Michael David Fox, ed. Amerikanskaia rusistika: vekhi istoriografii poslednikh let, imperatorskii period. Samara: Samarskii universitet, 2000. 332 pp. ISBN 978-5-230-06199-1.
Reviewed by Andrei Znamenski (Department of Humanities, Alabama State University, Montgomery)
Published on H-Russia (May, 2001)
American Scholarship on the History of Russia for a Russian Audience
American Scholarship on the History of Russia for a Russian Audience
Preparing this review of American historiography of Russia reminded me of the occasion in 1981 when (as a senior student at the very university that published this book) I came quite by chance into possession of a Russian emigre translation of Richard Pipes' Russia Under the Old Regime. Feeling a childlike excitement at gaining access to something like "forbidden fruit," for three days I put aside everything else and worked feverishly at making a synoptic notes on the book. Although I still value the work, it seems to me now a shame that I did not at the time have any exposure to other Western texts. When I recall the episode, it makes me a bit jealous of present-day Russian students who easily enjoy access to all conceivable variety of approaches to their subject.
The first Russian-language translations of American studies on Russian history began to appear at the end of the 1980s. Yet the selection of works to translate depended less on their intrinsic merits or their pertinence to historical issues that on their pertinence to the political issues of the moment. From about 1987 to the middle of the 1990s, Russian media and the faculties of humanities discarded timid debates about socialist alternatives and came to embrace wholeheartedly an anti-communist rage, including such topics as the "slave soul of Russia" or "the lost seventy years of history." Russian readers were first offered Stephen Cohen and Alexander Rabinowitch, and eventually Richard Pipes. Now that Russians have become tired of their own history and have even demonstrated their readiness to embrace Putin's "thermidor," the practice of history has returned to its normal locus, i.e., to a small group of professionals and interested amateurs.
Ironically, now that all political impediments to access to foreign books have been removed, economic factors deny access almost as effectively as Soviet politics previously did. Even the major libraries of Moscow and St. Petersburg can scarcely acquire new books from abroad. Neither students nor scholars have the opportunity these days to keep abreast of foreign literature. And these factors explain the significance of Amerikanskaia rusistika, which presents representative research of American scholars of Russia over the past thirty years rarely available in Russian libraries. The present volume is part of a broader three-volume project. This first volume deals with the Imperial period, and the next two volumes will address the Soviet Union. Michael David Fox enjoyed support for the project by the department chairs of University of Maryland and Samara University, George Majeska and Peter Kabytov respectively, as well as from the Social Science Partnership Program administered by ACTR/ACCELS and funded by USIA.
David-Fox provides an extensive Introduction that forms a good, though necessarily selective, review article of postwar American historiography of Russia. He adopts a well-known phrase of Turgenev to organize this survey by generations of historians -- i.e. fathers, children, and grandchildren -- and provides biographical information on the backgrounds and training of the various authors based in part on his personal correspondence with them. The outlook of the fathers' generation, he suggests, developed under the influence of Russian emigre historians and matured during the militant stage of the Cold War in the 1940s and 1950s when conflict with the Soviet regime unavoidably tempered the spirit of the work. The fathers were, then, well grounded in the history of politics, diplomacy, and the Imperial and Soviet governmental elites. Children, coming of age in the turbulent 1960s, drifted to the left, and in the 1970s focused their research methods on social history and especially on the popular masses. It was this generation that capitalized on the first academic exchanges between the Soviet Union and the United States and drew actively on archival research. Like their contemporary colleagues in American history, the generation of children singled out and studied disadvantaged groups of the Russian population, such as working class people or women.
In the 1990s, when the grandchildren came of age, American historiography of Russia retreated from conspicuous ideological commitment and turned to such relatively conventional topics as the study of empire, popular religion, non-Russian groups, and the history of mutual perceptions. As time passed, scholars turned from addressing individual groups in isolation to concentration on interaction among the groups. To some extent, the history of culture began to replace social history in their work, and research approaches began to be influenced by cultural and anthropological metaphors. The study of the marginal, the deviant, and the unique came into focus, all of which is explained in part by the barren historical terrain left behind by the dry wind of deconstruction.
Among the selections are several well-respected pieces of work: Michael Raeff's comparative study of the "well-ordered police state" (Polizeistadt), Paul Bushkovich's research of Austrian archival sources on the conflict between Peter I and Alexis; and Gregory Freeze's article comparing the soslovie system of Russia and the etat/Stande social structure of Western and Central Europe.
Especially interesting in the Russian context is the selection by Daniel Thodes, which explores the Russian perception of Charles Darwin's ideas. Though the Russian scholarly and scientific community adopted Darwin en grose, selected elements were screened out by the Russian cultural tradition. The concept of struggle for survival was rejected, as it contradicted the assumptions of Russian intellectual milieu and culture more generally, which were wedded to collectivist and anti-individualist sentiments. Thus the predisposition of national culture attaches its own influence to the reception of alien ideas.
Laura Engelstein's work provides a similar example of the influence of one culture on the perception of another. She is concerned with the Russian medical controversy about the spread of syphilis in the second half of the nineteenth century and in the beginning of the twentieth century. In this case, the two cultures are the village and the town and the alleged moral purity of the one and the filth of the other. Jane Burbank's study addresses the significance of the volost courts in the legal culture of Russia and the barriers to the development of this emergent grass-root legal culture by the then dominant legal ideology.
The selection of Thomas Barrett, is an example of more culturally oriented scholarship. Barrett addresses the northern frontier of the Caucasus without dealing with triumphant explorers or colonial victims of Russian expansion. Rather, drawing on methodology developed by revisionist historians of the American West, Richard White, William Cronon and Daniel Usner, Barrett is more interested in cultural interactions and mutual influences of Russians and natives. As a result, instead of heroes or victims we see trade, combat, cultural exchange, and intermarriages. His general conclusion is that the lines that historians tried to draw among ethic groups in Russian borderlands were in reality inexact and uncertain.
The volume ends with a work by James West, who discusses the activities of the Riabushinskii circle, which united wealthy entrepreneurs and sympathetic intellectuals (acting as self-appointed representatives of the bourgeoisie class) in an incipient stage of formation in the early twentieth century.
The works presented in the anthology offer a broad spectrum of research approaches. Obviously, the format and limitations of space necessarily excluded other important works. Still, some of the works represented could have been abridged without impairing their value in order to make room for others equally as representative of contemporary American historiography of Russia. It would have been interesting to the Russian reader, for example, to have excerpts of Richard Wortman's work on Russian monarchy, Francis Wcislo's work on rural Russia, or Eve Levin's work on popular Orthodoxy.
In spite of the generally good quality of the translations, there are a few examples of misrepresented meaning of words. The English word "decline" (in the title of the well-known work by Seton-Watson, "Decline of Imperial Russia") is rendered as padenie (p.9). The title of the whole section, "Middle Ground," is translated as nicheinaia zemlia (p. 177-178), which to a Russian reader means something closer to "no man's land." Yet I realize that it is hard to find a Russian statement for this concept. Similar confusion results from rendering Raeff's "well-ordered police state" as reguliarnoe politseiskoe gosudarstvo (pp. 48-79). The best option here would perhaps have been organizovannoe politseiskoe gosudarstvo.
Considering the limited resources of Russian university presses at present, Amerikanskaia rusistika is a strikingly handsome production. A leather-like hard cover and good quality paper make a dramatic contrast to Russian monographs and mezhvuzovskie sborniki, which are routinely printed on something approaching the quality of wrapping paper. It only remains to congratulate the editor and his assistants on the production of a fine reader that has no counterparts in Russia. The Russian audience will appreciate the scholarly and cultural significance of this first attempt to bring the variety of American historiography of Russia to Russia itself. We should wish David-Fox and his colleagues in Samara good luck in completing the remaining volumes.
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Andrei Znamenski. Review of Fox, Michael David, ed., Amerikanskaia rusistika: vekhi istoriografii poslednikh let, imperatorskii period.
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