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Voluntary Associations in Tsarist Russia: Science, Patriotism and Civil Society.

Voluntary Associations in Tsarist Russia: Science, Patriotism and Civil Society. By Joseph Bradley (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. xiv plus 366 pp. $55.00).

Joseph Bradley, in Voluntary Associations in Tsarist Russia, takes an unusual approach to his primary subject: the development of imperial Russian civil society. He does not, as one would in a monograph, examine in detail a discrete and poorly understood topic in order to contribute to a larger body of knowledge. Nor does he, as one would in a broader survey, attempt to provide a synthetic overview of civil society in Russia. He opts instead for a middle ground examination of what he considers some of the most significant and deeply rooted institutions of Russian civil society: elite scholarly/scientific voluntary associations that played a substantial role in Russian public life from the late 18th century into the early 20th.

Given that the concept of civil society remains open-ended enough to accommodate many different conceptions of its essential meaning and nature, one might take issue with the degree of importance Bradley imparts to these scholarly institutions as pillars of Russian civil society, hut he certainly establishes that they played a guiding role in the development of extra-governmental institutions. More importantly, this is a book with a larger purpose, a purpose these voluntary associations serve well. Bradley uses them to demonstrate that Russian civil society (and implicitly Russian society and culture in general) fit within the broad continuum of European social and political development. Attempts to complicate and destabilize the long-standing paradigm of a Russia/West dichotomy have been a familiar part of imperial Russian historiography at least since the fall of the Soviet Union, but few works of scholarship have gone further than this one to reveal basic commonalities between Europe, east and west.

In the opening paragraph, Bradley makes the astonishing statement that "on the eve of World War 1 Russia had the largest number of cooperative societies in the world." Dating back to before the Cold War, normative aspects of Russian history tended to get left behind in the quest to understand Russia's "special path" toward socialist revolution and Stalinism. A major element of the recent reappraisal has involved a search beyond state dominance and its concomitant revolutionary response into formerly under-appreciated areas like everyday life, local history, moderate politics, and civil society. For many years now, Bradley's work on voluntary associations has been at the forefront of that research. The present book strikes new ground, both in its extensive institutional analyses of specific associations and in setting those analyses within the context of western scholarship on similar institutions. Bradley's regular recourse to histories of western Europe might even surprise readers outside of Russian studies, but the parallels he finds are a useful corrective to a deeply ingrained emphasis on Russia's singularity. They come across to this reviewer as refreshing, convincing and necessary.

Two difficulties arise in the case Bradley tries to make. First, while the history of voluntary associations at the elite level of science societies does seem remarkably similar to parallel European institutions, voluntary associations form only one part (if an important one) of civil society. We learn little here about differences between Russia and other European societies in terms of electoral politics, print media, or the public spheres of non-elites. That the French in 1788 could loudly declaim their political views at the Palais Royal, more than 100 years before such public freedoms were remotely tolerated in Russia, implies a certain limit to the importance of voluntary associations as representative of Russian civil society. Second, as Bradley acknowledges, he cannot do more than hint at the plethora of voluntary associations that existed in Russia by the late imperial period. He must therefore tell his story through what he calls "moments" that took place during the development of the leading associations he describes. And while these moments suggest that voluntary associations played a major role in helping to develop a vibrant sense of political autonomy among certain groups of Russians, the reader learns relatively little about the broader context of civic culture in imperial Russia, a context that included the zemstvo movement, street life, leisure institutions, newspaper proliferation, business ventures, charitable societies, and much else.

At the same time, theoretically informed and impressively comparative, Bradley is a careful scholar, unwilling to strain the reader's credibility. He makes clear throughout this study that civil institutions in Russia had to contend with a powerful state that often set limits to associational autonomy. Indeed, state oversight of voluntary associations in Russia seems to have fostered, as often as it hindered, the growth of civil society. A key aspect of this argument involves the crucial point that civil society is not a concrete phenomenon but an ideal type. Its manifestations varied widely across Western Europe in the first place. Some independent initiatives were overtly opposed to state interests, some were called into being by the state itself. If the standard model of the development of civil society assumes a conflict between state and society, Bradley affirms that autonomous organizations, in Russia and elsewhere, often achieved success through harmony and cooperation with the state. This point seems to have been especially characteristic of countries that lacked a well-developed bourgeoisie, and one of the great accomplishments of this book is its ability to cut through the habitual identification of civil society and the middle classes.

Bradley also shows how Russia's extra-governmental voluntary organizations originated new forms of horizontal association and formulated new justifications for societal autonomy and political input, implying that one cannot fully understand Russian political movements of the early 20th century without a grasp of the "prepolitical mobilization" through the "lively, nonrevolutionary civic life" his book explores. Bradley's final "moment," the ninth Pirogov Convention of doctors, suggests a substantial transformation of the role of Russian voluntary associations. By this point the Convention seems to serve as one of the dress rehearsals for the Revolution of 1905. This book will be of great use to readers interested in the specific associations Bradley explores, in the political and social history of imperial Russia, and in the study of civil society in its own right.

Christopher Ely

Florida Atlantic University
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Author:Ely, Christopher
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2011
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