The last peaceful year of late imperial Russia, 1913, before the advent of the age of wars and revolutions, is accurately and interestingly described in Wayne Dowler's book. The country is presented as a society in transition, with its many contradictions and conflicts, but also as having a highly dynamic civil society. Dowler criticizes the "reductionism" and "determinism" of popular historiographic schemes, analyzing published primary sources, and focusing mainly on two newspapers, the Russian News (Russkie vedomosti) and the Moscow News (Moskovskie vedomosti), both printed in Moscow.
The author's choice is motivated by his interest in looking at the society from a vantage point other than the capital (St. Petersburg), and also by an attempt to rely on sources produced within politically very different and even opposing quarters of society. The Russian News was the mouthpiece of liberals, while the Moscow News had a reputation as a monarchist and nationalist paper. The "optimistic" narrative of 1913 (as opposed to the influential "pessimistic" perception of Russia in [End Page 373] 1913 as an already doomed society) raises the question of the possibility of a different future for the Russian Empire, and how it was possible, in Dowler's view. The author is careful to state that "The goal of this work is not to demonstrate that Russia was on the eve of a liberal-democratic transformation in 1913. It was not." Although Russia had a thriving civil society, where social clubs, mutual aid funds, and cooperative associations were multiplying in urban areas as in the countryside (as has been discovered by historians over the past two decades), one cannot ignore the substantial differences from European societies. Meetings of associations could be disbanded by the police (Dowler reports one such case), governors could refuse the registration of a society's statute, and the most influential opposition party in the State Duma, the Kadets, were refused official registration until the very end of Empire.
Russian civil society was not a gelatinous mass, as Antonio Gramsci pointed out in his theory of hegemony. The post-1905 period introduced a great change to the semi-institutionalized political space both inside and outside the State Duma. This new publicity fueled public debate, as ministers of the government began trying to shape public opinion in their favor and to propagate their initiatives in the press. Newspapers were active in supporting or criticizing government bills, attempting to facilitate change in the country. The growth of civil society was also visible in the development of publishing houses, newspapers, and journals, in unprecedented blossoming of all forms of cultural production and arts. Aesthetic movements in literature and painting, such as the Futurists and the Symbolists, were part of the pan-European avant-gardes, and their new languages and rhetoric were not limited to Petersburg or Moscow, but also had followers all over Russia.
Russian Empire thus emerges as a society in transition, but with a political order that was at odds with social dynamism in the country. The celebrations of the third centennial anniversary of the Romanov dynasty highlighted the difficulties of the political situation and the persistence of many shadows of the past. The jubilee service on February 22 in Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg symbolically reproduced the mental map of the society and the foundations of authority as perceived by Nicholas II. Thus, deputies of the State Duma were placed in the cathedral at the farthest distance from the tsar and the court, with more central positions accorded to members of the State Council and the Senate. This order of precedence was full of political implications, with the motif of embodiment of the supreme state authority in the Empire by the person [End Page 374] of the tsar. In this symbolic spatial arrangement, the place of representative institutions and non-Russian populations (situated at a distance in the cathedral) was clearly marked as being of secondary importance compared to marshals of the nobility and members of the Senate and the State Council, who usually came from the ranks of...