Interrogating working-class lives: evidence in social history.
Given Mironov's stated determination to deconstruct old Soviet notions of class, I was surprised by his choice of terminology, and indeed by his failure to deconstruct class categories. The decision to refer to Russian workers collectively as "the proletariat" while simultaneously debunking Marxist conceptions of class strikes me as a little perverse. While the term "proletariat" has a long etymology, stretching back to its use in the Roman context, still for the modern reader the proletariat is usually a term used to describe a self-conscious and mobilized working class--in fact, the very thing that Mironov argues that Russia lacked in 1917.
While acknowledging that workers were diverse, Mironov does not discriminate among different types of workers or give any indication of which particular groups within urban working society he is referring to. As Victoria Bonnell expressed so elegantly way back in 1983, workers incorporated a diverse array of different occupations, all with a multitude of socioeconomic and cultural shapes. (1) Are we to assume that the internal reflexes and motivations of a skilled metalworker were shared with those of a printer, domestic servant, shop assistant, prostitute, flower seller, or seamstress? Gender and generation, origins and occupation, all are elided in this analysis into a single undifferentiated mass. The internal life of any one individual is a place of deep uncertainty, but if we cast our assertions out toward a large and extremely diverse social group, any pretence of commonality or immediate comparability is lost.
Mironov makes much of the Russian workers' links to the villages--he asserts that worker identity, behavior, and culture were defined by their peasant origins and heritage. He says that they had "one foot in the city and industry and the other very much in agriculture and the countryside" (354). This is a well-established position. The implications for the relationships between urban and rural space have been robustly contested, however. (2) First, we need to disaggregate urban workers. Some workers were indeed newcomers with closer ties to rural than to urban life, but others were born of workers or were migrants who had assimilated fully into urban life. Second, other scholars have argued that the rural origins of many of Russia's workers in themselves facilitated self-organization and political activism in ways that directly contest Mironov's representation of "normal people" (356). (3) Finally, one cannot make assumptions about the internal or indeed external life of an individual based on his or her ties to rural space. Mironov relates workers' political demands and proclivity toward violence to rural communes and samosud practices in the villages. Links of this nature are tenuous at best and can only be evaluated by close interrogation of specific cases at specific times. A range of scholars have compellingly argued that by the early 20th century there was increasing porosity between urban and rural spheres, and that the rural population was increasingly drawn into the public sphere. (4) Young men were increasingly likely to have some degree of basic literacy, and literacy rates were markedly higher in urban contexts. A number of scholars have used volost' courts to show how rural lower-class residents engaged actively and meaningfully with state structures. (5) World War I and the mass mobilization that accompanied it accelerated the interconnectivity of the village population with the outside world. (6) This diverse scholarship emphasizes the heterogeneity of the rural population and challenges assumptions about "inherent" rural behaviors and practices.
In 1986, Reginald Zelnik appealed for scholars to explore and understand workers' material and cultural worlds. 7 A whole generation of scholars tried to answer that call and in so doing made significant contributions to our understandings of working-class life. The methodology of many scholars has been to focus on specific groups within the working class, on a particular aspect of their cultural or material intersections, and to concentrate on a specific temporal framework. Mironov largely bypasses the outcomes of this scholarship in this essay. He proposes that historians need to move beyond the study of social groups' actions and external factors, and to instead focus on their internal motivations, stimuli, and reflexes. This call to explore individuals' internal spheres is always methodologically challenging. (8) Some scholars have made credible attempts at interrogating urban workers' internal lives, but with the proviso that their frame of reference remains extremely focused and specific. (9) Without a substantial evidence base and a close focus, historians risk constructing individuals' internal worlds to conform to their own expectations.
Mironov simultaneously demands a tight focus on 1917, which apparently precludes engagement with the range of scholarship exploring workers' social, political, and cultural milieux but at the same time draws on material from across the early 20th century. Demographic data, which Mironov draws on throughout this piece, can be revealing of broader trends and patterns, but it is a very blunt tool when trying to evaluate and interpret individuals' experiences and actions, since the nature of such sources bypass individual experience. A further constraint in our attempts to penetrate working-class internal lives is the demands of temporality. We need to situate ourselves not only according to workers but also according to the moment in which they operated. Was the internal life of an urban worker the same in 1906 as in 1916? Was it the same in April 1917 as in November 1917? One can speculate that individuals' self-representations, and their situation of self relative both to the political and to the sociocultural environment, are fluid and dynamic and reflect the particularities of the moment.
The public sphere has always provided us with the most accessible evidence for lower-class lives: individuals' interactions with state apparatus and with public associations, their choices of leisure activities and dress, their spending and reading habits, and their external manifestations of religious faith are all to some extent trackable, traceable, and measurable. (10) Access to individuals' private spheres--including their self-representation, faith, feelings, and motivations --are always elusive. Ego documents offering insights into individuals' private or intimate spheres are hard to come by and are often heavily mediated by either the constraints of the period in which they were written or by the cultural and literary parameters in which the individual wrote. Mironov draws on a couple of these accounts by P. Timofeev and F. D. Bobkov. Each first-person account presents the author's reconstruction of his world and cannot be used singly to imply a more general experience. There are a plethora of alternative accounts, each of which must be taken on its own merits. (11)
In the absence of personally curated documents, historians can draw on third-person accounts, often produced by "outsiders": that is, by those outside the immediate sphere of the subjects we seek to interrogate. Mironov draws on these extensively, and apparently uncritically: we have Maurice Paleologue reflecting on what he saw and understood of lower-class Petrograd's residents; the publicist and philosopher V. V. Rozanov's assessment of the "base people"; Minister of the Interior R A. Dumovo's insights into the motivations of lower-class Russians; and Maksim Gor'kii's searing fictional depiction of Sormovo workers. These four accounts in their different ways tell us something about the authors themselves, but trying to extrapolate any substantive understanding of lower-class lives from these accounts is reductive.
Mironov alleges that the Russian proletariat was prone to deviant criminality. Mironov's evidence for this rather disturbing assertion is to present statistics showing that workers were disproportionately represented among those convicted of crimes. These statistics do not reveal innate proclivities among urban workers toward crime. They can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. Higher police presence in urban centers meant that in urban space more illegal acts were possible, reportable, and detectable. The statistics may indicate that the penal system discriminated against lower-class Russians. Mironov draws on the work of Joan Neuberger to argue that "it was quite difficult to distinguish vandals and hooligans from workers during the strikes and demonstrations of 1905-6 and 1912-14" (368). But Neubergers work was all about the ways in which lower-class urban Russians were represented in the boulevard press. She did not try to suggest that these press constructions were a true reflection of the actions and motivations of lower-class urban dwellers. (12)
Mironov goes on to link these criminogenic tendencies to the absence of stable family structures among urban workers. We know that gender and generational imbalances existed among the urban lower classes, and we know that factory workers' children experienced even higher rates of infant mortality than rural children. (13) We cannot, however, use evidence of this nature to leap to the conclusion that the absence of traditional family structures led to moral degradation, because there is no evidence to substantiate such a claim.
Mironov asserts that workers' literacy rates and general cultural levels were extremely low. This in itself is contested in some scholarship. (14) Mironov goes on to argue that low levels of literacy and culture precluded workers from understanding political discourse or from consciously engaging in political processes, and that this political illiteracy left workers vulnerable to manipulation by political elites, most notably by the Bolsheviks in 1917. This question of what ordinary people understood of politics in 1917 is far from straightforward. I have argued in an earlier work that when campaigning in villages, political activists engaged with the population in language that they understood. (15) The only thing we can be certain of is that we do not, finally, know what ordinary people as a whole made of politics in 1917. We do, however, know that some parts of the urban working class engaged meaningfully and constructively in the political process.
On 356, Mironov asks ironically that if the majority of workers in the capital did not have a socialist worldview, what then could be said of the provinces? I can make a couple of comments to respond to this question, which will also serve as a conclusion to this piece. I conducted some research on urban workers in Nizhnii Novgorod Province during 1917, with particular emphasis on Sormovo, a highly organized and politicized large industrial complex. The Sormovo workforce was diverse, but a significant proportion of workers there was actively engaged in political processes. Sormovo workers' organizations were self-confident, conscious, and relatively wealthy. Some workers exhibited behavior consonant with a developed socialist consciousness; some workers engaged in acts of arbitrary violence and disorder; some workers may have exhibited both behaviors simultaneously. Individuals' motivations, behaviors, and actions are often unpredictable and contradictory. The political activism and consciousness for which I have some evidence were not, of course, a reflection of all the workers in Sormovo, and they certainly did not apply to the provinces urban workers more generally. (16) Generalizations even about the outward behavior of urban workers are reductive and unhelpful. I do not have the evidence available to enable speculation about workers' internal worlds.
Dept. of History
University of Nottingham
Nottingham NG7 2RD, UK
(1) Victoria E. Bonnell, Roots of Rebellion: Workers' Politics and Organizations in St. Petersburg and Moscow, 1900-1914 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 21-25.
(2) See, e.g., the careful study presented in Evel G. Economakis, From Peasant to Petersburger (New York: St. Martins, 1998).
(3) Nikolai V. Mikhailov, "The Collective Psychology of Russian Workers and Workplace: Self-Organization in the Early Twentieth Century," in New Labor History: Worker- Identity and Experience in Russia, 1840-1918, ed. Michael Melancon and Alice K. Pate (Bloomington, IN: Slavica Publishers, 2002), 77-94.
(4) See, e.g., Andrew Verner, "Discursive Strategies in the 1905 Revolution: Peasant Petitions from Vladimir Province," Russian Review 54, 1 (1995): 65-90; Jeffrey Burds, Peasant Dreams and Market Politics: Labor Migration and the Russian Village, 1861-1905 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998); and Aaron B. Retish, Russia's Peasants in Revolution and Civil War: Citizenship, Identity, and the Creation of the Soviet State, 1914-1922 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
(5) See Gareth Popkins, "Code versus Custom? Norms and Tactics in Peasant Volost Court Appeals, 1889-1917," Russian Review 59, 3 (2000): 408-24; Jane Burbank, Russian Peasants Go to Court: Legal Culture in the Countryside, 1905-1917 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004); and Corinne Gaudin, Ruling Peasants: Village and State in Late Imperial Russia (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2007).
(6) Scott J. Seregny, "Zemstvos, Peasants, and Citizenship: The Russian Adult Education Movement and World War I," Slavic Review 59, 2 (2000): 290-315; Joshua A. Sanborn, Drafting the Russian Nation: Military Conscription, Total War, and Mass Politics, 1905-1925 (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2003), 19.
(7) S. I. Kanatchikov, A Radical Worker in Tsarist Russia: The Autobiography of Semen Ivanovich Kanatchikov, ed. Reginald E. Zelnik (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986), introduction.
(8) I discuss this question in reference to interrogating the mental health of exiles in Sarah Badcock, A Prison Without Walls? Eastern Siberian Exile in the Last Years of Tsarism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 149-57.
(9) See, e.g., Mark D. Steinberg, Proletarian Imagination: Self, Modernity, and the Sacred in Russia, 1910 1925 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002).
(10) Stephen P. Frank and Mark D. Steinberg, eds., Cultures in Flux: Lower-Class Values, Practices, and Resistance in Late Lmperial Russia (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994); E. Anthony Swift, "Workers' Theater and 'Proletarian Culture' in Pre-Revolutionary Russia, 1905-1917," Russian Review 23, 1-4 (1996): 67-94; Page Herrlinger, "Orthodoxy and the Experience of Factory Life in St. Petersburg, 1881-1905," in New Labor History, 35-64; Sergei L. Firsov, "Workers and the Orthodox Church in Early Twentieth-Century Russia," in New Labor History, 65-76.
(11) The best-known account in English is Kanatchikov's. An interesting translation of Ivan Chugurin's memoirs was published in 2011: Ivan Chugurin, "The Memoirs of Ivan Chugurin," trans. James D. White and Vladimir P. Sapon, Revolutionary Russia 24, 1 (2011): 1-12.
(12) Joan Neuberger, Hooliganism: Crime, Culture, and Power in St. Petersburg, 1900-1914 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
(13) Rose L. Glickman, Russian Factory Women: Workplace and Society, 1880-1914 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 123-30.
(14) Jeffrey Brooks, When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Literature, 1861-1917 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 33.
(15) Sarah Badcock, "Talking to the People and Shaping Revolution: The Drive for Enlightenment in Revolutionary Russia," Russian Review 65, 4 (2006): 617-36.
(16) Sarah Badcock, "Politics, Parties, and Power: Sormovo Workers in 1917," in A Dream Deferred: New Studies in Russian and Soviet Labour History, ed. Donald Filtzer, Wendy Goldman, Gijs Kessler, and Simon Pirani (Bern: Peter Lang, 2008), 69-94.
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|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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