Archives Imperial Russia

Road rage

This blog post is inspired by petty anger. In this deeply weird and unsettling time, I am, like virtually everyone, staying at home. I am in almost every way lucky—I have a job (though hoo boy do I sometimes wish I had listened to my gut and not said yes to being department chair), I have a comfortable home, our restrictions are not too extreme. I live alone, which on balance right now feels like probably also a lucky thing, though it has its own stresses and sources of sadness. I’ve in particular come to rely on a daily walk to get out into the air, to stretch my legs, to try to turn off from all the stresses of my job right now.

Image of a bicycle from B. Kaul’fus, Kratkoe rukovodstvo k izucheniiu ezdy na velocipede i obrashcheiiu svelosipedami fabric Adamants Opelia v Riussel’sgeime (Kiev, 1893)

On these walks, though, I often find myself seething with rage at the pettiest of things—people who do not keep to the right while walking or riding or running. Even in a time of social distancing, my rage feels out of proportion to the offense. But then I remembered a letter of complaint I came across in one of my beloved files of random correspondence from the Gatchina Palace administration. 

To His Excellency, the Director of the Gatchina Palace Administration

Riding yesterday, the 3rd of August, at 9 in the evening, on a bicycle, in the Imperial Priorate Park, I came upon a gentleman unknown to me, driving a white trotter at full speed, who, despite my increasingly ringing my bell, continued to ride on the left side of the road, as a result of which I, at risk of being trampled, was forced to jump down from my bicycle onto the grass; at my comment, made in the most polite form, that one should drive on the right side, the gentleman sitting in the charabanc and driving the horse answered me with unacceptable obscenity. On my way back, about twenty minutes later, I had the misfortune to again come across this same gentleman, continuing as before to drive on the left side of the road; in response to my bell and to my comment that besides the existing rule to drive on the right side, even only politeness demands that one should give way, the gentleman informed me that such a rule does not exist, having added along with this message personally to me insulting expressions so impolite, that repeating them word for word in the present letter I consider impossible; in the end of all of this insulting actions were threatened. Of all of this I immediately gave a report to the duty officer of the Gatchina Police. [Hearing] my description of the characteristics of the horse and the gentleman, the Police officers sitting in the duty room recognized the owner of the horse as Gatchina homeowner Bronislav Liudvigovich Adamovich; in order to definitively establish the identity of the culprit, I gave the Police a detailed description.

Having in mind that a simple monetary penalty such as laying a fine by judicial process will hardly guarantee that the public visiting the Imperial Priorate Park [will not be bothered by] a repetition of such misconduct on the part of the above mentioned gentleman, [misconduct that] violates social morality and order in the Imperial park, and that the insult given by him to me was without any reason on my part, I have the honor to present all above noted to the discretion and resultant decision of Your Excellence, humbly asking that you inform me of what is done about this matter.

Collegiate Secretary

Feodor Feodorovich Rein.

4 August 1892

Someone looked into the matter the day it was sent, and noted down the following report:

Feodor Feodorovich Rein, Collegiate Secretary, works as a Secretary of the Main Military-Sanitary Committee of the Ministry of War. Residence: in the town of Gatchina, on Baggovutovskaia ulitsa, no. 46, the home of engineer Rein.

I have the honor to report … that in the matter of the offenses committed in the Priorate Park by nobleman Bronislav Liudvigovich Adamovich to Collegiate Secretary Fedor Fedorovich Rein, a witness statement by Luga meshchanin Artur Karlov Reikhenberg, residing in the village Bol’shaia Zagvozdka, Gatchina township, explains that it was completely possible for Rein to pass without obstruction along the road on the right side, and beside that it is necessary for all bicyclists to pull over and get off their bicycles when they meet people riding on horses in light of the fact that every horse seeing the unfamiliar sight of a bicycle without fail begins to buck and to shy and in general to sidle, so for Rein to be offended by Adamovich there is no foundation, all the more so because, as Reikhenberg reports, Rein was the first to address Adamovich in rude form, with the comment “you do not know how you should drive, why don’t you keep to the right side,” but all the same from my point of view Adamovich should be given proper warning that he should drive more calmly, and that if there is a second complaint about him driving quickly and not following the general rules of driving, then he will be prohibited from driving in the Priorate Park forever and for reckless driving in general he will face legal liability.

I’m not going to try to spin this out too much—of course there’s plenty of stuff to say about these figures ad who they might be, or of the fact that Mr. Rein was a thoroughly modern man on his bicycle in 1892. Perhaps I’ll come back to them in another post at some point. But I copied this all out because I thought it was sort of funny, and I loved the resonance of the idea of bicyclists and drivers at odds over road usage, because that’s still such a present part of urban discourse. 

Now, though, I’m struck by the anger. The anger that seemed to motivate Rein—if Reikhenberg was right and he really did have enough space, his action to jump down into the grass feels like a bit of a conscious display of being inconvenienced for the sake of show, rather than anything real—the anger he received in return—although Reikhenberg reported that Rein was the first person to be rude, his reported statement (which, I should note, used the proper vy, not the familiar and potentially offensive ty) hardly seems to be enough to cause someone to respond with obscenity.

in 1892 Gatchina was a bustling place, with Alexander III often in residence (though probably not in August) and its two railway lines making it an increasingly desirable suburban residence for people who worked in St. Petersburg. The park might simply have been busier than normal with summer dacha residents, making the whole exercise of bicycling or driving more frustrating. I suppose one could also make a case that the quickness to anger on the part of these men reflects the internal opposition they might have felt about their own status as modern men—one a nobleman (probably a Polish nobleman) with a fancy horse, one with cutting edge bicycle—in an anti-modern system, an anti-modern system that could not be ignored at that time and in that place because it was centered on the palace next to the park.

And then I think about my own petty anger, and wonder about which of the many background worries we all face right now that is manifesting itself in those feelings of rage.

(Sources: RGIA f. 491, op. 3, d. 386, ll. 311-312ob.)

Archives Soviet Era 1917-1991 World War I

A Snapshot of the 1918 Global Influenza Pandemic in Russia

Judging by my social media feed, several folks with an interest in Russian history have been asking themselves “Hmm, I wonder what happened in Russia during the 1918 global influenza pandemic?” Many moons ago, when researching medical care and medical personnel during World War I for my book Imperial Apocalypse, I had the same question. At that time, I found very little work on the question, either in English or in Russian, though I may have missed something then or something might have been published more recently. (And if there is something out there, please reach out and let me know. I’m interested!)

I did some archival research on this question, though it was limited both by the fact that the flu struck right after the period (summer of 1918) at which I was wrapping up my story and by the scattered nature of some of this material. As is often the case, much of the research I did ended up on the cutting room floor, and I had only a couple of sentences in Imperial Apocalypse that dealt with it:

“As 1917 turned to 1918, and then throughout the rest of the Civil War, the Whites, Reds, and warlords all failed to create the conditions of state support and personal security necessary for vibrant economic institutions to re-emerge. People were hungry and cold. Then, increasingly, they starved and froze to death. As they weakened, they sickened further. Each month saw an increase in the number of people hospitalized, and epidemic diseases became more prevalent. In the summer of 1918, cholera ripped through cities like Iaroslavl. By October, the global influenza pandemic was hitting other towns in the Golden Ring like Rybinsk and the Soviet leadership in the Kremlin alike. Many Russians no sooner recovered from one disease than the next one struck.” (p. 256)

My mention of Rybinsk, a town just north of Iaroslavl, was of course not accidental. One of the sources I found was a set of records from a “flying detachment of the Red Cross for the fight against epidemics in the city of Rybinsk” from the summer and fall of 1918. (GARF f. R-4094 op. 1 d. 137). I entered these data into a spreadsheet to see the ways that disease hit at least one medical facility in at least one city in this critical period. My basic takeaway was that, in Rybinsk at least, the flu was just the latest and not the most lethal of the epidemics to affect the town. The flu first made its appearance into the records in October 1918 as the “Spanish Illness,” though by December it was more correctly labeled as “Influenza.” In October, 17 people were treated, 7 were released, and 10 were still in the clinic. In November, 10 more people became ill, 14 were released, 1 was still in care, and 5 had died. In December, 7 more cases appeared, but by the end of the month all 8 patients had recovered and been released. In sum, then, 34 people in Rybinsk were treated for the flu by this flying detachment, and 5 of them died. This was, of course, terrible. But just before the flu arrived, there had been a cholera epidemic in the city. From July-September, 284 people were treated by the detachment for cholera, with fully half (142) dying of the disease. Earlier still, in May, June, and July, 55 people had gotten typhus, though only one died.

These numbers offer only partial insight into the dynamics of the epidemic, of course. Epidemics strike unevenly in geographic terms, as we are currently learning. Was Rybinsk more or less affected than other regions? These were the records of a single medical detachment. Were there other medical institutions operating in Rybinsk? If so, did they treat infectious cases or send them directly to the flying detachment? There is narrative evidence given by officials in these records that many of the cholera cases they treated were at death’s door because families tried as much as possible to care for them at home, often infecting themselves in the process. Did they try to do the same with the flu? If so, were there many cases unaccounted for because they got better (or died) without ever seeing a doctor? Did the fact that many young men (a particularly hard-hit group in this pandemic) were serving in the military mean that civilian areas saw a lower impact? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. All I really feel confident in saying is that the social and medical impact of the influenza pandemic likely affected Russia differently than many other areas because of this larger context of mass epidemics and, even more broadly, of state and social collapse.

One more point of interest is that in November, 1918 a request was made to a Smolensk clinic to send weekly reports on the “Spanish disease” both to the oblast department of health and to the regional administration of the Red Cross. Perhaps at least some of those records survive. Maybe, once our current pandemic crisis eases, some historian will be able to fill in some of the many gaps of knowledge we have. In the meantime, stay healthy, my friends!

Archives Imperial Russia

Foreigners, revisited

It’s not really a surprise that the Russia of Nicholas II was as interested in keeping lists of foreigners as the Russia of Alexander I had been back at the time of the Napoleonic wars. At least, it’s not much of a surprise. It was a time of “extraordinary” security measures and revolutionary movements, after all. Of course, that’s usually thought of as aimed at internal enemies, not necessarily at foreign nationals, at least until the onset of the First World War. But concern about foreigners started much earlier. As early as January 1896, the police chief of Gatchina was sending regular reports to the town administration listing the foreigners living in the town. The practice continued up through the start of the First World War. They’re collected, interfiled with a lot of other reports on a lot of other subjects, in an archival folder labeled “confidential correspondence on various questions.” So not only was concern with foreigners real, it was also secret.

Glancing through the file, two things seems clear—first that there was a great diversity of people and of lengths of stay in Russia, and second (perhaps as a result) that it was really hard to make accurate lists of people. The first report, from January 12, 1896, listed twelve foreigners living in Gatchina: two French, three English, one Austrian, two Germans, and then a set of other German speakers, from Mecklenburg, Bavaria, and Prussia. Another list from the same month lists 37 people, not 12. (The German regions also persist here even well after the consolidation of Germany.)

Here’s the list of foreigners drawn up on June 15, 1912, almost exactly 100 years after the list from 1812.

Archives Imperial Russia

Correspondence on various questions

I am always running across bits and pieces of stories in the course of doing research that leave me wanting to know more (as I’ve posted about more than once before this!). It’s one of the things that I both love about the archives and find frustrating. At times, they have such rich materials, with stories that really allow you to figure out quite a bit about an individual person or about a turn of events. And sometimes they leave you hanging, with the set up for something, and no resolution, or not enough backstory to understand what was going on.

It’s certainly possible that I bring some of this onto myself by having a bit of a penchant for ordering files with titles like “Correspondence on various questions, 1893.” But I can’t stop ordering them because they so often brim with a sense of the fullness, as well as of the randomness, of life. In just that one file (part of the archives of the Gatchina palace administration) there are, among many, many other things:

  • a petition (proshenie) from the “residents of the town of Gatchina” for help in getting a secondary school for boys opened in the town
  • a letter from the administration’s superintendent recommending a recent graduate of the Gatchina girls secondary school for a job with the Warsaw Railways
  • a complaint from a professional theatrical prompter working a charity show in Gatchina expressing his UTTER OUTRAGE that the local police told him to prompt more quietly
  • a request from the Novgorod governor on behalf of someone working on his staff who was descended from a former administrator in Gatchina, and who needed documents about that ancestor to prove his nobility
  • a petition from the widow of a titular counselor, herself a member of the Gatchina Philanthropic Society, asking for support in her efforts to find a space in the St. Petersburg Widows Home
  • a report from the police about an outbreak of theft, including of money from donation boxes
  • a series of documents concerning whether the synod had allowed coconut oil to be used for church lamps (it had not, but one St. Petersburg lamp-oil company had produced pamphlets claiming it was acceptable)
Archives Digital Russian History Islam and Russian/Soviet History

Russian/Soviet Perspectives on Islam Launches

A few years back, Vadim Staklo came to George Mason University from Yale University Press. At YUP, in addition to wide editorial direction of publications on Russian and Soviet history, Vadim had worked on the launch of the Stalin Digital Archive, digitizing the Stalin Collection at the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History. [If you don’t know the Stalin Digital Archive, check out this interview with Vadim.] Vadim came to George Mason in hopes of collaborating with the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media on further projects aimed at digitizing and translating materials from the archives of the former Soviet Union, but now rather than expensive subscriptions that limit the availability of the digitized projects, he would seek outside funding to make documents available via open access to everyone.

I share below his announcement of the beta launch of the first project, a collection of transcribed and translated documents devoted to the history of Islam in Russia and the Soviet Union. In addition, I will join him on a roundtable at the upcoming conference of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, where we will talk more about the online archive. We are anxious for your feedback as we continue to develop the project. Without further ado, here’s Vadim.


George Mason University is launching a major new international multidisciplinary scholarly program, the Russian/Soviet Perspectives on Islam Project (RPI). The project, with primary support from the Luce Foundation and the NEH, documents the encounter and evolving relationship between the Orthodox/secular state and the Islamic regions, groups, individuals, and ideologies on the territory of the former Soviet Union and neighboring countries. This set of unique materials illuminates the strategies implemented by the Soviet and Russian state to establish authority and legitimacy among predominantly Muslim populations in Central Asia, the Northern Caucasus and Siberia and to enhance Moscow’s influence internationally with nearby Muslim countries, including Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Turkey. The digital archive is designed to disseminate these documents to the widest possible scholarly community and general readership.

Please join us for the launch and presentation of the RPI
at the ASEEES Congress on Saturday, 19 November at 3:45 PM.

Archives Imperial Russia Ivanovo

The Russian Manchester

I’ve been following a thread from my work on soslovie that has led me to do some reading on the then village of Ivanovo in the early parts of the nineteenth century. I came across references to a number of serfs freed by Count D. N. Sheremetev who became merchants of Moscow in the 1820s, and they led me back to Ivanovo, where a number of them continued to live as factory owners in the area. I’ve been trying to trace out some issues with the social world of the village, where former serfs turned merchant factory masters lived in very close contact with their workers—who were of course mostly still serfs—and what that meant for life in the “Russian Manchester.”

On the side, though, I’ve also come across a whole slew of interesting little stories about other aspects of life in the region, and so I’m going to do a mini-series of posts about Ivanovo, mostly from the time of serfdom, but a few moving later into the nineteenth century.

Archives Common Good Imperial Russia

Common Good: The Eighteenth Century

First, let me thank Josh for organizing this conversation, and Alex, Lindsey, Charles, and John for taking time at summer’s end to take part in it. You are all very kind, and I’m thrilled to have the chance to think about what’s in my book by seeing it interpreted from your various points of view. I have a number of things I’d like to develop more out of this set of comments, and rather than put them all in one long post, I’ll spread them out a bit.

I’ll start by thinking about chronology, or rather, of the problem of the eighteenth century. Alex and Lindsey are both totally right when they note that I cover the eighteenth century differently than the nineteenth century—that, for example, the first and particularly the last chapters, the chapters in which I try to think more broadly about the meaning of soslovie, are very much weighted toward the nineteenth century (and the last chapter toward the last half of the nineteenth century). They’re also very nice in putting this off on a problem of the sources, rather than on how I wrote the book.

Archives Crimea Soviet Era 1917-1991 Ukraine

Whither Crimea? Vignettes from the Archives of Kyiv and Moscow

[Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Jeff Hardy of Brigham Young University. Jeff has previously been a guest of Russian History Blog in our Gulag-related blog conversations. See his previous posts at Russian History Blog here.]

Let me preface this post by disclaiming that I am not an expert on Ukraine, let alone Crimea.  I have lived in and done archival research in Kyiv, and I teach the history of Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, which includes plenty of material on Ukraine.  But my specialty is the Soviet Gulag in the Khrushchev era, not anything having to do with Ukraine per se.  My hope with this post, therefore, is only to offer a few personal anecdotes of how Crimea was viewed in the late 1940s and 1950s.

So why was I in Kyiv doing research?  Quite simply, because it’s virtually impossible to access Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) records from 1960 onward, and I wanted to tell the story of the Gulag up to 1964, when Khrushchev was deposed.  That led me to do research in Tallinn, in Vilnius, and in Kyiv.  Tallinn and Vilnius, of course, were beautiful cities with remarkably open-access secret archives.  Kyiv, while also beautiful, presented some more interesting archival experiences, a few of which touched (barely and briefly) on Crimea. 

Archives Cold War Detente Soviet Era 1917-1991

“Brezhnev’s hospitality was effusive, if unpredictable…”

The words in the title of this post come from a description by Donald M. Kendall, CEO of PepsiCo from 1971 to 1986. Kendall met Brezhnev in August 1973 in the Soviet Union and reported back on his meeting to Nixon and Henry Kissinger — who were both close to Kendall. Kendall — who had also played a critical role in the overthrow of the Allende regime in Chile — used those connections to penetrate the Soviet market during Nixon’s detente and thus counter Coca Cola in the epic sugar water wars  (Jimmy Carter was later close to Coca Cola and aided its penetration of the Chinese market in 1979). Kendall’s enduring influence in Russia is suggested by his receipt in 2004 from Vladimir Putin of the Order of Friendship medal.

The result of Kendall’s meeting with Brezhnev is a fascinating read: 15 typed pages of his observations of Brezhnev’s personality, political inclinations, and endearing qualities — endearing, that is, for certain types of males who like sports, drinking, hunting, fishing, boating, and cars (Brezhnev’s favorite was the iconic 1970s muscle car, the Dodge Charger).

The document below comes from the National Security Council, Henry Kissinger/Anatoly Dobrynin files at the Nixon Presidential Library and Archives in Yorba Linda, Ca. I came across them as part of my latest research project on international collaboration in space as a window into detente and the late Cold War. Soviet/American collaboration, leading to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project of 1975, played a critical role in the creation and unfolding of Nixon’s policies of detente (referred to as peaceful coexistence by the Soviets). While providing insight into Brezhnev and the Soviet political leadership, the document also illustrates the shared culture of male bonding and machismo on both sides of the Cold War divide.

Archives Films Nostalgia and Memory oral history Russian History in Popular Culture Soviet Era 1917-1991 Teaching Russian History World War II

900 Days

The Nazi siege of Leningrad began on September 8, 1941. It ended 874 days later, one of the longest and most destructive sieges in history. The Soviets won at the cost of more than 1 million soldiers killed, captured, or missing and more than 640,000 civilian dead. Nearly a third of the city perished — from disease, bombings, and starvation.  Soviet propagandists — during the siege and afterwards — constructed a heroic story of perseverance and courage as part of a broader mythologizing of the war. That tale has served various social, political, and cultural purposes ever since. In the process, however, the real story was sanitized and simplified, hidden and censored — to the point that even participants often preferred the mythological version (which at any rate was more ennobling than the real story). This fine documentary (900 Days, 2011) uses interviews with survivors and archival sources to help peel back the layers of myth and to reveal the historical siege that few survivors had ever discussed publicly.

Archives Uncategorized

Research Guide to Moscow

Two researchers here at Sheffield (Alun Thomas & Oliver Johnson) are designing a guide to help historians arriving in Moscow for the first time. They’ve created a map indicating key landmarks: archives and libraries, but also cafes, art galleries, theatres etc. It’s a work-in-progress so if any of you would like to add favourite haunts, your help will be welcomed!