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From Citizens to Subjects: City, State, & the Enlightenment in Poland, Ukraine, & Belarus.

From Citizens to Subjects: City, State, & the Enlightenment in Poland, Ukraine, & Belarus. By Curtis G. Murphy. (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018. Pp. xxii, 320. $28.95.)

In From Citizens to Subjects: City, State, & the Enlightenment in Poland, Ukraine, & Belarus, Curtis G. Murphy challenges the teleological narratives of European enlightened centralism by examining Russia's imperial project in the lands it acquired through the eighteenth-century partitions of Poland. Part of a burgeoning literature on Russian imperial statecraft in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Murphy's innovative work questions the promise of enlightened rulers to bring order, liberty, and progress to the lands that had once belonged to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The imperial powers who carved up Poland at the end of the eighteenth century were convinced that enlightened centralism and the triumph of the unitary state were essential and necessary stepping-stones on the road to the modern world (6). Making ample use of the Commonwealth's reputation as a backward state to justify their incursions into the region, these enlightened rulers promised rational, efficient government, improvements to urban space, and economic development. But, Murphy argues, if one examines their actual achievements, modernization and progress do not appear on the scene. Instead, we find chaos and discord, stagnation and decline (11). Such a conclusion is a direct challenge to the implicit and persistent assumptions of Enlightenment Europe in the scholarly literature.

Murphy employs a wide range of sources to make his case. At the macro level, he examines legislative acts, reports of central government bodies, and statistical information collected by state agents. At the micro level, he turns to the municipal records, protests, and petitions of over twenty cities and towns primarily in the Lublin province of contemporary southeastern Poland, the Volhynia and Podolia provinces of contemporary western Ukraine, and Niasvizh and Slutsk in present-day Belarus. Although one could criticize an analysis that focuses only on territories annexed by an economically underdeveloped Russian Empire, Murphy parries the blow by stating that the Russian example highlights the fact that the methods, practices, and assumptions of enlightened centralism do not necessarily produce economic growth, liberal conditions, modernity, or progress (23).

In his deft untangling of enlightened rhetoric from reality, Murphy advocates a more nuanced reading of Poland's history. Once historians stop associating centralization and rationalization with progress and modernity, alternative narratives of political stability can come to the forefront. For Murphy, this means viewing the politics of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with new eyes. Despite its reputation for anarchy, in some ways, the inequalities, particularisms, and conflicting jurisdictions of the Commonwealth's civic republicanism provided more security and opportunity than did the post-Enlightenment state (22). Enlightened centralism's story of progress has overshadowed the fact that both city and town residents in the Commonwealth possessed their own alternative conception of politics. In that light, the seemingly irrational and backward reactions to well-intentioned policies flowed from a practical logic and a concrete awareness of a given community's interests and needs (8).

The ideas put forward in this work are extraordinarily timely. The political unpredictability of our own day compels us to reflect upon our understanding of the terms progress, liberty, and order. Murphy's creative and well-articulated analysis represents the instructive fruits that such reflection can bear.

University of Cincinnati

William Tyson Sadleir
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Title Annotation:EUROPE
Author:Sadleir, William Tyson
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2019
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