- Private Lives and Public Spaces in Imperial Russia
In recent years, historians have increasingly concentrated on the history of private life, inspired by the traditions established by the Annales school and Jürgen Habermas.1 The historiography of imperial Russia has been enriched by dozens of studies of various aspects of private life in cities and in rural Russia. This review focuses on three recent studies of private everyday life in Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries. They have three elements in common. First, they examine how the idea of private life was interpreted by various social strata and under different circumstances. Second, most of [End Page 215] their materials concern Russian provincial life.2 Finally, all the works employ the microhistorical method and are based on little-used letters, diaries, and memoirs.
Microhistory as a methodology in historical writing first appeared in Europe and the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.3 The USSR, then Russia, were latecomers, and the first similar studies based on Russian materials began to appear only in the late 1980s. Philological and cultural studies were the first disciplines to deploy this method (above all, Iurii Lotman’s Tartu school); among historians, the first were medievalists studying Western Europe (for example, Aron Gurevich with his Categories of Medieval Culture).4
Over the last 20 years, historical anthropology has finally become prominent in Russianist studies, both in Russia and in the West. But despite hundreds of articles of this kind, larger studies are still rare. This dearth relates to the difficulty of finding a compact and complete set of sources, such as the diaries of the US midwife Martha Ballard or the Russian merchant Ivan Tolchënov, which enable a full-scale microhistorical study.5
The three books under review concern different historical epochs and different levels of practices of private life. The earliest chronologically is the collection edited by Andrew Kahn, which deals not only with Russia but other countries as well—France, Italy, and England. The 4 articles out of 14 that deal with Russia interpret the period from Peter the Great to Catherine the Great as the age when individualistic aspirations and desires first ripened within Russian society. The collection is interdisciplinary and includes articles from historians and philologists studying different aspects of private life: religious experience (Viktor Zhivov), gentry writing (Irina Reyfman), gardens as public space (Andreas Schönle), and the acquisition of self-knowledge [End Page 216] through sexual experience accompanied by infection from venereal disease (Andrei Zorin).
The monograph by Katherine Pickering Antonova presents virtually all aspects of the private life of a middling noble provincial family in the 1820s–60s: birth and death, illness and health, motherhood and fatherhood, economic life and interaction with neighbors, and the conceptualization of one family’s position in provincial society and in Russia’s estate hierarchy.
Svetlana Malysheva’s book examines the sphere of leisure and cultural communication, attempting to trace the development of free time and entertainment in the public sphere in 1860–1914, the period when Russian urban space became municipalized after the Great Reforms. Considerable attention is given to the discourse of dialogue and conflict among the multiconfessional population of Kazan, in which the cultural preferences of Russian Orthodox and Muslim Tatar inhabitants did not always coincide.
All three books address crucial methodological and empirical questions. How can one use private life to understand the rigidly hierarchical structure of Russian society? And just how rigid was this social matrix? To what extent did it permit individual development in...