- "I vot obshchestvennoe mnenie!" Kluby v istorii rossiiskoi obshchestvennosti, konets XVIII–nachalo XX vv, and: Obshchestvennye organizatsii i russkaia publika v nachale XX veka
Tsarist Russia was not known as a nation of joiners. A personalized autocracy and arbitrary officialdom erected many barriers to the exercise of associative private initiative. The government was ever vigilant regarding the intrusion of private individuals into the public realm. Nevertheless, private associations, sanctioned by the government, did constitute a public; and by the beginning of the 20th century, Russia had more than 10,000 civil associations. They comprised the same range of organizations that existed at the time in Europe and North America, from metropolitan learned societies to small-town charitable and agricultural societies, from medical associations to clubs for leisure, recreation, and sport. After decades of neglect, Russian and Western historians have begun to recognize their significance.1 Two of the best are I. S. Rozental´ and A. S. Tumanova. [End Page 249]
Russian clubs, associations, and "the public" must be viewed in the context of a long-term European trajectory, something not done in the two books under review. In the view of old regime absolute rulers, according to Keith Michael Baker, there was "no public apart from the person of the king."2 Nevertheless, in early modern Europe, a public, a space where private individuals came together to deliberate about common matters, did emerge apart from the person of the king. Indeed, monarchs found it useful to sanction certain publics for the prestige and prosperity of the realm. The physical spaces where the ruler's subjects could articulate opinions were the coffee houses and salons, theaters and opera houses, museums and lecture halls, printers and publishers, and parks and pleasure gardens of the early modern city. In liberal political thought, rational arguments, unrestrained by tradition and status, constituted "enlightened" public opinion, which in turn was closely connected to representative institutions and legislative powers and to a check on the abuse of authority and privilege. From another perspective, that of those who sought to preserve the status quo in Europe, public opinion was emotional, half-baked, fickle, and easily manipulated. In any event, the public space of voluntary sociability contrasted with the secrecy of the absolute state and the privacy of the family. Because absolute rulers strove to isolate their subjects and claimed to be their sole representative, they vigorously contested an emerging political public.3 [End Page 250]
Especially important sites in the emergence of this public sphere were the clubs and associations of the old regime. Legal entities established on the basis of voluntary agreement and self-definition of goals, written rules, and self-governance, societies and clubs were private gatherings with public significance. On the one hand, they pursued private goals that combined discussion and self-improvement with recreation and (almost exclusively) male sociability. On the other hand, they, or at least a significant number of them, pursued outreach goals of education, philanthropy, and national improvement. For this reason, all continental governments regarded private associations as legitimate concerns of the state. As Carol Harrison observes, French governments, before and after the revolution, were highly suspicious of voluntary associations and treated such bodies as if "they constituted a permanent threat of subversion and a threat to national security."4 Yet despite their public presence and significance in the history of European civil societies, many clubs and associations were informal, ephemeral, and left behind a skimpy documentary record, making their footprint hard for the historian to track.5
Initial hints of civil society and a Russian public came in the second half of the 18th century, when the...