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Social Identity in Imperial Russia.

Social Identity in Imperial Russia. Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter (DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 1997. xi plus 260pp.).

This is not a timid book. Social Identity in Imperial Russia attempts both to synthesize the results of twenty years of social history research and to explain "the relationships between state building, large-scale social structures, and everyday life" (p. x). In its ambitious sweep the book resembles an earlier work of synthesis and interpretation, Marc Raeff's excellent Understanding Imperial Russia: State and Society in the Old Regime. Since the publication of Raeff's book in 1984, the study of Russian social history has flourished, and the time is right for new efforts such as Elise Wirtschafter's to interpret the results of this research. Wirtschafter herself possesses the qualifications to undertake such an interpretation: the author of two well-received monographs on previously little-studied social groups in imperial Russia, [1] she has also closely followed the latest research in this field. The task she sets for herself in this short book--to analyze complex social changes in a multinational empire f rom the early eighteenth century to 1917--is a daunting one, however, and the result is a mixture of astute insights and overly broad, sometimes contradictory generalizations.

Social Identity addresses several central issues in Russian social history. The first is the nature of imperial Russia's complex, fluid social structure: the different social groups comprising it, and the origins and nature of social change across more than two centuries. A major point of the book is the great extent to which the Russian social structure was the creation of the state. By imposing differing privileges and obligations, the state created "functional legal-administrative [social] categories" in order to administer, control, and integrate an amorphous and diverse population. The social structure "imagined" by rulers and administrators was realized only in part, however; "individuals and groups in society mastered and appropriated official formulas for their own purposes," and people only partially internalized official social designations as their identities (p. 20). While social engineering is more often associated with the Soviet government, Wirtschafter's book reminds readers that its tsarist predecessor also sought to mold social structures to its fiscal, military, and political objectives, similarly with mixed success.

Social Identity also seeks to explain both the longevity of the tsarist social system, and its breakdown in revolution. Wirtschafrer finds the solution to this paradox in the very fluidity and fragmentation that, in her view, characterized Russian society throughout the imperial period. The 1917 Revolution, she correctly points out, "has encouraged an historiographical emphasis on social conflict and coercion" (p. 169), and Wirtschafter's attempt to understand why the empire lasted more than three hundred years is welcome. Social identities and boundaries, she argues, continually changed and evolved in response to government policies, economic changes, and new political and social opportunities. What happened in the late imperial period was the breakdown of mechanisms that had provided a measure of integration to this fragmented social body, a decline in the government's ability to shape social categories and the erosion of popular support for the "myths of tsarist rule" (p. 172).

To demonstrate these hypotheses, the book is divided into three main chapters, each dealing with a particular social stratum. Chapter Two on ruling classes and elites, in which Wirtschafter includes groups as diverse as the nobility, civil servants, soldiers, and clergy, is the least successful. Repeatedly stressing the ambiguity of status and porousness of social boundaries in Russia, she often characterizes these social groups by what they were not: "the nobility never became a securely constituted corporate entity, the military command and bureaucracy never evolved into distinct professional classes characterized by a common outlook and ethos, and the Orthodox clergy never shed the mantle of an atomized service estate for that of an autonomous spiritual calling" (p. 59; emphasis added). One wishes that Wirtschafter would explicitly identify what societies did possess such characteristics, instead of relying on implicit comparisons to some abstract model.

Chapter Three tackles the perennially controversial question of the Russian middle class. Continuing to stress Russia's "traditional fragmentation" and indeterminate social boundaries, Wirtschafter concludes that Russia's "diverse and only partially differentiated middle ... failed to form an organized civil society capable of sustained political action" (p. 98). Entrepreneurial, commercial and industrial development was well underway before the late-nineteenth-century economic takeoff, she argues; but it was propelled not by a distinct "commercial-industrial class," which Russia lacked, but by individuals from diverse social categories, from serfs to officials. At the same time, she claims, Russia possessed a commercial-industrial elite coherent enough to "successfully [influence] policy" and exhibit "cultural sophistication and civic involvement" as early as the late eighteenth century (pp. 83, 85). Such contradictory conclusions occur more than once in this and the previous chapter, and may be explained a t least partly by the author's attempt to cover a two-hundred-year period and address every social group and historical question.

In Chapter Four, "Laboring People," Wirtschafter provides a cogent summary and interpretation of historical research, surveying how economic, legal, and political developments affected the lower classes and how they in turn reacted to both repression and new opportunities. Her section on the urban lower classes is particularly welcome, given historians' relative neglect of this group in favor of peasants and workers. While Wirtschafter's often complex arguments and assumption of prior knowledge make chapters two and three accessible only to Russian specialists, this commendable chapter will be useful to all scholars interested in comparative peasant, urban, and labor history.

Wirtschafter's main theme--the amorphous nature of social categories, boundaries, and status in imperial Russia--accords with interpretations by such historians as Gregory Freeze and Alfred Rieber, who have successfully challenged earlier ideas of a society divided into rigid and clearly delineated estates. By emphasizing these characteristics, however, she is less successful in explaining what in fact held such a fragmented society together for so long, and why social revolution occurred when it did. In addition, the absence of an explicit and consistent comparative framework perpetuates the idea of Russian exceptionalism and the isolation of Russian social history. At the same time, future historians should take into account the interpretations of this knowledgeable and experienced scholar.


(1.) From Serf to Russian Soldier (Princeton, 1990), and Structures of Society: Imperial Russia's "People of Various Ranks" (Dekalb, IL, 1994).
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Lindenmeyr, Adele
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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