- Plebeian Modernity: Social Practices, Illegality, and the Urban Poor in Russia, 1906–1916 by Ilya Gerasimov
Ilya Gerasimov's book offers an in-depth look at late imperial Russia's hoi polloi, specifically the semipeasant, semiurban folk whom he dubs as plebeian society. The central goal of this book is to capture the worldview of what the author poses was a nation of Gerasims, a reference to the deaf-mute peasant from Turgenev's tragic novella Mumu. In the novella, Gerasim is obedient and possesses incredible strengths, but is also confused; his actions are often incomprehensible and he is capable of mystifying acts of violence. Gerasimov (whose surname, coincidentally, derives from Gerasim) argues that it is in acts of violence and criminality and their interpretation by the press, police, and literature that we can most clearly hear the voices of the Gerasims. (After all, Mumu is defined by an incomprehensible act of violence – the drowning of an adorable little dog.) Gerasimov is not particularly interested in the crimes themselves, and instead uses them as a window to see how people responded to certain situations that they confronted in their new urban milieu – whether that was scarcity, adultery, fraud, crowded living conditions, or usury. Violence, it turns out, was a key form of communication for people whose "social interface was underdeveloped" (P. 23). Here the author appeals to both subaltern studies and Foucault's concept of "infamous men" (P. 25), or people whose only traces in history are left by their interactions with the structures of power.
Essentially, Gerasimov takes the old maxim that "actions speak louder than words" and asks his audience to read action as the language of his plebeians. The late imperial urban milieu was one in which disputes could easily be solved by physical violence, and the direct pleasures of feasting, drinking and sex were the most common and sought-after forms of recreation, thus giving us a rich vocabulary and grammar to interpret.
Yet "plebeian" here is not pejorative. It does not refer to irrational or unthinking masses, but rather to people coming to terms with changing conditions as best they can. In acts of violence and various crimes, the choice of victims and coconspirators, the circumstances and forms of violence are all imbued with meaning. All speak to inclusion and exclusion, the mapping of the ideal world of the perpetrators and often their victims. In this sense, Gerasimov [End Page 191] contributes to the long debate about the emergence or nonemergence of a civil society in imperial Russia, while also doing something similar to E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, sketching the moral economy of the largely illiterate mass of people who populated the cities of the Russian Empire between the first and second Russian Revolutions. He pays careful attention to how different these people were, with a rich cast of Jews, Tatars, Russians, Poles, Germans, Chuvash, Old Believers, and people whose nationality or confession is impossible to trace.
Spaces play as important a role as people in this book. While the first chapter looks at the empire as a whole, each subsequent chapter is a case study of one or more cities and their particular types of inhabitants. This move is essential to Gerasimov and his colleagues' larger project of writing a new imperial history for two reasons. First, it elides the two capitals as central to or even emblematic of trends within the empire as a whole and highlights the importance of understanding each place within the vast empire as its own ecosystem. Everywhere local conditions are absolutely key to understanding what is happening. Second, this obsession with the granular allows the author to deploy different theoretical and stylistic frameworks to each case, whether the focus is on gender, violence, or the mismatch between state categories and how people see themselves. This approach is very fruitful, but an unsympathetic reader could pose the question of how generalizable his case...