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Reviews New spatial history. Putting place in its proper place in Russia

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages 43, Baltic Worlds 4, 2011
Published on balticworlds.com on januari 18, 2012

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It is astonishing, if not paradoxical, that historians writing about Russia have attached so little significance to space. There is hardly any other place where everyday experience and academic perception are separated by such a wide chasm as in Russia. There is not a single report from people traveling through Russia that does not speak of the breadth and size of the country, the natural features and their cultural implications — sometimes with accurate observations, sometimes leading the reader astray into all manner of speculation. However, we know dozens of histories that discuss all sorts of social and cultural processes and sometimes deal with the most exotic topics, yet do not discuss the most obvious thing: the sheer expanse of the territory, or the zones of extreme cold. But is it even possible to write a history of Russia without starting from these basic experiences, and is it possible to get an idea of life and death in Soviet work camps without speaking of the cold? Speaking about space is considered to be naturalism, and understanding history as defined not only by time but also by space is all too quickly misunderstood as determinism.

Therefore, Mark Bassin, Christopher Ely, and Melissa K. Stockdale did us a great service when they organized a conference devoted to the topic “Space, Place, and Power in Modern Russia”, the proceedings of which have now been published in one volume. Instead of delivering an ordinary commemorative publication for Abbot Gleason, in whose honor the conference was held, the authors have presented a collection of multifaceted and stimulating essays that exemplify what a history book can achieve when it always keeps the spatial dimension in mind. What Nick Baron a few years ago called “a new spatial history of Russia” is, according to the editors in their foreword, not quite so new: after all, prominent Russian historians, particularly Vasily O. Klyuchevsky, have considered space, especially physical geographic space, to be of central importance, and have interpreted the genesis of the Russian Empire as the history of progressive colonization, as a product of imperial space. The editors rightly point out that when this is considered, this “new spatial history” is indeed not so new; however, they do not explain how it came about that the spatial dimension has disappeared in the most important narratives of Russian history — in Russia as well as in the West. In Soviet history books space was categorically reduced in the main to “political system” or “economic geography”; in Western history books it was dealt with under the rubric “environment” — usually in the introductory chapters dealing with geography and climate.

Space is, however, in the newer reading of Edward Soja, Derek Gregory, Henri Lefebvre, and others, not only geographic space but also historic-social-cultural space; not only a passive stage or a closed container, but lived, produced, “created” space, which knows genesis as well as decline. The editors refer to the boom in mostly ideological conceptions of space in post-Soviet Russia, and point out the vacuum that the one-sided Soviet-Marxist fixation on production and political control had left behind. How extraordinarily innovative and productive a sociologically informed local history could be had been demonstrated by the post-revolutionary revival of kraevedenie (local studies) — for example the work of Ivan Grevs and Nikolai Antsiferov, who in many respects were the contemporaries of Fernand Braudel, but in Russia itself were quickly forgotten and repressed (Antsiferov spent many years in the Gulag), and in the West were never recognized. Only the Eurasian school with its innovative and also idiosyncratic theoretical approach is acknowledged (without reference to any others) in the essay by Mark Bassin.

The principal advantage of the present volume does not, however, lie in a critical review of Russian historiography from the point of view of an analysis of its “spatial atrophy” (Carl Schmitt), but in the exemplary demonstration of concrete, sometimes brilliant, field studies. Each of these studies provides proof of the explanatory power of history written with a consciousness of space and place. John Randolph’s study of the main route from St. Petersburg to Moscow shows how a specific spatial corridor was able to come to represent the whole country — that is, Russia — in the eyes of other countries. At the same time, it is a marvelous contribution to the history of Russian mobility. Richard Stites has established, with his very clear and extremely complex study, that the ballroom is the place of society in both the capital and the provinces. Patricia Herlihy shows how the effects of the reports of the American Eugene Schuyler molded the Western understanding of Russian Turkestan. Robert Argenbright’s contribution about the agit-trains and agit-ships that brought Soviet power to the provinces — at least in terms of propaganda —  during the civil war is a fascinating study of the production of Soviet territoriality in a space that was not yet fully under control.

In the third section of the volume, too, we can see the possibilities of history written with a consciousness of space. Christopher Ely reads urban space as a “document” of the era of Alexander I, and Sergei I. Zhuk interprets the transformation of the spiritual, even “holy landscape” of Ukraine during the last part of the Tsarist Empire. Cathy A. Frierson analyzes the radical change of the cityscape dominated by churches and monasteries in post-Soviet Vologda. Isa A. Kirchenbaum reads the changes in street names and public spaces as an indicator of social transformation.

Above all, it is the case studies that show what a “new spatial history” could achieve. There, too, it becomes clear that from this perspective the supply of sources available for writing history increases enormously — street names, architectural styles of buildings, public spaces, interiors, and so on — and that the repertoire of types of research and presentation is changing in the direction of observation and exploration of spaces — which after all cannot be understood solely by reading texts and archive documents.

This reviewer finds it somewhat regrettable that the literature available for space history outside Anglo-Saxon and American literature was not taken into account, and also that there is no mention of pioneer works of “a new spatial history avant la lettre” — such as Roger Pethybridge’s study on the importance of the railway network for the spread of the Russian Revolution. ≈

Mark Bassin, Christopher Ely & Melissa K. Stockdale (eds.) Space, Place, and Power in Modern Russia, Essays in the New Spatial History, DeKalb, Northern Illinois University Press, 2010, 268 pages