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Proletarian Imagination: Self, Modernity, and the Sacred in Russia, 1910-1925.

Proletarian Imagination: Self, Modernity, and the Sacred in Russia, 1910-1925. By Mark D. Steinberg (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2002. xiii plus 335 pp.).

What motivated ordinary workers to join the revolutionary movement in Russia in the years preceding and immediately after 1917? What were their aspirations, ideals, and dreams? Since social historians began documenting the popular depth and social diversity of the revolutionary movement, such questions have emerged as central to the project of understanding both the revolution and the origins and development of the Soviet state. Until recently answers were sought largely by assuming that the demands and programs of the various revolutionary and labor groups were in the main apt reflections of the minds of their supporters. In addition, a handful of proletarian memoirs, such as the autobiography of the worker-Bolshevik Semen Kanathchikov, ably translated and interpreted by the late Reginald Zelnik, could be culled for clues. But even these works, generally penned after the consolidation of the Soviet state, could reflect more the political agendas of Party leaders than the genuine motives of ordinary workers.

Mark Steinberg, one of Zelnik's former students, has tried a different and quite fruitful approach. He has turned to a body of literature, largely poetry and fiction, produced by working-class writers now mostly forgotten. Some of these writers were political activists, but many were not, or their activism was secondary to their literary endeavors. Their work was published in socialist newspapers but also in the "penny press." Some became active in the movement to create a distinctly "proletarian culture," but they often disagreed with both the revolutionary leadership and each other about what this highly freighted term meant in practice. Carefully combing through dozens of obscure periodicals, published anthologies and collections, and a wide variety of archival materials, Steinberg has utilized close readings of hundreds of their works to draw important conclusions about the values and sensibilities of these worker-intellectuals and, by extension, of their broader working-class readership. His investigation should provoke further reexamination of more simplistic views of "proletarian consciousness" advanced by both Left and Right.

Steinberg uncovers "a great deal of heterodoxy in both working-class and socialist culture" (19). His admittedly "odd" (1) historical subjects "grappled with the nature of civilization and culture, the imperatives of moral and ethical truth, and the possibilities of realizing in life what they could imagine in their minds" (282). They were especially concerned, he argues, with three great themes, which recalled questions that also troubled many aristocratic and bourgeois intellectuals: "the nature and place of the self, the promise and pain of modernity, and the qualities of the sacred in both their lives and their imaginations" (282). They approached these themes in various ways, with attitudes changing somewhat in the wake of 1917, but in general Steinberg finds a surprisingly high degree of "sorrowful and troubled" (286) ambivalence and ambiguity in their writing.

With respect to the self, these writers sought to link self-realization to an identity and purpose transcending the individual. While this joined their search for self-emancipation to the revolutionary struggle, their emphasis on the intrinsic worth of the individual could conflict with the revolution's collectivist thrust. And while these writers embraced the modernity of industry and the city, urban and industrial landscapes often appeared in their works as ugly and dark. The appeal of pastoral memory remained strong, even as these writers rejected the primitiveness of village life. As for the sacred, Steinberg finds that working-class authors sometimes "wrote in an explicitly religious idiom," which helped them "speak in universalizing terms about sacred moral right," articulate "things sublime and terrible," and speak "of the mythic and the mysterious" (246). In fact, he concludes, "the upheavals, hardships, and utopian possibilities of revolution intensified both sacred vision and existential uncertainty" (281).

While not quite "post-modern," this mentality stood in contrast to the class-based collectivism, rationalist modernism, and materialist secularism preached by the Bolsheviks. But more than a few of these writers embraced the Bolshevik cause, which seems more complex as a result, and nearly all saw themselves as socialists and Marxists. As Steinberg concludes, their writings suggest a tension, if not an outright conflict, within the revolutionary consciousness between two opposing aspects of the modernist sensibility, one disciplined and rational, the other uncertain and ambiguous. It is impossible in a brief review to do justice to the many nuances of Steinberg's subtle and insightful reading. Indeed, his explication is a veritable interpretive tour-de-force. After a theoretical "Introduction," marred a bit by excessive reliance on post-modernist jargon, and a chapter summarizing the development of "cultural revolution" and the emergence of a "plebeian intelligentsia," the book is organized thematically, with two chapters (one on the period before and the other after 1917) on each of the three main themes. These range broadly over a dazzling variety of sources, now citing a poem by one writer, now an essay or story by another, to develop a general sense of how these men confronted their world. They were, indeed, mostly male, and Steinberg does not fail to probe the gendered quality of much of their writing. A brief conclusion neatly draws the argument together.

The book's thematic organization has one drawback, however. The writers do not really emerge as flesh-and-blood individuals, and their development and activity over time seems short-changed. Steinberg includes a 27-page appendix with brief biographical sketches of seventeen of the main proletarian writers on whom his study is based, but it might have been preferable to integrate this material into the text and thereby provide a bit stronger chronological framework.

This is a relatively minor caveat, however. Proletarian Imagination is an important and creative study that will open new paths for further research. While not an easy read, it joins the insights of cultural and literary study with the concerns of social and political history in a manner from which both historians of Russia and scholars more generally can learn a great deal.

Henry Reichman

California State University, Hayward
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Author:Reichman, Henry
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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