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  • On the Subjects of Resistance
  • Peter Fritzsche (bio)

Resistance has been a central motif in historical accounts for the last 200 years because it builds up so well an active historical subject. The concept of resistance assumes the undeterred or unassimilated nature of something in a new, distressed context, and accomplishes the continuity and thus coherence of the one in face of the discontinuity and frailty of the other. Whether the theme is the German nation fighting for sovereignty against Napoleon or the working class realizing its common power in the age of industrialism or the sturdiness of the individual under the burdens of totalitarianism, histories of resistance deploy active verbs and mobilize active agents and thereby make available a historical subject for further cultural scrutiny. This is not surprising or even regrettable; indeed one of the functions of history in the modern world has been its ability to conjure up collective entities such as nation or class. Precisely because it quite self-consciously deals with social processes and evaluates variables in order to make judgments about what moves and what does not, and what coheres and what does not, the writing of history can hardly avoid making a particular case for collective action. Although scholars may be reluctant to admit their complicity, the choice of their topics, their concern with agency, and, often enough, their identification with the weak or the subaltern indicates just how strong remains the affinity between history writing and subject construction. The attraction of a history of resistance is not difficult to discern for it identifies the particularisms of identity in the shadow of the great homogenizing endeavors of the state. This is certainly the case in the post-Soviet historiography of Russia. But it is also possible to see what resistance itself resists: an appreciation for the sheer might of the state, for example, or an explanation of the foundations of its power. The concept of resistance overlooks as well the creative and generative potentials of new circumstances, which transform the resisting subject. Likewise, it tends to assume that the acts and gestures of resistance are more true to the identity of the subject than accommodation or collaboration. If studies of resistance recall how tentative or incomplete is the hold of state power, their critiques indicate how powerful the displacements and ruptures of modern history have been.

As the thoughtful contributions in this issue make clear, the contemporary writing of the history of Russia is unusually sensitive to the possibilities and limitations of the concept of resistance. This is so not simply because of the variety of [End Page 147] Russia's authoritarianisms – tsarist absolutism, colonial empire, Stalinist totalitarianism – but also because there is no consensus as to whether those regimes relied on ideological cohesion or on brute force, whether they were fundamentally durable or surprisingly brittle. The result is a sophisticated, self-reflective historiography that has much to add to subaltern studies and the history of everyday life. They also pose questions about the status of the great ideological mobilizations of the twentieth century and the tractability of social structures in the twenty-first century.

Lynne Viola concedes that there is an element of historiographical virtue in studies of twentieth-century dissent and resistance. The effort to disengage the activity of ordinary people from the heavy hand of the communist regime is part of a larger project of recovering the prehistory of the civil society that today's post-communist federation so badly needs. Newly-opened archival holdings confirm that Russian history cannot be collapsed into Soviet history; the independent strike activity of workers in the 1930s, the boycotts and migrations of peasants during collectivization, and the economic resourcefulness of city dwellers all demonstrate the uneasy fit between communist expectations and popular responses. In her recent book on the 1930s, Sheila Fitzpatrick emphasizes the degree to which political apathy and disengagement typified the split between state and society.1 Just how fragile the regime was is difficult to say, but Viola neatly summarizes recent work on dissent: "for peasants as for workers, the manifestation and expression of resistance were rooted in deeply ingrained social identities, community, tradition, and universal strategies of popular collective...


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pp. 147-152
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