- Discovering Russian RegionsFruits of the Archival Turn in Imperial Russian History
The drama of the opening of the Soviet archives in the early 1990s is well known even among the general public; the transformative interventions of newly accessed documents are still avidly awaited as the field continues to work through that material even now. The historiography of imperial Russia was also affected by the limited access to archives of the Soviet period, yet the fuller exploration of those archives—especially provincial archives—since the early 1990s is rarely recognized as a fundamental driving force of historiographical change. Studies of the imperial period from the past three decades vary widely, but this diversity reflects archival richness as much as the political divergences and renewed interest in forgotten subjects that followed the end of the Cold War. We are also now testing many of the Cold War's clichés of Russia's deep past with an empirical grounding that was not possible for most [End Page 877] of the 20th century.1 Though the tsarist state was undeniably autocratic and ambitious to assert control over its widely dispersed population, the state is now increasingly seen as only one of many historically significant actors and as less monolithic in itself.2 Cold War–era myths of Russia's backwardness,3 lack of rule of law,4 superficial or "inauthentic" elite culture,5 absent or passive [End Page 878] middle class,6 and "rigid" estate structure7 are yielding to more complex explanations of a diverse and complicated modernizing society.8 New avenues of inquiry that begin from the premise of nonstate actors having agency and historical significance have yielded growing subfields from gender history9 to the history of material culture and everyday experiences10 and religious history.11 [End Page 879]
That anything much was even preserved in provincial archives by the infamously centralized Russian state was initially surprising to many Western historians. Our understanding from top-down studies of the monarchy's efforts over at least two centuries to organize and administer "the provinces" led us to a master narrative of a center mostly acting on its periphery.12 Yet historians of the similarly large and multiethnic United States would be rightly accused of generalizing if they made a statement about Pennsylvania as if it equally applied to Virginia. Even historians of much smaller and relatively less diverse countries such as England, France, or Poland must consider the distinct identities, geographical realities, and specific historical developments of the Lake District versus the Cotswolds or Brittany versus the Alps or Wielkopolska versus Małopolska. Yet the historiography of imperial Russia for two centuries has typically written of "the provinces" as one entity, often a blank or backward one.
To the extent that historians do differentiate among the provinces it is usually only to distinguish "central," Orthodox or ethnically Russian, or serfdom-based provinces from "other" or "othered" peripheries, or the high agricultural yields of black-earth "southern" regions from central/northern or non-black-earth regions. These perspectives, particularly as they have played out in the historiography of serfdom and industrialization, derived directly from an archival problem: for many decades the most accessible documentation on serf-based estates came only from the largest, richest landowners who employed paid managers, kept good records, and were often more regularized [End Page 880] as well as better documented. As archival sources from smaller estates, obtained from provincial archives or more fragmented collections, are being studied, we begin to see that the dichotomies that have so far represented some of our greatest efforts to explain "the provinces" are themselves generalizations.13
There is a young...