- Portrait of a Russian Province: Economy, Society, and Civilization in Nineteenth-Century Nizhnii Novgorod by Catherine Evtuhov
Catherine Evtuhov begins this celebrated1 book as so many historians of Russia begin their books: with reference to the historiographical implications of the Soviet Union’s demise. But whereas many point to the ways in which the breakup of the Soviet state along the ethnoterritorial lines it drew has prompted historians to examine the imperial, multiethnic nature of the Russian Empire, Evtuhov speaks to the contemporary search for a “usable past,” for “elements in Russian society itself that may provide guidance or examples for today” (P. xi). And whereas the historiography of the Russian Empire has often been guided by negative questions – “What went wrong?”; “Why was there a revolution?” – Evtuhov points to more positive impulses behind her book: a “possibly naïve wish simply to travel to the interior,” and a desire to explore the provincial roots of the Russian Silver Age, the subject [End Page 273] of her previous research (P. xi).2 The result is a provocative, meticulous, even affectionate portrait of nineteenth-century Nizhnii Novgorod province that calls into question basic assumptions about the Russian past and its place within the broader story of European history.
Portrait of a Russian Province is a very welcome contribution to recent scholarly work on provincial life in nineteenth-century Russia.3 More specifically, it takes its place alongside a growing number of works that put spatial questions at the center of analysis.4 Indeed, Evtuhov describes her approach as “entirely place-specific,” operating “on the premise that the most basic of human beings’ activities play out in entirely concrete surroundings and that we must first understand specific locally circumscribed interactions before proceeding to analysis in terms of sociological categories (class, status, civil society) or generalized historical processes (industrialization, urbanization, modernization)” (P. 6). This is the fundamental point of the book. Evtuhov’s aim here is not that of kraevedenie, to study a locale for its own sake, but rather to pursue the “deconstruction of nineteenth-century Russia into smaller provincial units, and a subsequent reconstruction that will provide us with a revised vision of the country as a whole” (P. 9).
This goal in mind, Evtuhov organizes her book in an “inductive” fashion. Early chapters treat the “organic province,” focusing on environments, economic activities, and social structures (chapters 2–6: “Soil, Forest, River: The Ecology of Provincial Life”; “Urban Topography”; “Rhythms: The Local Economy”; “An Artisanal Case Study: The Southeast”; and “Social Space: Numbers, Images, Biographies”). Remaining chapters build on these to “turn to the ways in which the province was inscribed in national patterns, identifying ‘structures’—largely given by the central administration—and ‘visions,’ sometimes [End Page 274] overpowering the central impetus, with which individuals and institutions responded on the local level” (P. 21) (chapters 7–11: “Managing the Province: Local Administration”; “The Cadastral Map in the Service of the Zemstvo”; “Church and Religion”; “Provincial Cultural Nests”; and “The Idea of Province”).
Evtuhov’s attention to detail – and, especially, the ways in which she employs seeming minutiae to effective historiographical ends – is remarkable. Chapter 2, “Soil Forest, River: The Ecology of Provincial Life,” can serve as an example. Most historians of Russia throw the phrase “on the ground” around from time to time, whether in reference to the disconnect between Petersburg-produced paperwork and “on the ground” realities of provincial governance or peasant life, or to the famed “gap” between intelligentsia and elite cultural life and the “on the ground” concerns of the vast majority of the empire’s subjects. But Evtuhov is more literal in her approach, exploring the ground itself: whether the new ways in which nineteenth-century researchers cataloged the soil; the formative influence of forests on human activities – and human activities on forests; the constant shifting of the riverine ecosystems and the bountiful “fluvial lexicon” they spawned; or the relationship between that constant ecological flux (in particular, the...