- Crossing Intellectual Borders
At a certain point, many, though not all, historians are inclined to take stock and sum up the experiences they have gathered over years or decades of research and writing. Most limit their theoretical or methodological reflections to short introductions or prefaces to their main works, formats that serve to explicate the philosophy or method that usually runs between the lines in their writing. Their motivations to explain their methodological prerequisites and tools at some length vary and may include paradigm shifts and ruptures in perception and perspective as well as discontinuities and breaks in the historical process itself. A scholar may also be prompted to undertake such systematic reflection once he or she has mastered the complexities of very complex histories. Michael David-Fox, who, over the past two decades, has presented groundbreaking studies on the cultural relations between the Soviet Union and the Western world and the evolution of higher learning in the 1920s, among other subjects, has now published a volume containing both a number of well-researched field studies that open up issues that have long been ignored or neglected by the historiography on 20th-century Russia and a series of systematic deliberations about the conceptual aspects of the historiography of the USSR.
The title binding this collection of eight essays together may be read as programmatic: Crossing Borders. David-Fox is obviously thinking of the borders between the major competing schools and interpretations in (Western) historiography and of transgressions of the boundaries between disciplines that too often curtail the fertility of research and sever connections that are indispensable for efforts to grasp problems in history in their entirety and contextualize them. [End Page 926]
Most chapters of David-Fox’s book deal with theoretical and conceptual questions such as recent debates in Russian and Soviet history over multiple modernities and neotraditionalism or the problem of how to deal with the primacy of ideas and ideology in the historical process; others are brilliant, if fragmentary, archival studies, “thick descriptions” of relationships, milieus, and intellectual networks connecting Soviet culture to the outside world. The predominance of theoretical interests in the collection obviously reflects the intellectual curriculum vitae of a historian who, in the post-Soviet decades, wrote pioneering works on the 1920s and 1930s, the enigma of Stalin’s Russia, with a focus on intellectual and cultural milieus and institutions; the earliest essay in the volume was originally published in 1999. The reader is invited to navigate the churning seas of competing interpretations and concepts in Soviet history and to try to steer a course past its Scylla and Charybdis: the dichotomy of Soviet exceptionalism, on the one hand, and shared modernity, on the other. The author’s proposition is a “third way, a via media or a move to the radical center—past the dueling binary oppositions that have shaped modern Russian studies” (4). David-Fox presents theoretical and empirical methods for combining the investigation of particularisms with the pursuit of comparability. “The vehicle” of this voyage, he writes, “is a collection of essays that integrates work on topics that have preoccupied me for the better part of two decades” (4). Its first component is theoretical: “the conceptualization of major problems of the Russian/Soviet historical trajectory, including the problems of modernity and ideology.” The second involves “archival and primary research on the culture and politics of the early Soviet order.” The third is “historiography and the broader history of the field” (4).
The opening chapter touches on the crucial problem of how and where to place the Soviet revolution in the framework of the political and social evolution that, from the outset, “shadowed” the country’s revolutionary transformation. David-Fox hopes to overcome the binarism of the modernity/neotraditionalist discourse and proposes that we “take modernity as a lens, a heuristic device rather than a problem that can be solved with some sort of aggressively formulated thesis or empirical breakthrough” (7). On the question of exceptionalism vs. shared modernity, he is...