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  • An Interview with Laura Engelstein

Any list of the most important figures in the field of Russian history would surely include Laura Engelstein, recently retired as Henry S. McNeil Professor of Russian History from Yale University. Renowned for her incisive mind and her analytical acuity, Engelstein has played a crucial role in enhancing our understanding of the complex interplay of social, cultural, intellectual, and political forces in the late imperial period. Her scholarship has ranged widely to address workers and collective action, sexuality and the public sphere, deviance in different forms, liberalism and its antipodes, and—most recently—atrocities in World War I. She is the author of three monographs and a volume of her own essays, and is the co-editor of an interdisciplinary collection of articles.1 She has trained numerous graduate students who occupy prominent positions in our profession and has provided yeoman service to this very journal, including a major review essay, a comment in our special issue on political violence, and an original research article in our special issue on the entangled histories of Russia and Germany in 1914–45.2 Kritika is therefore delighted to present the interview below.

After a stazhirovka in Moscow in 1973–74 and the completion of her Ph.D. at Stanford in 1976 under Terence Emmons, Engelstein took a position at Cornell as the second woman ever hired by the History Department there. [End Page 679] Those years saw the completion of her first monograph, which analyzed patterns of working-class behavior in the course of the revolution of 1905 in Moscow. That book skillfully analyzed “the political school of revolution”— to use Rosa Luxemburg’s expression—in order to trace the effects of that experience on the working class’s forms of collective action, its conflict with other social groups, and its organization building. Engelstein’s emphasis was on the “remarkable degree of autonomy” that the working class exhibited and on its capacity to wrest civil rights from the government and “to take part in the political process along with the larger community.”3

As she made the move to Princeton in 1985, Engelstein turned toward the question of sexuality and began the extensive research that informed her monumental Keys to Happiness, which in 1993 won the Wayne S. Vucinich Prize (of what was then called the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies [AAASS]) and shared the Heldt Prize (of the Association of Women in Slavic Studies).4 Addressing not only sex but also the public sphere, liberalism, law, and authority, that book analyzed the role that sexual ideology played “in the struggle for public power and cultural influence waged between the old regime and the new social forces unleashed by the state’s own program of modernization.” Here she exhibited an acute sensitivity to the peculiarities of the Russian case and in particular the position of Russia’s professionals, who were excluded from power and thus drawn into alliance with disgruntled groups from below even as they remained culturally related to those above them. She also highlighted the contradictions produced when the Great Reforms created the rudiments of a civil order “within the confines of an unmodified political frame.”5 In a powerful analysis, Engelstein revealed the deep ambivalences that plagued Russian liberals based on the specificities of Russia’s political and social order during decades of dramatic change. In effect, through an examination of sex and its adjudication in diverse contexts, she described the birth pangs of the modern liberal order in Russia—an order that failed to survive its own delivery.

A major goal of The Keys to Happiness was to test the relevance of Foucault for the Russian case. “Foucault’s concept of sexuality had indeed provided the starting point for the project,” Engelstein wrote subsequently, but “[m]y purpose was to explore, not ratify his theory.” Reactions to The Keys to [End Page 680] Happiness convinced her that she had to make her approach—starting with Foucault’s idea but “differing from his method”—more explicit.6 The result was her critical essay “Combined Underdevelopment,” the centerpiece of a special forum in the American Historical Review.7 Here Engelstein considered how...


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