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.