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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 5.1 (2004) 1-6

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New Wine in New Bottles?

This special issue of Kritika is devoted to the "new political history." What, then, is this beast, "the new political history"?

Obviously, a political approach to Russian and Soviet history is not "new"—in fact, it was long the do minant mode of analysis. This was often political history in its traditional register: the study of "high politics," deploying a top-down model of causality and, at times, drawing on methodologies from a field that produced many Sovietologists, political science. Owing to broader shifts in the historical field, as well as limitations in source material for both the imperial and Soviet periods, the focus then changed. "Traditional" political history, as Sheila Fitzpatrick discusses in her contribution to this issue, gave way first to the "heyday" of what was once known as the new social history, and then, more recently, to the new cultural history. The title of this special issue draws attention to the fact that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, political history has enjoyed something of a renaissance. Improved archival access and an invigorated interest in political history among Russian scholars have generated a spate of new work. Much of it builds on older forms of political history, but it has also pursued new directions such as those suggested by cultural studies and anthropology. In the broadest terms, the new political history can be understood as a multifaceted engagement with "the political" after an extended hiatus. Because of the explosion of different kinds of history in the intervening years, however, there can be no return to the status quo ante: "the political" now means something different.

In the Russian context, the new political history posits the existence of a field of political practices that encompasses political parties but extends beyond them. 1 While there are many ways of understanding this shift, the "new" political history seems to have several core features: an understanding of politics as a complex of interrelated practices, rather than simply government decrees and party resolutions; an attention to the interplay of high politics at the national level with everyday local politics, as demonstrated in [End Page 1] several recent local studies; and a tendency to eschew monocausal explanatory models, be they ideological, social, or political. (Michael David-Fox's contribution in particular addresses this last question.) The new political history, then, seeks to examine the political in conjunction with, rather than in opposition to, other registers.

In part, the term "new political history" reflects a general shift away from the paradigm of social history, at least as it was practiced during its "heyday" in the 1970s. A powerful trend in all fields of history during the past decade has been a renewed emphasis on the role of politics and culture in shaping historical actors' worldviews, suggesting how "social" categories were themselves framed by larger discursive or political concepts. For the French Revolution, for instance, Keith Michael Baker has demonstrated how these concepts shaped the horizons and actions of important players. A major concern has been to reinsert the political, broadly conceived, into existing narratives constructed in the spirit of social history—"a shift from Marx to Tocqueville, from a basically social approach to a basically political one." 2

In our field, this shift occurred at a particular historical juncture—the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent "archival revolution." 3 With few exceptions, the Soviet variant of political history combined socio—economic Marxism—Leninism with an exaggerated conception of the Bolshevik Party's role. The liberalization of the archives, however, has opened up vast materials on political actors and movements that had previously been closed to scholars; for example, the collections of several non—Bolshevik parties are housed in the former Central Party Archive and were simply not available to researchers. Russian scholars have provided an equally important impetus to the "new Russian political history." At its best, their work—which also includes monographs and reference works...


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