- Ordinary People in Russian and Soviet History
The topics of these books are unconnected, but their subject is shared. Superficially one is about soccer in Moscow, one about peasant politics in one province, one about political nonelites in two provinces, and one about armed rebellion in still another province. Their chronologies range from eight months to a century. But they address a similar problem: how seemingly unremarkable and purportedly powerless people can be given significance in historical narratives of Russia and the USSR. This is not a neutral or innocent undertaking, and it requires a certain aesthetic leap: the reader may need to accept in advance that it is worthwhile to study people whose only shared [End Page 739] characteristic is their contradistinction to formal political power, sometimes their violent confrontation with the state, and often their victimhood. The books also share the methodological problem of how to make productive use of emotive negatives—people defined by their lack of formal political power, by their location outside of government, or by their hopeless confrontations with the state’s coercive organs. This is partly a matter of personal political preferences—a liking for the victim and the unexalted—but more usefully it is a problem of analytic categories. Indeed, there is little consensus in these books regarding what to name such people. Legal and sociological categories like workers and peasants fall apart under scrutiny and in light of their more encompassing symbolic dimensions; distinctions between elite and nonelite dissolve in the midst of a revolution and the longer-term transformation from superordinate rule to mass politics; and narrower terms like insurgents offer accuracy but less interpretive weight. Our categories and optics matter very much, because they guide us to our sources and inform how we treat them. These books offer some contrasting strategies.
It is tempting to call such people and their lives “ordinary,” and two of the books explicitly adopt the term. The literature on “ordinary people” is growing, and many a colleague and graduate student will tell us with solemnity that they want to lend voice to the voiceless, empower the powerless, and speak truth to power.1 The more dispassionate version has it that we wish to highlight experiences that have not been considered because the people in question were “ordinary” and their experiences “everyday” (the close cousin of “ordinary”). The issue becomes ticklish as soon as one thinks about it—and think we should—because “ordinary” is neither historical nor precise; and the questions we pose are potentially oxymoronic: What did the voiceless say? What did the powerless do? Saddled with the concept of ordinary, we risk losing sight of the category’s usefulness: to show that the people we term ordinary are in fact extraordinary when viewed through the right lens and with creative imagination on the part of the historian.
Robert Edelman’s Spartak Moscow is a good example of the genre. Beautifully written and focused on the dissonances of the Soviet system (club versus club, fan versus police), one is given a recentered view of Soviet history through the drama of a single soccer team and its fan base in the Presnia neighborhood of Moscow. The approach is productive, because the author’s sense of context stretches from the field to the stadium, from the neighborhood to the Central Committee, and finally to geopolitics and the international setting of soccer. One needs a sense...