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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 8.2 (2007) 307-348

Casting Workers as an Estate in Late Imperial Russia
Madhavan K. Palat

Did the tsarist regime in its hectic career after 1861 arrive at a coherent strategy on its working class? Soviet historiography claimed that it did, but it consisted of the repression of workers' movements, complemented by the bribery of welfare, the deceit of unions sponsored by the state, and the ideological and cultural corruption of Sunday schools, temperance societies, and rational recreation. Three generations of Soviet historians attempted to "expose" tsarist policy and purpose, continuing the tradition established by the radical intelligentsia, party organizers, union leaders, strikers, and so many rank-and-file workers before 1917. The autocracy repressed a class that was growing in consciousness as it became first a class in itself through the development of capitalism promoted by autocracy, and then a class for itself under the guidance of the Marxist intelligentsia and eventually the Bolsheviks. Capitalism was inevitable, the emergence of the working class was necessary to that process, and the contradictions of capitalism had to work themselves out through class conflict, the struggle for emancipation, and its dénouement in the Revolution of 1917 and beyond. The repression of the class was not a policy choice since the state could engage in no other form of action; it was doomed to failure from the outset but fated to run its predestined course.

The defects of such an account are numerous and easy to caricature, but its central inadequacy lies in its denying agency to, of all things, the Russian [End Page 307] state. The state has become a mere automaton at the hands of Capitalist Fate; and only the Marxist intelligentsia, more specifically the Bolsheviks and Lenin, have been blessed with agency. The autocracy had no options, according to this version of what happened; its script had been written before the working class had appeared; and its performance cannot be meaningfully assessed against its ambitions or compared to that of other capitalist states. As such, there was no strategy at all; it would be hopeless to look for one; and the historian may do no more than chronicle the ceaseless conflicts that punctuated the career of the late imperial regime. With some distinguished exceptions like L. M. Ivanov, who saw the mixed bag of possibilities in the Russian proletariat, or T. K. Gus´kova who examined the peculiar features of the Urals workers, Soviet historiography has ended up being just such an exhausting and deadening chronicle sustained by an immense output of archival publications.1

Non-Soviet accounts, however, have not proposed even a general pattern, evidently because none was discernible, and have preferred to examine the problem through discrete blocks of analysis. The first of these blocks was what constituted the "labor question" and how it was handled. Reginald Zelnik's first book has yet to be superseded in any language for its investigation of the "labor question" as it was discussed by officials, "experts," and businessmen in the middle of the 19th century.2 But the officials and businessmen saw the problem of a new industry and new working class as one of urban degeneration, poverty, and political disaffection; and their solutions were health controls, urban development, regulation, and repression. Such definitions of the "labor question" came hot from the anvils of Germany, France, and England and focused on the challenge of a new and growing class of a class-based society. But such a definition of the "labor question" in Russia did not include the workers who for more than a century had toiled in the mining and metallurgical sector in the Urals and elsewhere, in the rural serf factories of the nobility, and in cottage industries (kustari) all over the country. Workers already comprised multiple categories of serfs, peasant craftsmen, and urban artisans when the new class in advanced factory industry multiplied so vigorously from the 1820s on. The "labor question" was almost a code or...


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