- A Generation of Revolutionaries: Nikolai Charushin and Russian Populism from the Great Reforms to Perestroika by Ben Eklof and Tatiana Saburova
Biography, as David Nasaw has noted, was once the "unloved stepchild" of the historical profession.1 Historians in the academy envied the popularity of traditional biographies, jealous of the ability of these books to attract readers. At the same time, academics tended to be disdainful of these popular histories' hagiographic tone, lack of critical source analysis, or engagement with the historiography. The way these biographies privileged the individual (the "great man") and certain types of history (e.g., political, diplomatic, military) as drivers of historical change was also off-putting to many academic historians. In the present century, these attitudes shifted as professional historians began experimenting with the genre as a means for approaching historical problems, or using biography as a tool to get at issues such as identity and construction of the self. By the first decade of the twenty-first century academic historians' forays into the genre had reached enough of a critical mass to spur a roundtable on biography in the American Historical Review.2 Biography, fortunately, appears at last to have fallen into a defined parental embrace.
Ben Eklof and Tatiana Saburova position their work as part of a "biographical turn" not only in the profession but also in the field (P. 5). A cursory look at recent publications indicates that this positing of a "biographical turn" may indeed be so (2014 was a particularly rich year).3 [End Page 358] Some in this list cover typical subjects for the biographer – people of power, influence, or notoriety – reinterpreting their lives and importance in light of new sources and scholarship (e.g., Kotkin's Stalin). Lynn Hartnett's biography of Vera Figner provides the first scholarly treatment of an important figure well-known inside and outside of the field, while Ella Saginadze and Boris Kolonitskii provide important treatments of Sergei Witte and Alexander Kerensky at key moments in their lives, posing questions about the meaning of their image in the public mind. Other works are especially noteworthy for their ability to use biography as a window on broader questions and themes in Russian imperial history. Wcislo's Tales of Imperial Russia and Sunderland's The Baron's Cloak are notable in this regard, as is Eklof and Saburova's, A Generation of Revolutionaries.
The authors work from a rich source base of materials from central and regional archives, particularly those from Kirov (née Viatka), as well as numerous memoirs and letters. They offer a rich, multilayered portrait of Nikolai Charushin, his family, and his colleagues – those who have entered the historiography as the first generation of Russian Populists – as well as a vivid portrait of Siberian exile, provincial life, and the furnace in which the protagonists forged their sense of generational self, the politics of memory. Its success as a biography rests on the fact that it does not merely narrate the ups and downs of an individual life, but rather gives us a broad history of a key segment of the Populist movement. This success stems in no [End Page 359] small part from the fact that its main subject, Nikolai Charushin, was neither a well-known revolutionary leader nor an infamous assassin, but rather an "everyman" of the Populist movement who nonetheless, like Sergei Witte and Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, experienced the geographic and cultural scope of empire. Few of us knew of Charushin before reading this book. Many will wish that they had met him sooner.
Through Charushin's biography the authors take us beyond the old history of Populism as largely a history of ideas/texts and their consequences to a history of Populism as lived experience. Instead of a series of intellectual biographies that, despite their best efforts remain teleologically tied to 1917 (Venturi's magisterial Roots of Revolution, Philip Pomper's work, and work of intellectual historian...