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  • Michael Confino (1926-2010)
  • Alessandro Stanziani

Michael Confino was not only one of the greatest historians of imperial Russia but also one of the few who were able to connect the historiography of Russia with that of other countries. For this, he was recognized by a worldwide community of historians and social scientists.

Born in Sofia in 1926, he attended university in that city in 1945-48. He emigrated in 1948 to Israel, where he was a kibbutz member, a political activist, and a high-school teacher of history and sociology. In 1955, he decided to complete his studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1955-57) and in Paris, where he received his doctorate from the Sorbonne in 1959 under the supervision of Roger Portal. Confino was highly influential in the development of Russian studies in Israel: he founded and chaired (1964-69) the Department of Russian Studies at Hebrew University, chaired the Russian and East European Research Center at Tel Aviv University from 1971 to 1977, and held the Samuel Rubin Chair of Russian and European History and Civilization at Tel Aviv University from 1980 to 1995.

Throughout his life, he was a path-breaking scholar who never lost his taste for questioning tendencies and categories in historiography that were uncritically accepted by others, such as "the Russian leviathan," "the revolutionary intelligentsia," "the passive peasant," or "Russian mentalities." He began working in the 1960s on agrarian relations in tsarist Russia. At the time, debate focused on the role of the Russian state in the rise of serfdom and on the passage "from feudalism to capitalism." The young Confino drew inspiration from a debate that was taking place at the same time among European medievalists. Following the seminal works of Marc Bloch (published from the 1910s through the 1930s), historians were progressively accepting the idea that feudalism had never existed as a system and that European serfdom was less a legal construction than a social practice. These new insights shattered the Marxist theory of historical stages as well as liberal interpretations of "the end of feudalism." [End Page 930]

When extended to tsarist Russia, as in Confino's work, this analysis was radically disruptive. The very existence of "feudalism" in Russia was now under attack, and with it the entire Marxist and Soviet interpretation of Russian history—namely, the presumed passage from feudalism to capitalism under late tsarism and hence the historical explanation for the revolution. Confino refused to acknowledge serfdom as a system opposed to capitalism. According to him, the peasants felt bound to their landlords not because they were compelled by the law but because the peasant commune governed the entire agrarian economy, including seigniorial tenure. The peasants were willing to feed the landowners insofar as the latter served the tsar. Indeed, the three-field system was intimately linked to the peasant commune's practices of redistribution and to the relationships thereby created not only within the village but also between peasants and landlords. The Russian village thus formed a coherent system, and the peasants dictated their organization and rhythms to the landlords, not the other way around.1 Thanks to Confino, this approach has been widely accepted and remains widespread among scholars even now.2

This line of argument led Confino to smash another icon of Russian historiography: the role of the state. The conventional Marxist and liberal historiographies of Russia stressed the powerful role of the state, which was described as having promoted serfdom and controlled the continuities and changes in Russian history. A continuous line was drawn from medieval Rus' to the Soviet state. The corollary was the lack of a civil society, which was considered a mere passive recipient of state action—a "well-ordered society," in Marc Raeff's terms. Confino firmly criticized this approach. According to him, society did exist in imperial Russia, and it was not obliterated by the state. There was no such thing as a "divorce between state and society." As he recently summarized his main point, "if such a pervasive alienation did exist, it would have signified that there were no social relations between the groups, and if there were no such relations, then there would have...


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