Alexander Martin has written a biography of Moscow during a critical period in its development, the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The central arc of the book is the development of what he calls the “imperial social project”: efforts on the part of Russia’s rulers and bureaucracy to transform Moscow into an enlightened metropolis (he translates “stolitsa” as metropolis rather than capital). Martin documents the vicissitudes of this project over nearly a century, showing how it quickly developed in ways the regime did not expect and with a variety of consequences, positive, negative, and in-between. Bringing to bear a vast variety of sources in four languages, encompassing statistics, close readings of personal documents, observer accounts, institutional records, and a broad range of secondary literature, Martin masterfully brings to life the empire’s second capital as a city in constant flux and teeming with a shifting, diverse population.
The book is organized thematically, though the chapters follow a roughly chronological order, so that we begin with the instigation of the imperial social project under Catherine II, the state of the city as her reforms were imposed, and an overview of observers’ accounts from that early period when the need for reform, and the nature it might take, were still a matter of initial discussion and experimentation. Further chapters address the social hierarchy of Moscow in the early nineteenth century, the catastrophic impact of the 1812 invasion and fire, and everyday life in the period of reconstruction under Nicholas I. The final chapter explores representations of Moscow in this last period before the Great Reforms, [End Page 425] portraying a sense of “complacency and anxiety” – in other words, a state of identity crisis that portended the Reforms and the fraught social divisions that followed.
Martin defines the imperial social project as an effort to firm up domestic support for the regime while also enhancing its reputation abroad. The strategy had three prongs: first, reconstructing Moscow’s spaces and institutions on grand, European lines; second, fostering an enlightened “middling sort” – educated, prosperous, and (it was assumed) loyal people ranked between the wealthiest aristocrats and the mass of peasants; and third, convincing observers at home and abroad that the Russian empire was, in fact, an enlightened European state.
Moscow was the heart and soul of this project not only because it was generally understood as the most “Russian” city, thus symbolizing the empire as a whole, but also because when Catherine began her project she perceived Moscow as everything she did not want her empire to be: backward, Asiatic, unenlightened. Yet Moscow was also the historical capital, still the seat of coronations, and the largest city and the most important commercial and transportation hub. Most foreign visitors to the empire would sooner or later pass through. As the winter home of many aristocratic families (who brought many times their number in serfs along with them) and the destination of migrant traders, workers, and civil servants from every corner of the empire, it contained the entire range of the tsar’s subjects and in this sense, too, was a microcosm of the whole.
Martin’s assessment of the imperial social project is full of paradox. The reforms begun under Catherine II were partially successful, in that over the subsequent decades “Russia had developed a culture that synthesized European with native elements and was widely shared by the middle strata” (P. 296). However, due to “unfortunate timing,” this project succeeded just as the western structures it was imitating became obsolete. Using Nikolai Chernyshevsky as one example of the pattern, Martin points out that he was the successful product of the imperial social project. Rising from a provincial popovich (priest’s son) through university education to become a prominent journalist, he benefited from new institutions and social aspirations and as a result of these influences took on an entirely modern identity. However, where Catherine and her two grandsons Alexander and Nicholas expected this process to result in a loyal, stable social basis for...