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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 7.3 (2006) 599-608

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The Problem of Social Cohesion

Dept. of History
Central European University
Nádor u. 9
H–1051 Budapest

Concepts of citizenship, rights, and even nationalism provide only weak links connecting the six essays in this section. Yet a common theme does emerge from packaging the essays together. Burbank's "imperial rights regime," Werth's civic acts in an imperial order, Stockdale's commemoration of the citizen soldier in the pre-October period, Alexopoulos's shaky Soviet citizenship, Yekelchyk's civic duty to hate, and Kozlov's shifting norms of the individual and social existence in the Soviet period all reveal aspects of the same question. How did the ruling elites, intelligentsia, and mass of the population accommodate to what Charles Taylor has called the "deep diversity" of a multinational, polyethnic society undergoing an uneven and accelerated process of social and economic transformation toward modernity?1 Put in another way, what were the major elements of social cohesion in a system—whether imperial or Soviet—characterized by such a variety of strong multiple identities? These questions lead to others, or at least to one other salient question on which the essays of Alexopoulos and Burbank touch but none of the essays confronts directly. Can political concepts shaped by the practices of a particular cultural tradition culminating in the nation-state adequately serve to analyze the institutions of tsarist and Soviet Russia? If we take these concepts out of their original "Western" context, then there are two possible alternative ways of adapting them. One is to pluralize them. The other is to add modifiers: "substantive citizenship," "formal citizenship," or in Will Kymlicka's terms "multicultural citizenship." But none of these conceptual schemes will work as well as historicizing them, which is what these essays do.

Jane Burbank claims that both rulers and subjects in imperial and Soviet Russia "held conceptions of the state, its powers, and its significance in social life that derived from their experience of a regime of differentiated, alienable, [End Page 599] but nonetheless legal and meaningful rights" (397–98). Golfo Alexopoulos makes a similar point when she states that "Soviet citizenship reveals itself in fragments" (487). In these two systems, both authors agree, rights could be as easily revoked as granted by an authority that was not responsible to any representative institution. They were allocated to social groups rather than individuals. They lacked the quality of being universal that is normally associated with the concept. Such rights are so fragile and particularistic that despite their appearance in legal documents as prava there have always been questions in the Western literature as to whether they deserve the term "rights" at all. They do, Burbank and Alexopoulos insist, if we shift our perspectives. For Burbank this means a willingness to remove the blinders of Eurocentrism and recognize the existence in Russia of "a remarkably creative and long-lasting imperial politics of rights based on difference" (400). For Alexopoulos this means acknowledging that only one category of T. H. Marshall's tripartite definition of citizenship, namely social citizenship or material rights, is "truly meaningful in a Soviet context" (495). Yet even then difficulties arise in the analysis.

Both authors concede that when it came to assigning rights to categories of groups within the population, state policies were changeable, inconsistent, or arbitrary. As Burbank points out for the tsarist period, in ethnic terms there were "multiple maps of 'theys'" (405) and no clear definition of the hegemonic "we"—that is, the Russian nationality. In the Soviet period, there were comparable if more radical shifts in assigning or denying rights on the basis of ethnicity.

In the tsarist period, social classification by estates (sosloviia) was even more problematic. According to Burbank, the "grounds for classification and division and what was thought to be gained from differentiated governance shifted over time" (406). Belonging to a particular estate or to a rank within an estate was never fixed and could change within the lifetime of...


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