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  • Renovating Russia: The Human Sciences and the Fate of Liberal Modernity, 1880-1930
  • Marina Mogilner
Daniel Beer , Renovating Russia: The Human Sciences and the Fate of Liberal Modernity, 1880-1930. ix+229 pp. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008. ISBN-13 978-0801446276. $45.00.

This is an important and innovative book that investigates models and terms for social and political analysis offered by turn-of-the-century Russian experts in the "human sciences"—that is, criminology, psychology, and psychiatry. By putting together a broad picture of the circulation of biomedical discourses in the late 19th to early 20th centuries in Russia, the book joins a by now well-established trend aimed at returning studies of Russia/USSR to the framework of European modernity (thus normalizing Russian history and rejecting Sonderweg notions). At the same time, by exploring nuances of the Russian reception of Western concepts of degeneration, born criminality, moral contagion, and the like, the book points to specific features of Russian modernity. According to Daniel Beer, these were formed by the optimistic evolutionism of the era of the Great Reforms and by postreform disappointment; by experiences of revolution and political terror that brought to the fore the theme of the uncontrolled nature of the crowd; and by the "etiological catch" of viewing "degeneration" as the result of the existing sociopolitical order, which, therefore, demanded the radical revolutionary transformation so frightening to liberal professionals. Finally, Russian "liberal modernity" was a project of social modernization in a country that lacked a modern citizen-subject as a basic element of the rationally organized and scientifically regulated society.

In the opening chapter, "Morel's Children," Beer begins his ambitious textual analysis with the study Usovershenstvovanie i vyrozhdenie chelovecheskogo roda (The Improvement and Degeneration of the Human Race) by Vasilii Markovich Florinskii. He identifies this text published in 1866 as the earliest example of a systematic treatment of degeneration theory in Russia (39), an early stage of turning the concept of degeneration into a lens through which experts in the human sciences considered the promises and disappointments of the Great Reforms. Developing this line of analysis, Beer turns to the narratives of heredity and types of pathologies derived from the legacy of serfdom, economic backwardness, and a low level of mass education.

Another line of Beer's analysis is connected with the classical Foucauldian theme of experts' claims to superior social and political authority in modern [End Page 661] society. Beer complicates this model by stressing that Russian experts in the human sciences were not sure how their knowledge could be employed to correct a pathological social dynamic. They viewed Russian hereditary pathologies and the Russian "environment" of modernity as equally violent, unhealthy, and irrational. As Beer explains, when a society as a whole is pervaded by the abnormal, it is hard to confidently diagnose specific examples of abnormality. The chapter "The Etiology of Degeneration" specifically deals with the factors of modernity that were thought to foster the degeneration of the population. It is in this context that Beer treats biomedical discourses of capitalism, rapid urbanization, crime, and mass political participation. His main focus in this part of the book is the Russian reception of Cesare Lombroso's criminal anthropology. Russian criminologists, according to Beer, rejected the concept of biological atavism in favor of degeneration, as the latter concept recognized biological and psychological differences between deviants and the healthy majority but retained the importance of the "environment" factor. They blamed social forces for the activation of criminal impulses. In the 1910s, this discourse positing social causation of biological mechanisms was supplemented by a language of social responsibility. The application of degeneration theory to the genesis of crime thus held out the possibility of its eventual eradication through changing an unhealthy social environment. As Beer argues, Russian criminal anthropologists called for reforms of socioeconomic conditions along with the isolation of those persons having a criminal predisposition. Both theoretical urges, concludes Beer, "would ... find their apotheosis in the revolutionary project of the Bolsheviks" (130).

The chapter "Microbes of the Mind" leads to a similar conclusion. It is the power of the revolutionary crowd and the threat of mass politics that provide a context...


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