restricted access 7. Fire Contained in the Planned Village: Peasants as Residents in a Disciplined Domestic Order
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204 7 Fire Contained in the Planned Village: Peasants as Residents in a Disciplined Domestic Order VILLAGE STREETS MUST BE LAID OUT IN STRAIGHT LINES. TREES SHOULD BE PLANTED IN ONE ROW NO CLOSER THAN TWO SAZHENS FROM BUILDINGS AND AT A DISTANCE OF 1.5 TO 2.0 SAZHENS FROM EACH OTHER. -Pskov Provincial Zemstvo Compulsory Village Planning Regulations, 1899 New definitions of house and home, as well as mathematization of space in the community, had begun to show up by the 1890S in property disputes among peasants in Novgorod Province. Their facility with the language of fire hazards appears in the records of local courts. In July 1891, for example, the peasant Mikhail Zakharov filed suit against his next-door neighbor, Filip Potanov, for building a house too close to his. As the case made its way through various courts and appeals, Zakharov defined his neighbor's offense as a violation of the prohibition against building structures within less than a prescribed interval between homesteads. Zakharov saw this as an expression of Potanov's willingness to flout the constraints imposed on construction by the Building Code, and he claimed that Potanov's new structures were "dangerous in terms of fire." 1 His original complaint and subsequent testimony also defined the interval between his yard and Potanov's in precise measurements, eliciting from Potanov a response that equally relied on such mathematical precision in his defense. After two full years in the court system, the combined authority of the law, courts, and fire's threat stood with Zakharov. Filip Potanov was forced to destroy his new home and outbuildings and, further, to clear the site entirely of debris.2 For Zakharov, the outcome was a vindication and a personal victory; for Potanov, it was a defeat and a humiliation. For zemstvo delegates and other fire activists, Potanov's defeat represented the triumph of law and order over audacious fire and the "disorderly, haphazard, outrageous" villages that had so generously fed it over the previous thirty years.3 Everything about the villages of European Russia in the 1870S had attracted zemstvo attention and caused alarm. The most obvious factors in the fire epidemic were the crowded construction of homestead against homestead, littered and jumbled yards within each household's fences, the placement within homesteads ofbuildings in which fire was used for agricultural processing, and much about the structures themselves : straw roofs, chimneyless stoves or stoves with pipes that abutted wood or straw, poor walls, badly constructed or maintained stoves and chimneys, blankets of straw and wattle wrapped around izbas during the winter months, even candles before icons. Only when these rural "ills" could be eradicated, the conviction grew, could runaway fires be prevented or at least restricted in rural Russia. For it was these physical aspects ofrural culture that gave fires their power. Reconstructing villages, breaking up crowded construction, forcing peasant residences into grids of parallel and perpendicular streets and alleyways, transforming the materials and methods of building everything from the family stove to the barn roof would bring the villages of European Russia into line, into order, on track to a progressive future through the imposition of reason on disorder. In this campaign, legally mandated uniformity and precision, embodied in detailed plans, offered a panacea for what ailed Russia. And what ailed Russia in the village curiously resembled what ailed Russia at its center, equally an object of zemstvo activism: awesome, uncontained, capricious power. Fire assumed qualities that any late-nineteenth-century Russian reader recognized as analogous to the tsar's failings. The legal counsel to the Novgorod provincial zemstvo in 1901, one M. Mysh, expressed the conflation of fire and autocracy as uncontained threats when he urged the zemstvo to move forward on village planning, saying that to do otherwise would "leave villages at the mercy of fire's arbitrary caprice [proizvo~, which year in and year out destroys the peasant population 's property.,,4 When Mysh referred to fire as yet another medium through which proizvol exercised its destructive will on Russia, he assigned to it a broadly understood attribute of Russian primitivism. Proizvol was the bugaboo of reform-minded Russians, whether they were calling for a rule-of-Iaw state that would rein in the tsar's arbitrary powers, for a rule-of-Iaw society that would curb the arbitrary and venal practices of peasant judges in peasant courts, or for some protection for peasant women then subject to the arbitrary and drunken violence of their...