- Voices from the Regions:Kraevedenie Meets the Grand Narrative
A couple of years ago, I received an invitation from Sergei Liubichankovskii to participate in an online forum on local government and administration in the postreform Russian Empire, focusing on what organizers defined as the "Volga-Ural region." I was struck by the originality of the format and the importance of the issues at hand and thought I could be most useful by helping to bring that discussion to the attention of Kritika readers. How are issues of provincial life and local governance inscribed in larger narratives of Russian history?
The two cycles of this online discussion reflect the encounter of two distinct traditions in history writing. The first, more intimate conversation focusing on the Volga-Ural region in particular builds on the practice of local studies or kraevedenie—an idiographic approach to the investigation of a particular region. The second cycle, by generalizing the questions addressed, as well as nationalizing and internationalizing the list of participants, seeks to inscribe the discussion in "grand narratives" of nation and empire.
How was Russia governed? The multiplicity of answers—and significant lack of consensus among the discussants—reveals a remarkably dim overall understanding of this fundamental (and oft-posed) question.1 Was the empire a highly centralized autocracy with a sprawling and inefficient bureaucracy peopled by lazy officials drowning in a sea of paperwork? Were the provinces left to their own devices, managing their local affairs as best they could in the absence of central directives? How did decisive measures, most notably the reforms of the 1860s, reach fruition on the ground—or did they? How much [End Page 877] autonomy did local officials have, and were there differences depending on distance from the center and presence or absence of local institutions? What were the differences between the "metropole" of zemstvo European Russia and the "colonial" borderlands and peripheries? The nature of respondents' answers clearly depends first of all on the particular area that interests them: I see a fairly clear subdivision into the central European provinces, the "liminal" Volga-Ural region, and finally the imperial borderlands.
The central Russian provinces were in fact the focal point of the reforms of the 1860s; understanding the mechanisms at work in this core area is arguably the first step in evaluating governance in the larger empire. Represented here by Orel, Kaluga, Iaroslavl´, Saratov, Nizhnii Novgorod, and Belgorod, the central provinces were distinguished by a relatively complex architecture of local government institutions with potentially overlapping jurisdictions. The governor—whose office was centrally appointed—stood at the apex. After 1864, each district (uezd) elected a district zemstvo whose business was discharged for most of the year by a zemstvo board; these institutions culminated in a similarly structured provincial zemstvo for the province as a whole. Parallel to the provincial system, municipal dumas were elected in the cities, while peasant townships (volosti) had their own councils of elders. The judicial reform, in the meantime, established courts at the district and provincial level, while consolidating a separate township system for the peasant estate; ecclesiastical courts functioned alongside secular institutions, attending to crucial matters of family life. Elena Morozova makes the important point that the 1864 legislation itself was very vague on the precise mechanisms and interrelations of the various institutions and most certainly did not introduce a concept of "self-government" at the local level. How then did this structure actually work in practice?
Alexander Herzen made the inimitable observation that "the power of the governor increases directly in proportion to distance from Petersburg, but geometrically in such places where there is no nobility, such as Perm´, Viatka, and Siberia."2 Nonetheless, participants largely agree that even in the central provinces governors had significant powers, and that they imprinted their personal style on their tenure in office. As the questionnaire asks, was the governor the "true boss" (nachal´nik) of his province? Artem Guliaran (Orel), for example, goes so far as to claim that the power of the governors was virtually unlimited. There are, however, caveats of two types. First, [End Page 878] several participants suggest that there were other individuals in the province...