- Importing the "Spatial Turn" to RussiaRecent Studies on the Spatialization of Russian History
The speed with which methodological "turns" come and go seems to be getting faster by the year. Russian history is not a field known for methodological innovations but instead has often profited from the advantages of being a conceptual late-comer. The "return of space" in Russian history of recent years is one such case: what has empirically been tested and methodologically fine-tuned in the West is now being fruitfully applied to Eurasia.1 Space and maps, centers and peripheries—these are some of the topics of growing [End Page 359] interest in a variety of fields, including the New Imperial History, urban history, and nationality studies.2 The three studies reviewed here are all indicative of, and engendered by, this spatial turn. Each book is so rich, and their differences are so salient, that it makes sense first to review each on its own terms and then, in a concluding section, draw out points of convergence.
The "text" of a city has a fundamentally spatial dimension, as we learn from Julie Buckler's wonderfully readable and beautifully designed book. Buckler takes a new look at the cultural map of St. Petersburg, as presented by an established canon of texts on imperial Petersburg. She is, then, interested in the city's matrix of symbolically significant places as formed by literary texts from a variety of genres. Her focus is on the cultural, literary, social, and geographic "middle ground," since the "sociocultural middle" (5) has not been accorded enough attention in Russia, and especially in Petersburg. So far, the analysis of texts, sociocultural places, and actors has been restricted to the upper and lower segments of the hierarchy. The story that has been told is one of palaces and slums, of "pampered aristocrats" and the "desperate poor" (1–3). In reality, however, Buckler tells us, it is the middle spaces and places, the interstices, that constitute the spheres of mediation where culture in general and the Petersburg text in particular is negotiated. Nowhere does [End Page 360] this become more apparent than in the middle ground where the raznochintsy and meshchane cavort and produce a highly eclectic—and highly mediocre—literature that is hard to label with a single genre. Here, the urban topography has in store places of intersection between rich and poor, between those at the top and those at the bottom.
Buckler attempts to access this middle ground of the imperial metropolis via literature. She aims at a reconstruction and deconstruction of the "Petersburg text." According to Vladimir Toporov and Iurii Lotman, this "text" consists of works that have contributed to the creation of a symbolic structure for the capital on the Neva. At the same time, however, these works are themselves shaped by the very structure that the signified city provides. Seen this way, Petersburg emerges as a "structuring structure" that authors must deal with one way or another. Every new contribution therefore perforce refers to the existing canon, its topoi, and the corresponding genres.3 Writings about Petersburg constantly reinvent the city, but at the same time they remain locked in the established pattern of interpretation.
Buckler basically agrees with the Toporov–Lotman thesis, but she stretches the "Petersburg text" considerably by integrating lesser known, hybrid, and "middle" genres, such as feuilletons, ethnographic sketches, memoirs, or travel literature. These genres are located at the very margins of the Petersburg text. Nevertheless, they influence the process of cultural mapping. Because of their obsession with the high forms of canonic literature, most...