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  • Un paese sull′orlo delle riforme: La Russia zarista dal 1861 al 1904, and: Vlast′ i obshchestvo: Bor′ba v Rossii po voprosam vneshnei politiki, 1878–1894 gg
  • Cecilia Ghetti
Sergio Bertolissi, Un paese sull′orlo delle riforme: La Russia zarista dal 1861 al 1904. Milan: Franco Angeli, 1998. 158 pp. ISBN 88-464-0404-1. Lire 34.000.
Viktoriia Maksimovna Khevrolina, Vlast′ i obshchestvo: Bor′ba v Rossii po voprosam vneshnei politiki, 1878–1894 gg. Moscow: Institut rossiiskoi istorii RAN, 1999. 316 pp. ISBN 5-201-14748-8.

The very title of Sergio Bertolissi's book (A Country on the Verge of Reform) indicates the general thrust of his argument. The book is an investigation of the crucial decades during which imperial Russia was making its last and most mature effort to adopt and assimilate Western political and institutional models. Bertolissi, a professor of East European History at the University of Naples, rejects the defeatist tones that – with the notable exception of figures such as Petr Andreevich Zaionchkovskii and Nikolai Mikhailovich Druzhinin – were characteristic of Soviet historians, who belittled the importance of the various reforms that the government had introduced during the reign of Alexander II in fields such as public education, local government, and the condition of serfs. Although the introduction to his book (9–14) is prefaced by Petr Iakovlevich Chaadaev's famous comment on Russia's historically anomalous position as a country "placed between the two great divisions of the world … resting with one elbow on China and the other on Germany," the author is not interested in reopening the old querelle about the contraposition of East and West. Nor is he concerned with opening up new areas of discussion in the hoary debate on the relationship between the regime and the intelligentsia in tsarist Russia. His topic is different: why did the lively debate within the Russian ruling classes at the end of the 19th century fail to result in anything concrete? The time frame for his discussion (1861–1904) suggests that his investigation, bounded by two "Russian" events – the emancipation of the serfs and the revolution of 1905 – is thoroughly "internal," whereas Viktoriia Khevrolina's study is framed by the dates 1878 and 1894, which draws attention to matters of foreign policy in the period from the Congress of Berlin to the Franco-Russian rapprochement of the early 1890s.

The starting point for Bertolissi's work is 19 February 1861, the day the Obshchee polozhenie o krest'ianakh, vyshedshikh iz krepostnoi zavisimosti (General Statute on the Emancipation of the Serfs) was issued, granting personal freedom [End Page 664] and the right to own land to more than 23 million serfs. In outlining the long and complex political and legislative history of the reform, Bertolissi traces the picture of a country fraught with wide-ranging social and economic differences (such as the contrasts between the agricultural belt of the Black-Earth Region and the northwestern area of the country, with its modestly developed craft and industrial activities). But his account also reveals a nation in which all the various regions were bound together by "the same complex objective difficulties and [the same] uncertain prospects" (19). Received favorably by many of the landowners themselves, the new legislation1 only partially resolved the contradictions implicit within the "non-development" of Russian agriculture. One particular shortcoming was that, at least at the very beginning, the heaviest cost of the reform fell on the serfs themselves; it provided them with insufficient areas of land (the so-called nadel) and simply replaced the traditional land-owning serf master with "obshchina serfdom,"2 which combined the traditional model for the organization of agricultural life with the added burden of redemption payments owed to the state. Aware of the shortcomings of the emancipation legislation, Bertolissi does not indulge in extensive discussions of its details or in proposing useless theoretical alternatives. Instead, he focuses on the statute's genesis and application, paying particular attention to its political, social, and economic consequences (see, for example, the pages dedicated to the so-called Valuev Committee – named after Count Petr Aleksandrovich Valuev – which was set up in 1872–73 to investigate rural conditions in...


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