Moscow: governing the socialist metropolis.
Despite its subtitle, there is much more to be found in this book than simply the manner in which Moscow has been governed -- important as that topic might be. Chronologically organized, it begins in the twelfth century, with the first days of the town that was most probably named for the Moskva river that meandered past it; it ends almost a millennium later, in the 1990s. By far the largest portion of this imposing book, however, is devoted to those years between 1917 and 1991, when Moscow served as the capital of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In any case, given the vast scope of this project in terms of both time and topics, it is hardly surprising that its completion took more than a decade.
Timothy J. Colton is a Harvard sovietologist and director of that university's Russian Research Centre. The research which resulted in this publication began at the University of Toronto a few years before the break-up of the USSR. During the Gorbachev '80s he was able to refer to archival materials that previously had been unavailable to Western scholars; then, in the post-Soviet 1990s, many more avenues of research were opened. This book is truly indicative of the diversity of those avenues, and of Colton's journey through them.
From personal interviews to published memoirs, from newspapers to statistical surveys, from official documents to literature, Colton has made good use of them all. Furthermore, he openly admits having received invaluable input from some of the finest minds in academia, and his acknowledgments section reads like a "who's who" of international sovietology. The list includes scholars who have also produced urban histories, but what is most significant about the roster is that it includes representatives from many different disciplines. This point not only highlights the inter-disciplinary nature of Colton's work, but also the fact that his book should be of great interest to people outside the history departments of the world.
To put it most simply, this "city biography" contains something for almost everyone. For the social historian, to cite but one example, Colton not only paints a vivid verbal picture of the lives of Moscow's residents, but also provides a number of interesting visual representations and useful demographic tables. For the political scientist, meanwhile, there is the discussion of the "disjointed monism" of Soviet government, which lies at the heart of his anti-centrist, anti-monolithic thesis. Last, but certainly not least for the urban studies specialist, Colton provides extensive details of one city's construction, destruction and reconstruction across the years, and under the guidance of a number of leaders.
Particularly noteworthy is Colton's analysis of the Stalinist "hyperurbanization" campaign which, as part of the crusade to construct "socialism in one country," included a search for a style of architecture that would be truly "socialist" in both nature and design. No less interesting, however, is Colton's appraisal of Khrushchev's hands-on form of urbanization that brought about a number of fiascos, but also resulted in the artistic marvels to be found in Moscow's subway stations. All this and more is augmented by a generous number of tables, maps, illustrations and appendices. Among the last of these is one in which Colton first explains how Soviet statisticians defined living space requirements, then tabulates the total amount of housing constructed by year from the early 1920s to the early 1990s.
In the midst of this plethora of information, one might pause to wonder why the city's experience of the Second-World-War years has been so neglected. Also, the all-encompassing nature, not to mention the length, of this "city biography" might be a bit daunting to some readers, and perhaps Colton has overdone it when it comes to what some might consider extraneous details. When all is said and done, however, there can be no doubt that both the time and the effort required to absorb the material offered by this author would be well invested by any scholar. Furthermore, the book is an essential addition to the library of any sovietologist, regardless of his or her discipline. And finally, it is most fitting that this in-depth biography of the "socialist metropolis" should have been published in the year of the Russian capital's 850th birthday. Despite its concentration on only seventy-five of those years, Colton's tome stands as a monument to that great city.
R. Connie Wawruck-Hemmett
Department of History
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|Publication:||Urban History Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1998|
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