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Reviewed by:
  • Zhizn’ v katastrofe: Budni naseleniia Urala v 1917–1922 gg., and: Experiencing Russia’s Civil War: Politics, Society, and Revolutionary Culture in Saratov, 1917–1922
  • William G. Rosenberg
Igor’ Narskii , Zhizn’ v katastrofe: Budni naseleniia Urala v 1917–1922 gg. [Life in Catastrophe: Everyday Life in the Urals, 1917–1922]. 614 pp. Moscow: Rosspen, 2001. ISBN 5824302804.
Donald J. Raleigh , Experiencing Russia’s Civil War: Politics, Society, and Revolutionary Culture in Saratov, 1917–1922. xviii + 438 pp. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002. ISBN 0691034338, $72.00 (cloth); 0691113203, $27.95 (paper).

It is an interesting aspect of the late 20th century that the collapse of one of the two great world powers occurred during a period of notable changes in Western historical thinking. At just the time scholars were making new linguistic and cultural turns that challenged the modernist logics of grand political and social narratives, the thoroughly instituted Soviet narrative of certain socialist progress and well-being was losing all shreds of viability, challenged from within and without by the realities of stagnation and deprivation. The USSR required history to be convincing. The legitimacy of the Soviet system depended on specific historical logics that linked specific historical understandings to determined and therefore realizable futures. Concern about these linkages was no small part of Gorbachev's heralded "new thinking," their open and soon quite broad-based rejection a critical element of communist collapse. No matter that the grand neo-liberal narratives that quickly filled the vacuum involved dubious logics of their own. The end of the Soviet Union was understood almost everywhere as the end of all imagined socialist pasts and futures.

How, then, to "come to terms" with really lived Soviet pasts, to use the phrase German historians are currently using to re-engage with theirs? How to reposition an understanding of Russian revolutionary transformation in ways that convincingly validate its historical de-legitimization? Not, certainly, through the controversial logics of postmodernism. These were already bringing Western scholars to blows in the early 1990s, splintering as ecumenical an organization as the American Historical Association. Far better, and far easier, simply to recast the grand narrative [End Page 359] itself into one of political conspiracy, peoples' tragedy, or ruinous social experimentation—approaches that set the tropes of neo-liberalism neatly within familiar and comfortable narrative frames. No "willing executioners" here among the "ordinary" denizens of the Stalinist-Leninist empire, nor, one might add, any need to grapple with the real intellectual challenges that postmodernity was raising. Historical materialism turned on its head transferred the determinants of change to dissolute ideologies or unrestrained "will to power" but left its teleological foundations in place.

Like other thoughtful historians, Igor´ Narskii and Donald J. Raleigh are uncomfortable with this popular new orthodoxy, although in somewhat different ways. Both have sought to tell the history of Soviet Russia's formative Civil War outside traditional narrative frames. Their shared focus is on how this period was actually lived in two regional localities, and hence on historical experience itself. Theirs is an impressive effort to recreate as fully as the evidence will allow the deprivations and torments that constituted the essence of this experience for overwhelming numbers of ordinary people, no small ambition indeed. Both also seek to understand the historical implications of this period. In Narskii's case, catastrophe itself is fundamental. Those who survived in the Urals region emerged from the Civil War physically and psychologically devastated. Although he does not say so directly, a broken population became the socio-cultural foundation of a permanently broken regime. For Raleigh, the implications of experiencing the Civil War are to be found in the ways "Russian political culture, Bolshevik practices, and the circumstances of civil war molded diverse elements of society into [the] organic experiential whole" (5) that emerged as the Soviet Union. How and in what ways this was actually related to the Soviet historical aftermath is for other historians to explore.

These complementary volumes constitute an impressive and significant advancement in the literature. Each thoroughly deserves the close reading their density requires. Both reflect a truly prodigious amount of research, especially in provincial archives. Both review virtually every available regional newspaper...


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