulties of academic history writing and the perpetual demand to find a proper historiographical “frame” for whatever interesting story we tell. Those frames are there to answer the “so what” question that perpetually lurks, to explain why the story is important. And I am now struck by the thought that we put so much weight on those frames to give our writing importance because we can never fully answer the question of motivation, the question of why. We can guess, but can we ever know?

Sources: Vlasev’s account: M. Vlasev, “Selo Ivanovo,” Vestnik promyshlennosti 1, no. 1 (1859): 63; statement of Voznesenskii posad residents: Ivanovskii arkhiv 1 (1996): 63.

By Alison Smith

Professor, University of Toronto, Department of History;

Author of For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia (Oxford University Press, 2014)

One reply on “Motivations”

History is not only for historians – many fields of human activity which create groups may well encounter similar issues of competition, which this story illustrates so well, and emphasises the key question if motivation; understanding motivations is frequently the path to resolution of a situation in a manner acceptable to the majority or most significant players.

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