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Beyond the Limits: The Concept of Space in Russian History and Culture. .

Beyond the Limits: The Concept of Space in Russian History and Culture Ed. Jeremy Smith (Helsinki: Suomen Historiallinen Seura, 1999. Pp. 276).

In this stimulating collection published by the Finnish Historical Society (Suomen Historiallinen Seura) a handful of Finnish scholars, a couple of Americans, several Russians, and one Brit succumb to the temptation to discuss the issue of space in Russian history. The volume stems from an international seminar organized by the Department of Russian and East European Studies of the Renvall Institute at the University of Helsinki in June 1998. The essays, which range in subject from peasant ideas of heaven and hell to the evacuation of Russian factories during World War II, have little in common except a shared consideration of space in the Russian experience. Nevertheless, the book is a provocative contribution to understanding the Russian experience.

The collection begins with three essays of large scope. Narrower studies follow. In the most ambitious of the broad essays, Sergei Medvedev, a professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, presents "a general theory of Russian space." He catalogues alternating efforts in Russian history first to fill space and then to master it administratively. His schema illuminates such dyads as public and private, state and society, community and individual, and even fatherland and motherland. He also deploys a range of daunting and sometime playful speculations. Indeed, he dubs the study of Russian space "a gay science and a rigorous science" (15). As some readers may guess, he utilizes the architectural historian Vladimir Paperny's dichotomy of authoritarian vertical space and more open horizontal space. He even provides a table dividing Russian history into 22 periods based on Paperny's insight and concludes pessimistically with the end of Russian history i n vertical rather than the horizontal dimension.

In the second essay, Elena Hellberg-Hirn draws on her book Soil and Soul (London, 1998) as well as Paperny to link Russian history to similarly configured concepts. Siberia thus signifies freedom and prison, the steppe freedom and speed--a means of conquering space, and borders connote both "security and confinement". She argues that the national symbols of the eagle, the troika, and the matrioshka, reveal the tension between the freedom of the horizontal and the constraints of the vertical. Christer Pursiainen, in the third essay, "Space, Time, and the Russian idea," borrows from Berdiaev to explore the Russian idea in both space and time by contrasting westernizing and nativist intellectual orientations. As he states it, "Zapadnik tradition links the destiny of Russia to world history. The tradition of slavophilism is particularistic, and is rooted in the Russian past." (p. 89). From this vantage point, he ranges over Russian history from the mid-nineteenth century until today.

The authors of the remaining essays demonstrate that space can be explored in almost every corner of the Russian life and history. There are three essays on religion. Chris J. Chulos describes Orthodox peasant visions of the afterlife in late imperial Russia as an allotment of space. Paul Fryer discusses images of Siberia as heaven or hell. Lastly, Arto Luukanen, in a fascinating essay on negotiations between the Evangelical Church of Finland and the Russian Orthodox Church in the era of Khrushchev demonstrates the Soviet negotiators' success in leading their Finnish counterparts to their notions of peaceful coexistence and hence the peace camp.

There are several essays on what might be called the management of space. Jermemy Smith describes the role of ethnicity in the creation of the administrative divisions of the RSFSR and the USSR from 1918 to 1925 and concludes, "the main principle behind the administrative division of Soviet space was that of nationality" (p. 244). Jarmo Eronen treats Soviet decisions on the location of factories and mines, and Robert Argenbright, in a stimulating essay, describes the evacuation of Soviet industry and population in 1941 as the creation of a "space of survival." (p. 287). Timo Vihavainen finds space the issue in the Bolsheviks' inclination to divide the world, first by classes and then by nations.

On a more personal note, Katerina Gerasimova compares communal apartments to utopian house-communes of the early revolutionary years. She asks and answers the question, "How did the communal apartments which were no longer part of an ideological project and considered a provisional evil become the most widespread housing in pre-war Leningrad?" (p. 116) The answer is both scarcity and social control. A essay that dovetails nicely with Gerasimova's is that of Anna Rotkirch on the role of business trips and vacations as a means of escaping the restraints of cramped living, particularly for sexual autonomy. Similarly, Pentii Stranius considers Andrei Tarkovsky's struggle with censorship as an effort to create personal artistic space in Mirror. Finally, in a charming conclusion, Richard Stites recounts his impressions of confining Soviet buildings and offices based on his sojourns in Russia. He contrasts tiny unwelcoming inner "work-sites" with the vast unused and unfriendly space that surrounds them in such insti tutions as the St. Petersburg Railway Station in Moscow, and he finds three principles that distinguish the Russian space from the more open western equivalent: "impregnability, irregularity, and domesticity" (p. 260). Yet one cannot help but wonder how much of Russia's cramped quarters results simply from the persistence of old buildings? Is the contrast between the St. Petersburg Station

and, for example, Penn Station in New York, so stark simply because the Russian station lacks shops and commercial displays or is there actually a Russian inclination to close off official spaces from consumers?

Reading these essays on Russian attitudes toward space suggests a passage toward the end of Anna Karenina in which Levin remarks shrewdly on the vagueness of the word "people" in response to his half brother Koznyshev's description of "the people's" enthusiasm for brother Slays. Is the pursuit of all embracing Russian attitudes toward space equally implausible? Perhaps, in this respect, those who describe familiar localized practices, such as Katerina Gerasimova (on the communal apartment) and Anna Rotkirch (on trips and sexual adventures), are on firmer ground than those who speculate more broadly. Nevertheless, each aspect of this compendium has its delights, and scholars in several disciplines will find much to ponder within its pages.
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Author:Brooks, Jeffrey
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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