- Na sluzhbe rossiiskomu Leviafanu (Istoriosofskie opyty)
The first thing any reader of this new book will notice upon picking it up is the illustrations. Indeed, the excellent quality of the 103 pictures in Semen Ekshtut's tome will hold the reader's attention for a long time. They do not merely decorate the text. Rather, they render a powerful visual image of the epoch, an effect which is achieved through careful, thoughtful selection and placement. Many of the assorted illustrations are presented for the first time.
The historical territory covered by Ekshtut's book begins in the epoch of Catherine the Great and ends with the reign of Alexander II. The book is an unusual combination of historical research, literary biography, and historico-philosophical meditation. Clearly, the entire presentation is intended to create an emotional impression, rather than simply appeal to the intellect (though it does this as well). Ekshtut succeeds in allowing the reader to hear the voices of the historical actors, to listen to their arguments, and to sympathize with their problems. The source materials from the Tretoe odelenie Sobstvennoi ego imperatorskogo velichestva kantseliarii i korpusa zhandarmov, the intelligence organ that kept the tsar apprised of the thoughts of his subjects, are especially interesting. The reports of the Tretoe odelenie were not written for the press, were therefore uncensored, and give the impression of openness and honesty. This material is new and carefully documented.
This author (or, perhaps "author-philosopher") is not constrained by the ordinary conventions of the historical monograph. Ekshtut appropriately defines the genre of Na sluzhbe as a "historiosophical experiment." It is clearly no monograph (nor does it pretend to be). Ekshtut violates the conventions of standard historical monography in two respects. First of all, Ekshtut's book is not structured on a linear chronology: events of a later period are sometimes presented before earlier ones. The author's argument unfolds according to its own logic, rather than that of an imposed chronology. Second, Ekshtut often employs counter-factuals. He stresses that historical events are not predetermined: given different circumstances, historical events could have transpired differently. This premise allows Ekshtut to hypothetically model counterfactual historical situations. Many historians object to such techniques, arguing that they are more appropriate to artistic fantasy than scientific endeavors such as history. Yet, as Ekshtut demonstrates, counterfactuals allow us to determine to some degree [End Page 203] which events were crucial to the course of history and which were incidental. Obviously, in order to effectively use counterfactuals the historian must have a thorough understanding of the epoch, for only this knowledge will make him able to separate the necessary from the accidental. The use of counterfactuals in Russian historiography is not new: in his own time N. Eidel'man attempted to consider what might have happened to Russia if the Decembrists had succeeded in seizing power in 1825. Ekshtut repeats this attempt in his own, very interesting, variant. His analysis is built on the predictions of contemporaries, for whom the range of possibilities were still open. Ekshut uses these statements to model events along lines hoped for by participants, even though they never came about.
The focus of the book is the nobility and their desire to "faithfully and correctly serve the tsar and the country." According to Ekshtut, service was the center of the Russian nobility's interests, ambitions, honor. Therefore, the concept of service is at the center of Ekshtut's attention. The book's argument unfolds on two planes. First, a general description of the hallmarks of the epoch is rendered: the aggressive policy of Catherine II, which offered her subjects opportunities to build careers through service, and the careerist struggles of the two estates (soslovie) on which the Russian government was based – the nobility and the administrative class. Ekshtut makes clear that the mentality of the noble estate was such that "success in life was associated with monarchical favor, a brilliant career, a place in the pages of History, but not with home, family, or a circle of...