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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 7.3 (2006) 609-617

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The Elusive Civic Subject in Russian History

Dept. of History
Yale University
New Haven, CT 06520 USA

Imagine that after ordering documents you had to destroy the archive. This is more or less the dilemma of archaeologists. The tools that make an archaeological dig destroy an unspoiled site, removing the possibility of verification. Historians face a dilemma that, though slightly more subtle, is no less inevitable and difficult. For their evidence historians seek out words, usually printed words in archives or publications. They must elucidate their findings in an idiom that performs at least two basic tasks. First, it must be true to the sources themselves, to the past. Second, it must be comprehensible to a reader, in the present. When this is achieved, the historian can move to and fro between source commentary and argument. If the historian errs too far toward the concerns of colleagues and readers, the work may traduce the sources. Unlike the archaeologist, the historian does not physically destroy the sources of knowledge but can leave them tainted. This is all too clear in the field of Russian history, where the gigantic and enduring influence of Russian imperial and Soviet models is all too obvious.

The papers collected here represent, in very different ways, an attempt to understand Russian and Soviet history using an idiom of citizenship. With the exception of Serhy Yekelchyk, none of them discusses the terminological issue. Yekelchyk notes that Stalinists and some postmodernist scholars (I believe followers of Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault are meant) agree that citizenship is best understood as the practices that bind the individual to the state. Yekelchyk's first paragraph is a rather useful introduction to the papers, as most of them refer explicitly or implicitly to one or both of these scholars. If Yekelchyk is correct, then it might appear that the idiom of citizenship is appropriate to the study of Russia, at least Stalinist Russia. But it can happen that agreeing parties are both mistaken. The Stalinist and the scientific desire to recognize or measure public emotion may generate a metric of citizenship, something adequate for practical purposes. Yet it does seem inadequate to treat citizenship in this way, bereft of some account of normativity and [End Page 609] experience. Invocations of "practice" do not solve the problem. "Practice," when used carefully, can ground larger social-historical studies, but just because it seeks to render the concrete systematic and the discrete choice part of a larger ethic, it works poorly as a shorthand.

Archaeology destroys to discover; so can Foucauldian archaeology. The emphasis on rupture, on the telling detail, on the emergence of power: all are powerful rhetorics of expression as well as tools of research. It is hard to see how these tools can be applied to the subject of citizenship, at least in its contemporary English-language sense, with its liberal implications of emerging mutual respect and responsibility. It is probably not controversial to maintain that "citizenship" in today's English contains two major and mutually supporting senses: individual rights that constrain the state; and public consciousness of these rights and the wish to defend them. Although the essays brim with references to Foucault, the Foucauldian tools are blunted both by the idiom of citizenship and by the realities of Russia and the Soviet Union.1 The authors generally do not concern themselves with citizenship as a subject of study, as in the Russian empire there were debates about citizenship but no citizenship itself, while in the Soviet Union most people were classed as citizens but the notion lacked the concepts with which it is associated today in the English-speaking world. Golfo Alexopoulos considers this apparent paradox in the Soviet approach. Other papers treat a concept that is today often associated with citizenship, rather than citizenship itself. Melissa Stockdale's article on commemoration of the Great War treats the theme of reciprocity; Paul Werth's on civic acts looks at the...


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pp. 609-617
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