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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 5.1 (2004) 195-206

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The Neopopulist Experience
Default Interpretations and New Approaches

Michael Melancon
Dept. of History
Auburn University
320C Thach Hall
Auburn, AL 36849-5207 USA

Partiia sotsialistov-revoliutsionerov: Dokumenty i materialy [The Socialist Revolutionary Party: Documents and Materials]. 3 vols. Compiled by Nikolai Dmitrievich Erofeev. Vol. 1: 1900-1907 gg. Moscow: ROSSPEN, 1996. 832 pp. ISBN 5-86004-065-2. Vol. 2: Iiun ' 1907 g.-fevral ' 1917 g. [June 1907-February 1917]. Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2001. 584 pp. ISBN 5-82430-170-0. Part of the series Politicheskie partii Rossii: Konets XIX-pervaia tret' XX veka. Dokumental 'noe nasledie [Political Parties in Russia: The End of the 19th and First Third of the 20th Century. The Documentary Inheritance], under the general editorship of Valentin Valentinovich Shelokhaev.

The two document collections on the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) under review here raise perplexing questions. Political movements that never "came to power" leave an impression of impotence. Their fate was defeat without victory, ultimate irrelevance rather than splendid Götterdämmerung. Inevitably their history imparts, even to its chroniclers, a sense of futility. Still, the historical discipline no longer allows us to deal with the past solely in terms of grand victorious movements. Hegel has fallen out of fashion in favor of the counter-historical, the local, the transient, and even the evanescent. We now privilege agency and contingency over structure and the nuances of memory over empirical data. The SRs of 1900-17 unquestionably experienced defeat in full measure; whereas another political group, the Bolsheviks, their rivals, experienced total triumph. To heighten the humiliation, the Mensheviks, rivals and friends of the SRs and close ideological and organizational relatives of the ultimate victors, have enjoyed a better, although not necessarily fuller, historiographical press. Since few real-time observers, except perhaps the Mensheviks themselves, mistook the Mensheviks for a group with greater influence and prospects than the SRs, the latter's real-life defeat finds replication in a second, deeper, symbolic defeat. The legions of analyses of the Russian revolutionary movement, the labor movement, or the February and October Revolutions that portray these events as Bolshevik-Menshevik mediations [End Page 195] only exaggerate this effect. Real defeat in struggle has its sad glory, but to be overlooked is worse. Latter-day "SRs" can comfort themselves with the assurance that tragedy repeats itself as farce.

Still, the day approaches when Russian historiography of the 20th century will experience less trouble than it has had in practicing its craft, or so it seems. We all know the litany. The Cold War is over, the archives are open, the communist regime is gone, and socialism itself is largely discredited. The Owl of Minerva has flown. The stakes are lowered from real life to interpretation. We can now paint in shades of gray. ROSSPEN's voluminous publication of the documents of late tsarist political movements, including the SRs, testifies to this welcome development. ROSSPEN, by the way, is also publishing new histories of Russian political groups, including of the SR Party. All this reminds me of the 1990-91 opening of the Central Party Archive in Moscow. One was still obliged to submit one's notes for inspection to insure that important documents were not copied in toto because, as the administrators insisted, they themselves planned to publish them. At the time, I wondered when and under what auspices. The ambitious ROSSPEN project is the answer, for which we are all grateful.

As regards the new political history, the subject of Kritika's current issue, I often wonder what it is and where it will lead. For many younger scholars, new political history suggests new methodologies. For others it signifies searching out factors and phenomena that we have not yet examined or, perhaps, even knew existed. For still others, it implies avoiding the old debates and the topics that spurred them. During the last decade or so, Russian history journals and publishers have come very close to adhering...


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