- Imagining Russian Regions: Subnational Identity and Civil Society in Nineteenth-Century Russia by Susan Smith-Peter
The entangled histories of provincial Russia and serfdom have stimulated a long line of scholarship. From the 1960s through the 1980s, monographs by P. A. Zaionchkovskii, Terrence Emmons, and Daniel Field established the narrative framework for exploring the political, economic, and ideological factors driving the emancipation of the Russian serfs. Since then, notable works by John Randolph, Katherine Pickering Antonovna, and Catherine Evtuhov, to name a few, have applied the methods of microhistory to examine the family, gender, and local dimensions of the peasant question that engaged Russia's national intelligentsia. In Imagining Russian Regions: Subnational Identity and Civil Society in Nineteenth-Century Russia, Susan Smith-Peter examines the equally complex intersection of local knowledge and experience with Russia's expansive network of rural public associations in the three decades preceding the end of serfdom in 1861. Focusing on the town of Vladimir and its adjacent districts, her research skillfully links the well-known debates transpiring in the capitals to the mental and physical spaces of one of Russia's most ancient historical regions. The result is a comprehensive portrait of a dynamic public sphere rooted in Vladimir's local particularities that envisioned a postemancipation civil society independent of the Russian state.
For her part, Smith-Peter utilizes the methods of spatial history and the Enlightenment's own theories of civil society to highlight "the interplay between the state, estates (soslovie), and what was coming to see itself as society" (27). In the first two chapters, she recreates in expert detail the administrative, institutional, ecological, and socioeconomic spaces of the province. Based on extensive archival materials from Vladimir and other cities, her analysis confirms the existence of a robust protoindustrial and market-based economy centered on the textile towns of Iur´ev-Pol´skii and Ivanovno as well as a network of public spaces dating back to Catherine II's Statute on the Provinces. Although the stimuli for these social and economic developments came from the Russian state, by the mid-point of Nicholas I's reign Vladimir displayed the traits of an autonomous public sphere, including a public library, museum, statistical committee, and a newspaper whose "unofficial section" offered its local readers "a new mental picture of Vladimir province" (137). More intriguingly, Smith-Peter's archival digging has uncovered numerous examples of informal associations and obscure writers who together comprised and imagined the local public: seminarians with their handwritten samizdat-style journals; district [End Page 261] agricultural societies inspired by the Slavophiles; subscription lists filled with the names of men and women who formed civil society's personal networks; and the Old Believer V. A. Borisov, whose study of his native district was the first in Vladimir "to present workers as a complex group" (114-15). All told, Smith-Peter methodically and persuasively demolishes the outdated image of provincial Russia as a cultural backwater.
Aside from rummaging through Vladimir's forgotten public spaces, Smith-Peter also chronicles the role of local intellectuals in forming visions of postemancipation society. Chapters 3 and 4 plot the trajectories of two parallel "modes of civil society" that evolved as the peasant question came to dominate public discussion in the 1850s. The first, inspired by Adam Smith's stadial theory of history and promoted by the Slavophiles, held that serfdom should be abolished "organically" and in concert with modernizing landowners as Russia inevitably advanced to the commercial stage of social development. By contrast, the second model endorsed the Hegelian notion of civil society based on shared property rights. Applied to postemancipation conditions, the latter envisioned a vigorous public sphere whose stakeholders—nobles, freed serfs, clergy, and merchants—would rise above estate interests to represent "society." Although Smith-Peter's analysis pretty much follows the reigning narrative established by Emmons and Field, her archival work does expand the depths and parameters of the national dialogue beyond noble assemblies to include provincial agricultural associations in Vladimir and elsewhere. Her rediscovery of...