Russia in 1913.
In recent years, scholars of Imperial Russian history and culture have moved away from studies centred upon elucidating the social conditions, political policies and intellectual tendencies that led to the Revolutions of 1917. A rich literature has emerged focusing on social, cultural, political, economic and artistic tendencies in the final years of the Russian Empire, broadening our understanding of late Imperial Russian society on its own terms. With his new book, Dowler contributes a masterful synthesis of much of this literature, providing a complex and multifaceted image of Imperial Russian society in the year 1913: the final full year before Europe descended into the chaos of war and ultimately, in the case of Russia, revolution.
While Dowler defines his primary goal as the recording of "what history had piled up in the Russian empire by the end of 1913" (p. vii), he targets several common tropes that continue to dominate discussion of the final years of the Russian Empire: political and economic backwardness, social disintegration and an unbridgeable divide between State and society (pp. 11-15). His analysis proceeds through six chapters, devoted respectively to economic development (chapter one), social relations (chapter two), civil society and its expansion to a larger proportion of the population (chapters three-four), State-society relations (chapter five) and alternate public discourses (chapter six). After an opening chapter demonstrating how, by 1913, a "market economy was firmly in place in the empire and private industry was flourishing" (p. 50), Dowler turns his attention to the problematic "middle" of Russian society. Building upon earlier work by Clowes (1991), Bradley (2002), Lindenmeyr (1996) and others, he argues that by 1913 a functional middle class with a distinct economic basis and shared interests had emerged. Evidence for this class is found in the expansion of civil society, an aspect that Dowler (following Hegel and Marx) defines as "a robust sphere of social interaction within a developing market economy" (p. 93). By 1913, the empire was home to a wide array ofvoluntary organizations, urban assemblies, educational opportunities, and an increasingly literate population. While certain groups were poorly integrated into participation in the public sphere (women, national minorities, peasants), Dowler concludes that, rather than social disintegration, "the potential for wider inclusion of the population in civil society was everywhere apparent" (p. 141). Similarly, while acknowledging that the policies of State agencies and social groups often came into conflict, Dowler emphasizes moments of greater co-ordination rather than animosity as the developing norm in Russian society by 1913.
Perhaps of greatest value to those interested in the intellectual history of late Imperial Russia is Dowler's analysis of "alternate" public discourses that contradicted what he considers the "major social, economic, and political developments taking place in the empire" (the development of a market economy and an increasingly vibrant public sphere) (p. 270). Though defining these as "narrow elite discourses" (p. 270), Dowler acknowledges that they were dominant voices in the contemporary public press. He briefly highlights seven overlapping themes, the central of which is "Russian integralism." The Russian Empire in 1913 was heir to a neo-Slavophile discourse in which Russia's unique, "sympbonic" or communalist society was celebrated, while the detrimental impact of modern life on this allegedly inherent Russian attribute was mourned. The practice of differentiating "Russia" from "Western" culture shaped public discussion across the political spectrum. After providing a useful introductory analysis of this Russian "exceptionalist mentality" (pp. 234-36), Dowler examines the public discourse that dominated in conservative, liberal, socialist, and artistic media. Regardless of contemporary socio-economic developments, a strongly anti-bourgeois and anti-capitalist mood, rooted in Russian integralism, continued to inform the public sphere.
Dowler's analysis seems occasionally to be coloured by underlying normative assumptions about "natural" historical social development. On one hand, Dowler provides a valuable corrective to earlier scholarship that emphasized Russian economic and social "backwardness" as preconditions for the 1917 Revolutions. Nevertheless, the assumption that a pluralist, capitalist system is the natural outcome towards which any modern society should progress occasionally emerges (perhaps unintentionally) in Dowler's writing. In assessing anti-bourgeois sentiment among the liberal Kadet party, Dowler concludes that "the Kadets' fondness for peasant communalism tied them to the non-liberal left and posed a major obstacle to an alliance with their natural allies in the center of the political spectrum" (p. 251, emphasis added). The value of imposing assumed "natural" alliances on political parties is questionable--why is peasant communalism to be considered less central in defining possible Kadet allies than other issues? Similarly, as Dowler rightfully points out, an anti-bourgeois and anti-capitalist discourse was ubiquitous across the political spectrum in the public sphere (pp. 234, 245). However, it is debatable whether, because they often voiced anti-capitalist sentiments, "many in the Russian functional middle class were in denial about their social status" (p. 245). It might be more productive to analyze how and why this "functional middle class" continued to display anti-capitalist sentiments and what this might suggest about Russian Imperial society rather than judging whether historical subjects held a "correct" or "incorrect" understanding of their social position.
In conclusion, by synthesizing a wide array of literature into a lucid monograph, Dowler has done a valuable service to the field of Russian history. Scholars of Russia, as well as those interested in the development of civil society or economic life, will find here a valuable starting point for further reading. Undergraduate students also will benefit from this snapshot of Russia in 1913. By decentring later events, a more complex image of Russia emerges: a world in the process of transformation, the outcome of which was far from certain.
Miami University of Ohio
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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