restricted access 4. The Fiery Brand, Russian Style: Arson as Protest, Peasants as Incendiaries
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108 4 The Fiery Brand, Russian Style: Arson as Protest, Peasants as Incendiaries GIVEN SUCH A STATE OF AFFAIRS, THE PEASANTS DECIDED THAT THE BEST WAY TO TAKE VENGEANCE ON HIM WAS TO DESTROY HIS PROPERTY. FIRES THAT BURN THE GRAIN ON THE SQUIRE CHERTKOV'S ESTATE HAPPEN ALMOST EVERY YEAR. -Police file, "Report ofthe Tambov Provincial Police Chiefon the Systematic Arson Fires on the Estate ofthe Nobleman Chertkov," 1871 Arson occupied a prominent place in late imperial rural Russia. Both the Ministry of Interior statistics and the relative space devoted to arson in public debates pointed to accidental village fires as the larger threat to the empire, but arson fires also loomed large in Russia's fire experience and in the public imagination. The historian of rural arson in Russia may draw on two major bodies of data. First, published statistics of the Ministry ofJustice provide the number of arson cases-a category of property crime-brought to court, and information about those convicted, much as similar sources do in Great Britain and the United States. Second, there is the network of information that eventually made its way to the Ministry ofthe Interior on all reported fires in districts. District policemen noted whether the fires were accidental or due to arson, as well as what burned and, often, the estate identity of both victim and suspected arsonist. Of these two sources, Ministry of the Interior statistics enjoy the advantage of being consistent in their categories and schedule of reporting. Arson fires that appear in the tables for a given year were reported as having occurred in that year. Ministry ofJustice tables, by contrast, list arson cases filed in that year, ofwhich many were carried over from the previous year's docket and included events that might have occurred even earlier. Furthermore, Ministry ofJustice statistics for some years distinguish arson as "arson against inhabited structures" and "other forms of arson"; for other years they employ the categories "arson against inhabited structures" and "other forms of property damage of danger to the public," which included other crimes in addition to arson. Neither set of data, of course, captures all the arson fires that happened. Historians of crime have called the mass of unindicted crimes that never make their way into the public record the "dark figure" in crime statistics. As Eva Osterberg recently explained: "The dark figure can theoretically consist ofoffenses that were never discovered; offenses that may have been discovered and brought to court but were not registered in the extant judicial sources because, for example , the parties settled their dispute out of court; or behavior that may have been defined as criminal by the law but was not viewed thus by the people, who therefore kept it outside the scope of formal justice."1 Because of the nature of arson in general, and because of its social function within peasant communities in European Russia in particular, the dark figure in the official judicial record of rural incendiarism is especially large. Fire statistics, as distinct from crime statistics, may bring the historian of Russia closer to that dark figure, but they certainly fail to capture it entirely. Fire statistics (and the fire reports that lie behind them in local archives) and provincial government newspapers make it possible to see many arson fires that never made it to court. They also offer clues about a range of intentional burnings that, although discovered, might have been kept "outside the scope of formal justice" by peasants' refusal to cooperate with investigations. District police reports tell what burned. Rarely, however , do these laconic reports include the kind of information about the accused arsonists that is available in the Ministry ofJustice statistics on cases that actually worked their way through the court system. Historians should neither throw up their hands in despair over the incompleteness of the two sets of numbers nor rush in with overconfident assumptions about what they can tell about arson fires and arsonists. Instead, scholars should look to them for what they suggest about regional and chronological trends and work with the various bits of information one can glean about the arsonists and their targets to decipher the language of rural arson in European Russia. Local officials supplied data that the Ministry ofthe Interior worked up into statistics on the number of reported fires determined to be arson and the percentage of the total number of reported fires they represented (table 4.r). These statistics , however inadequate (for the reasons discussed...