(Published in NewsNet of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, March 2009)
Oxford University Professor of Russian history Robert Service has rightly pointed out that in order to understand the present better, one needs to see the legacy of the past. The legacy of the past, I may add, will be understood even better in a broad context. A strong notion of national uniqueness is a commonplace: every nation considers its historical experience as unique. The perception of historical uniqueness in turn creates visions of national exceptionalism. Not only native Russian-speaking historians tend to assume Russia’s exceptionalism; the phenomenon of alleging Russia as different preoccupies many English-language scholars of Russia as well. Interpreting Russian history as exceptional involves the idiosyncracies of misleadingly delimiting the focus of teachers and students and generating a narrow awareness of the nation, confining it to its boundaries. This also instigates a notion of Russia’s otherness, usually with a negative connotation, which is all too often overstressed in histories. Only recently have some researchers begun to reassess critically assumptions of Russian exceptionalism and otherness, thereby breaking established stereotypes.
This essay sketches ways of teaching modern Russian history beyond strictly national boundaries. Clearly, Russia’s territorial vastness and geographical range interconnect and intertwine Russia with west and east, north and south, in other words, with Europe and Asia. Indeed, Russia was never alienated from the world. These factors, which certainly make Russia geographically unique, should by no means be mistaken for intrinsic or consistent historical exeptionalism. What Russia’s geographical uniqueness does suggest is the absolute necessity for a contextual framework as a better means for understanding its national history. Therefore, teaching Russian history from within a broader European and global framework discloses more advantages than disadvantages. This approach should involve comparative history, a method of historical inquiry developed by historians in past generations and that we ignore now at our peril.
Teaching history in a comparative context does not ultimately undermine a nation’s individuality or, if you will, uniqueness. Rather, it places a nation’s unique development in a proper context and defines its place (and pace of development) in this context. As regards Russia, this mode of teaching also draws greater attention than is customary to the interdependence and propinquity of Russia and the rest of the world. What has occurred in Russia often (if not always) has had and still has connections with broader European or global historical events and tendencies. When students are led to view Russian developments within a famework that extends beyond its national borders, they will attain a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of its history.
Let me outline more specific goals of teaching Russian history in a broader European and global contexts. To start with, students will develop a fuller and more concrete sense of Russian experience in Europe and the world as major aspects of Russian, European, and world developments. They will also come to more fully appreciate the historicity of Russian state-building and nation-building and distinguish the various spatial and chronological contexts of Russian history. Within a broader context, students will better learn the course of Russia’s identity development, exclusions, inclusions, margins, and various forms of unity. Students will gain a better understanding of the roots of perceptions of and stereotypes about Russia. Students will develop habits of critical thinking and analysis responsive to milieu, interrelations and connections, comparison, and continuities, while being conscious that such responsiveness may require reconsideration of conventional historical assumptions. Lastly and relatedly, this teaching approach will simply better incorporate Russia into European and world history, where, of course, its history belongs.
After all, as noted, the very idea of Russian exceptionalism, so often deployed by native and foreign historians, is hardly unique. When one examines the question of national exceptionalism from within a broad historical context, one sees ever more clearly that the notion is a myth: it is typical of many nations. Rooted in cultural, political, and strategic practicalities, the notion of exeptionalism has been fundamental for shaping ethnic, national, and local societies, as well as those based upon religion. In many instances, it serves communities as a means to justify and carry out certain common purposes and policies. For example, Americans have conceived themselves as exceptionally democratic, liberal, individualistic, and egalitarian, all of which constituted the “ideals of the American creed.” This drives the American perception of its role as leader of global democracy. The British expressed their exceptionalism in terms of being uniquely scientific, rational, and industrious. Other nations in various ways follow suit.
Exceptionalism normally has the characteristic of containing an implied or even openly asserted self-evaluation of one’s own community as superior and “the other” as inferior. The peculiarity, perhaps one might even call it a quirk, of the imperial Russian intellectual tradition, however, was that it developed a strong and surprisingly persistent culture of self-abnegation and hyper-self criticism. Perhaps this is the true Russian exceptionality. One certainly finds it expressed in famous writings of Russian thinkers. For example, members of the late nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia often described Russia as lagging behind the West (i.e. Russia was “inferior”). In reality they probably designed the stringent self-criticism as a discursive means to concrete ends—to spur the government and society toward change or to provoke opposition to the government, without really meaning any ongoing or inherent inferiority. Regardless, the Russian penchant for self-criticism and self-flagellation doubtlessly contributed to the persisting tendency in English-language scholarship to describe Russia as “backward” in comparison to the West. Backwardness has been the predominant, and until very recently barely challenged, notion of Russia’s exeptionalism in English-language histories. Unfortunately, in various guises it is also a trope that is experiencing a huge revival in Western media and government representations of Russia.
Certainly, the Russian intellectual tradition does contain aspects of exceptionalism as the term is normally understood. Still, when analyzed in a broad, comparative context, the tendency may seem less impressive. An example might be the notion of Moscow as the Third Rome, that is, the successor to the legacy of the Roman Empire after Constantinople (the "second Rome"). Putting aside the matter of this idea’s limited currency within Russian society, a Russian claim to be the last inheritor of Christian civilization was hardly unique. The Holy Roman Empire, the Bulgarians, and even the Ottomans alleged themselves to be successors of Rome. After the fall of Constantinople, the Ottoman sultans declared themselves to be Caesars giving them full right to take Rome, which they planned to do. This is not to say that the Russian claim was exactly like all the others; each had its special cultural and political background. A comparative context permits us to draw some necessary distinctions. Arguably, Russia’s claim was less imperialist in essence then religious in that it aimed to indicate Russia as the true successor of Christian civilization. For instance, it seems to have had some currency during the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as Russia attempted to reclaim her original lands but does not seem to have played a role in her later imperial expansion.
Obviously, any efforts at comparative teaching will be limited by existing historical scholarship. Hitherto, when comparing the Russian experience with the experiences of other nations, historians have often implicitly relied on progressive or “Whig” meta-narratives for Western Europe, which traditionally emphasized the advance of capitalism and individualism, the solid, coherent, and politically vigorous middle class, and the West’s alleged liberal proclivities. Although western historiography is no longer dominated by this progressive meta-narrative, it remains a surprisingly tenacious and powerful model, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, for exploring and teaching Russian history.
The oddity of the progressive meta-narrative is that it limits the scope of possible questions about themes of modernity and liberalism. In the case of Russia, it normally draws attention to the country’s alleged otherness and exeptionalism in order to underscore her “underdevelopment” or “backwardness.” In this light, liberalism did not take root in Russia and the middle class did not emerge. This assumption could be validated only by the progressive interpretation of the West when used, as it often is, as an approach to understanding Russia (one might call this prejudicial contextualization). Thus far, the comparative approach has only modified but by no mean challenged the long-established labels. In a broader historiographical context, however, alleged Russian illiberalism and the absence of the middle class have lesser validity.
For example, those wishing to teach from a comparative perspective should consult and base their analysis on the most recent histories, an approach that brings productive results by raising new questions. As regards liberalism, scholars of the phenomenon have long since advanced quite new and different interpretations since the heyday of the Whig and progressive schools. A quick analysis of the rich body of literature on liberalism in Europe suggests that scholars now have no precise definition of the phenomenon. One scholar noted the “huge diversity of the liberal tradition”. Liberalism has been a controversial and never fully accepted political mode of analysis. Perceptions of liberalism are in fact vague and seem to be influenced by individual scholars’ political or ideological preferences. Leftist scholars of Western Europe in effect believe that liberalism died out as an ideology and as a movement in Western Europe by the onset of World War One. Feminist scholars attack liberalism along similar lines. Leftist and feminist critics of liberalism draw attention to liberalism’s incapacity for true emancipation of society: whatever its self-description, liberalism offers freedom only to a minority of the population, i.e. male middle class individuals. But liberalism has been attacked from the right as well. Conservative critics attack liberalism because they want government to be more authoritarian. Thus, if one allows these ambiguities, Russia’s political development can be understood and taught in a more illuminating way.
Too often scholars and teachers of modern Russia underscore the absence of a liberal alternative to the Bolshevik coming to power. This assumption emerges from a long-time perception (or misperception) of Russia’s absent or “underdeveloped” middle class. Teaching the Russian “missing” class in context and in light of recent scholarship calls this persistent belief into question. For instance, new studies of the European middle classes suggest an absence of social and political cohesion in this group. The celebrated historian of French political culture before the Revolution Sarah C. Maza even went further by suggesting the complete absence of the middle class in pre-revolutionary France. Her main thesis is that “the French bourgeoisie did not exist.” Undoubtedly, there were many citizens who were neither rich nor poor, but between 1750 and 1850 no social group could be called “bourgeois.” Maza suggests that “classes only exist if they are aware of their own existence, a knowledge which is inseparable from the ability to articulate an identity.” Something like the modern concept of a “middle class” or “bourgeoisie” came into view only between 1815 and 1830 but the names themselves were seldom utilized consistently. Even in the 1840s “the [French] economy was not capitalist; the electorate was not middle class, and the middle class not substantially larger [than before].” Perhaps Russia’s middle class only seems “missing” or “underdeveloped” in comparison to an imaginary West European one.
A broad contextual approach will provide a better analytical framework for teaching late imperial political culture. Scholars of France and Germany point out an emergence of a “bourgeois-like” culture and civic consciousness, which became driving forces of social and political reforms. This culture included various social segments that ranged all the way from upper classes to lower ones. Even conservative forces began to support some social reforms in order to limit the influence of various radical groups. Perhaps in part out of patriarchal protectionist sentiments, conservatives also supported the introduction of laws that regulated labor relations and provided welfare, medical care, and education for workers. Thus, if we accept some of the concepts associated with liberalism not as sheer “middle class” ideology associated solely with middle class political movements but in broader terms as a philosophy that emphasized the idea of reform and freedom of the individual, as a philosophy of emancipation, then, we can introduce into our classes on Russian history various similar social, economic, and political tendencies. In connection with ideas of freedom and liberalism (as a philosophy), Russian developments were in alignment with, although certainly not identical to, those even in several West European countries that we hold as paradigmatic of the liberal experience.
The still relative scarcity of historical studies that offer fresh data and research presents a problem to teachers. Although some recent studies of late imperial political culture successfully integrate the Russian experience into its proper European context, the topic is still insufficiently explored. The introduction into the syllabus and analysis of appropriate primary materials could benefit class discussions.
Even so, recent studies of late Imperial Russia have the capacity to provide teachers with helpful insights in their attempts to broaden views of Russian state-society relations. Historians have discovered that the Russian “autocratic” state (whether tsarist or Bolshevik) was more dynamic and flexible than previously suggested. They have found a relationship between the state and society and noticed society’s influence on the state. This is particularly true for the late imperial period. As society became more active and self-assured, the state often as not responded not by attempted restriction of all impulses from below but by adapting to these impulses in positive ways. Undoubtedly, the late tsarist state was more dynamic, adaptable, and responsive to public pressures than long-established interpretations have allowed. Even the workings of state bureaucratic institutions, such as the tsarist secret police, the notorious Okhrana, can be interpreted in a novel way in light of recent studies that broaden modes of analysis. The history of an institution traditionally portrayed as all-powerful, all-knowing, and frightening emerges as a somewhat different saga.
Alongside its repressive activities, the secret police interacted with Russian civil society, modified its approaches to society, and, after the 1905 revolution, was even willing to support moderate political reforms, albeit in order to preserve the existing semi-constitutional order. Iain Lauchlan’s study of the Okhrana is appealing for its broad comparative perspective. He has noted that the secret police intended to work with the State Duma, “with [but] not against society.” This interpretation places Russia within the context of pre-war Europe, where secret services were well established and, in some cases, much more efficient than their Russian counterparts. Lauchlian’s study also suggests discontinuity between Imperial and Soviet Russia. The tsarist secret police was by no means comparable to the Bolshevik or Stalinist secret services. In a comparative context, the methods and practices of the Okhrana certainly had nothing in common with the brutalities of the Bolshevik and Soviet secret services or, to expand the comparison, with the Nazi Gestapo.
Comparative and interdisciplinary approaches deliver special benefits for teaching about the Russian peasantry. In recent studies, Russian peasants emerge not so much as agriculturalists limited in experience and outlook, but rather as rural residents, who, often as not, were multi-occupational, mobile, aware of local, national, and even world developments and socially, politically, and legally active. Nevertheless, contemporary members of the progressive-minded intelligentsia had described them in quite different terms, in essence as “dark” and “isolated.” In this regard, European scholarship on the peasantry suggests that the Russian intelligentsia was no different from its European counterparts in their negative view of the peasant. Everywhere in Europe upper classes and intellectuals described lower segments of society, including peasants, in quite negative terms. Weber’s famous study of French society, now brought under heavy criticism, serves as prime example. The older prejudicial perceptions should no longer preoccupy teachers of Russia. One might add that the general field of peasant scholarship has produced a solid collection of local studies. Exploring the peasantry at a micro level allows students to see greater diversity within this group and also among peasant communities. At this point, analysis of rural Russia and peasant life will especially benefit by placing it in a regional, multi-national, and even global context. Anthropological studies can also contribute to understanding the Russian peasantry, in lieu of sufficient micro-histories.
A comparative approach suggests a great range of traditions within continents, nations, and regions. What is usually identified as Europe, Asia, North or Latin America involved a large assortment of local contexts. When comparing Russia with Europe or Asia, one needs to define better what one really means by “Europe” or “Asia.” Is “European culture” British, Italian or perhaps Polish? A comparative framework sensitive to local cultural diversity within large geographical areas, will help answer many of these questions or at least pose the questions differently. For instance, it might be useful to compare regions of Russia with regions elsewhere.
Although, this essay focuses on teaching modern Russia, similar comparative approaches to teaching Soviet history also has promise. Soviet political history can be better understood within European and global contexts. After all, Soviet leaders acted within inter-depended political networks and their decisions were influenced by broader European and global developments. A comparative approach provides useful mediating links between Soviet and Imperial Russian practices and experiences and with international history. It reveals continuities and discontinuities and better highlights differences and similarities.
When applying a comparative perspective to Stalinism, historians usually underscore certain continuities with late imperial Russia and compare or contrast Stalin’s Russia with Nazi Germany. Students would be better served if their teachers raised new questions beyond the hackneyed one of “how Stalinism differed from Nazism or how the two were similar”. Hitherto, depending on political orientation, scholars of Stalinism either pair it with Nazism or react indignantly to these who assert the two systems’ resemblance. By this time, the debate is predictable and, worse, seriously traps the range of potential discussion into a delimited framework. In a similar vein, similarities between late imperial and soviet Russia can be easily overstated. Even comparative frameworks have their perils, especially if they are too limited or have ideological motivations.
Comparative frameworks do not imply negative or positive evaluation. These pages have emphasized the positive about Russia in response to the negativity of much historical analysis and, one might add, of recent public commentary. The goal of Russian-area scholars is not to encourage a return to past biases. Quite the contrary, a part of the Western humanist tradition is to analyze and understand: knowledge versus ignorant prejudice. Such knowledge pertains in great measure to a people’s history. This does not preclude criticism. Unfortunately, praise or criticism from within ideological or nativist bunkers is not worth much Teachers of Russian history should free themselves from Cold War cliché and prejudices. After all, no comparative approach will break up a dogmatic mindset.
Boris B. Gorshkov, Ph. D.
Teaches history at Auburn University
Samuel P. Huntington, “American Ideals versus American Institutions,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 97, No. 1 (Spring, 1982), pp. 1-37
Sarah Maza, The Myth of the French Bourgeoisie: An Essay on the Social Imaginary, 1750–1850 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 5-6.
Iain Lauchlan, Russian Hide-and-Seek: The Tsarist Secret Police in St. Petersburg, 1906-1914 (2002), 275, 301. See also Michael Melancon, Revolutionary Culture in the Early Soviet Republic: Communist Executive Committees versus the Cheka, Fall 1918, Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, 1 (2009).
Eugene Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1976).
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