- Writing Imperial Lives Biography, Autobiography, and Microhistory
Professional historians have, at best, mixed feelings about biography. 1 Suffused with all the worst excesses of great-man theories of history, and at times characterized by an unseemly closeness between author and subject, biographies, in their stereotyped form, are holiday presents from well-meaning relatives, not something a serious scholar writes. 2 Yet we keep coming back to the individual life as a promising anchor for our projects. There are [End Page 151]sound reasons, both methodological and affective, for doing so. After all, that biography canbe bad history does not mean that it has to be; biography, the historian Lois Banner observes, overlaps significantly with social and cultural history, and there is no prima facie reason its contributions to either should be less than any other approach. 3 Nor, for that matter, is a traditional biography the only way to write a life, or to write with a life. Following life trajectories can help reconstruct networks and understand the connectivity of diverse and far-flung polities, very much in line with the goals of global and transnational history. 4 Looking outward, the prosaic details of an individual life can be used microhistorically and read into broader contexts, transforming our understanding of familiar themes and narratives. 5 The very representation of the individual life, whether from outside (contemporary biographies) or within (autobiographies, memoirs, and personal archives), provides a useful entry point into vexed questions of identity, subjectivity, and selfhood. 6 All the while, life histories connect with the reader in a way that, perhaps, more hermetic or abstract approaches do not. 7
We have known all this for a long time. 8 Yet we sometimes forget it, and have to rediscover the various methods of writing life histories—biography, microhistory, analysis of autobiography—as useful to the questions our discipline, and our subfield, is asking. Lives, and the way that historical subjects wrote them, are like a prism, shedding different kinds of light when turned in different ways. Historians of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union have begun leveraging such approaches to their advantage, generating what Stephen Norris has called a “biographical boom” in the field. 9 The four books [End Page 152]under review here are an impressive set of contributions to this flowering of interest in life histories. Dmitrii Kalugin makes a study of biography in Russia as a genre, from its emergence in the late 1700s to its transformation in the tumultuous literary and social world of the 1850s. Both Francis Wcislo and Lynne Ann Hartnett bring literary tools to the exhaustive documentation two of the key personages of the late Russian Empire, Sergei Witte and Vera Figner, left about their own lives. In doing so, they provide a more robust understanding of the connections among personality, self-fashioning, and political life in the biographies of these well-known figures. Finally, Willard Sunderland’s approach to the life of the notorious “bloody Baron,” Roman von Ungern-Shternberg, is indebted to microhistorical methodologies, especially those based in imperial settings, using Ungern’s life as an entry point to the history of the Russian Empire during its last years.
Despite their methodological diversity, the four books on offer have in common an interest in historicizing conceptions of the self and the trajectories that individual lives could take, embedding them in a broader narrative of social and cultural change (principally, for three of the four, after the Great...