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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 3.2 (2002) 193-195

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From the Editors

On the Narrowness of "Periods," or 1699 is not 1700

Despite the stunning diversity of historical inquiry, history as a discipline is bound together by an overriding concern with time, and hence with periodization. Even historians who frequently pilfer insights and interpretations from other disciplines tend instinctively to rebel against "ahistorical" treatments that flout basic chronological considerations. This fact of disciplinary life is unlikely to change, despite all the epistemological shifts of recent years in the human sciences. However, Russian history, like other historical fields, has often gone beyond such basic and legitimate concerns to make something of a fetish out of the historical period. There are both intellectual and institutional reasons for this, and it is rarely considered how the two are intertwined.

A fetish of the historical period? By this we mean both the deeply-ingrained reluctance to cross major chronological barriers in historical work and the division of Russianists into guilds of Muscovite, imperial, and Soviet historians. There are many important boundaries in the course of Russian history, but the two that loom the largest in our professional lives are those that divide the Muscovite from the imperial periods (1700, for convenience) and the imperial from the Soviet (1917). As Gary Marker recently noted in these pages about the first of those markers, "dating the dawn of Russian modernity with Peter and the imperial state endures because it makes so much sense ..." Not everyone, he adds, believes the Petrine revolution was a good thing, "but they all agree that the rupture took place." Marker then exclaims: "Who am I to argue with that? Certainly no new periodizations are looming, and none will be suggested here. Nevertheless, state-and-ruler-centered history, like all commanding narratives, necessarily imposes certain blinders." 1 The division imposed by 1917, it hardly needs to be pointed out, has loomed even larger than the Petrine "revolution," in part because that 20th-century rupture from the outset revolved around far more than the advent of a new state. There have been social, economic, cultural, and intellectual rationales, in addition to the political bases, for making strong divisions between the Muscovite and the imperial as well as the imperial and the Soviet eras.

Then there are the most prosaic factors of archival organization. There was a good degree of continuity both in terms of ministerial structure and personnel over the course of 7 November 1917. This continuity is occluded in part because [End Page 193] the Soviet state, in its insistence that it had brought forth a new world, disentangled the archival holdings of its new institutions from those of their predecessors. The archives impose an unnaturally neat and even break. While many of the same people sat at many of the same desks the day following the Bolshevik coup, you must now travel, say, to Petersburg to follow the work of the tsarist ministry of agriculture up to February 1917; to Moscow and one archival holding in GARF for its successor under the Provisional Government; and to yet another GARF holding for its Soviet successor. To trace this continuity is to swim against the neat divisions in archival structure.

To be sure, it has also been a long-standing historiographical nostrum in 17th-century studies that the Petrine innovations were not as sudden or unprepared as they have often been made out to be. In the case of 1917, there have been many important studies over the decades that have transcended the barrier in one way or another. However, it is also fair to say that the rise of a new, post-Soviet scholarship raised the promise of many more works that would use the newly accessible material to build new paradigms and new chronological frameworks, rather than using the bounty to uphold our old ones. Yet that promise has only partially been fulfilled. Why did 1991 raise such hopes? The legacies observers could easily...


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