- Russian History through the Senses: From 1700 to the Present ed. by Matthew P. Romaniello and Tricia Starks
Cynics might say that the humanities have had more than their share of fashionable methodological “turns,” from the linguistic to the more recent spatial, [End Page 540] material, and affective turns, among others. The “sensory turn” has been emerging since Alain Corbin’s work in the 1980s, though it is Mark M. Smith’s work over the last decade that has had the strongest methodological influence on these authors. Sensory history has been linked to a turn away from purely cultural and discursive models of human experience toward a new materialism, especially of embodied histories. This attention to the centrality, and often “intersensorality,” of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching in how we experience and interpret the external world, as Alexander Martin’s excellent introduction underscores, has led to new understanding of key historical questions, including, in this collection, collective identities (national, gender, ethnic, and other), historical memory, and experiences of war and violence.
Given the conceptual inspiration and concerns of the book, I am inclined to think that the interpretive contributions would be stronger if the book were organized thematically rather than chronologically. The editors chose to divide the chapters into four parts, with the first three titled Imperial Russia, Revolutionary Russia, and Soviet Russia, and the final section, titled Reconstructing Russia, featuring two excellent chapters by literary scholars about postwar collective memory, including post-Soviet memory. In part, the editors chose chronological organization to make an argument: as Martin explains, these periods represented “radical discontinuities in Russian history” (2). In my reading, the deep connections between eras evident in these chapters undermine that argument. A thematically organized volume might be structured around major sites of sensory experience. It might, for example, have a section on food and drink (Alison Smith on interpretations of the taste of fermented food, Tricia Starks on the taste and smell of cigarettes, Aaron Retish on the Udmurt drink kumyshka, and Anton Masterovoy’s history of political efforts to change Soviet food tastes); a section on embodied identities (Matthew Romaniello on assumptions about national bodies and cold climate, Abby Schrader on “market pleasures and prostitution,” Claire Shaw on the politics of deafness and hearing, and Tim Harte on postcommunist cinematic images of the sensory life, especially the stench, of Stalinism); and a section on tormented bodies (Laurie Stoff’s wrenching account of nurses and soldiers in the first world war, Stephen Jug on the embodied experience of soldiers in the second world war, and Adrienne Harris’s exploration of sensory memories of Zoia Kosmodemianskaia’s martyrdom). But I am sure the editors thought of various ways to organize the book, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. So better to focus on the contributions themselves.
There is no space to describe the evidence and arguments in each chapter, so I will highlight a few particularly salient and interesting moments.
One, as noted already, is the theme of the body: as an object and source of history, as a site where materiality and subjectivity intertwine (especially “affect” as embodied emotion), as the ground for experience. We encounter bodies shopping and for sale, cold bodies, dead bodies, murderous bodies, sexual bodies, deaf and silent bodies, disgusting and disgusted bodies.
Identity is a major theme, and perhaps the most persistent and explicit: the taste for certain foods and drinks or the cold of the climate as defining what is Russian or Soviet, what is proper for men and women, what is civilized and backward, even what is human. [End Page 541]
A particularly fascinating theme, related to identities but deeper in many ways, is the question of boundaries and their transgression. As Alison Smith comments, foods defined as “disgusting” for ourselves but part of the diet of others can be a marker of the collective self. And there are many other boundaries, often blurred, crossed, or violated, that the senses illuminate: ethnicity, nation, morality, gender, and...