- Nests of the Gentry: Family, Estate, and Local Loyalties in Provincial Russia, and: The House in the Garden: The Bakunin Family and the Romance of Russian Idealism, and: Serfdom, Society, and the Arts in Imperial Russia: The Pleasure and the Power
Both on the book market and at conventions, the 18th and early 19th centuries in Russian history often appear to be put in second place. One reason for this might be the impression of a somewhat slower tempo of change in this time when compared to the late imperial era, not to mention Soviet times. Closely connected to this appearance of stagnation is the image of the 18th century as a time of the elite, possibly of interest only to those historians who are prepared to restrict themselves to a consideration of high culture. Moreover, the traditional concept of the Age of Enlightenment, while making the century so intriguing to historians of earlier decades, strictly limits its popularity today: in an academic culture fascinated with formerly neglected spheres and social groups, the pre-reform period, in particular the 18th century, appears to be too beautiful, too smooth, too high-end. The available documents, both archival and published, seem to support this notion; authors who want to introduce social strata other than the elite often struggle with a lack of source material.1 In particular, the studies of peasant lives in the late imperial period have no equivalent in the historiography of [End Page 655] the pre-reform era.2 It may thus appear to some superficial observers of the book market that significant questions, with a broad social range and a valid archival basis, can be asked only from the year 1861 on.
Yet the most interesting recent scholarly work on the time from Peter’s reign up until Alexander II’s reforms thoroughly revises this traditional—and only apparently progressive—view. Many authors have picked up on mainstream topics in recent years, employing the wide range of questions, ideas, and language of cultural studies and opening fresh perspectives on the Russian past.3 However interesting these novel studies may be, many seemingly traditional and well-known topics are still far from exhausted. One such general topic is the nobility’s way of life and thought in imperial Russia before the Great Reforms. Far from merely elaborating nostalgic images of a lost noble culture, new studies are investigating ideas and cultural practices for their meaning in the pre-reform autocracy.4 The late 18th and early 19th centuries, it turns out, were a time of profound changes in many people’s minds. They accordingly offer a basis for intellectual history in the best sense, one that acknowledges the long-term social significance of the individual and the political meaning of the intellectual.5 The significance of this period should indeed be sought not only in its political institutions, which in fact did not experience fundamental change, but rather in its intellectual shifts, which were far more substantial.
The effort to understand these shifts requires us to abandon or modify certain ideas of progress and development shaped by West European history. Consider, for example, how Elise Wirtschafter adapted the insights of Jürgen Habermas concerning the public sphere and civil society by insisting [End Page 656] on a conception of “civic” society.6 Her modification of terminology was sufficiently gentle to retain the basic idea of open communication, enlightened thought, and cultivated criticism but clear enough to allow for an appropriate and non-judgmental consideration of the educated society of the Russian Enlightenment. “Civic” society is not per se political; ideas and values developed through individual morality rather than...