Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas:  jgo.e-reviews 8 (2018), 1 Rezensionen online / Im Auftrag des Leibniz-Instituts für Ost- und Südosteuropaforschung in Regensburg herausgegeben von Martin Schulze Wessel und Dietmar Neutatz

Verfasst von: Curtis Richardson


Obshchestvennost and Civic Agency in Late Imperial and Soviet Russia. Interface between State and Society. Ed. by Yasuhiro Matsui. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. XI, 234 S., 3 Tab. ISBN: 978-1-137-54722-4.

The monograph is a product of a research project conducted by the Japanese Society for the Study of Russian History through two conferences in 2009 and 2010 and at latter workshops conducted in 2013. The scholars, all of whom the editor pointedly notes are studying and teaching in Japan, embarked on analyses of the contested, fluid, negotiated, and indigenous Russian term obshchestvennost’ through a diachronic prism. The book is a collected set of nine essays covering a little more than one century from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. As the editor notes, the goal of the monograph “is an attempt to reconsider the inextricable link between state and society in modern and contemporary Russia during a period of approximately 100 years [] in a coherent manner, based on the concept of obshchestvennost’.” (p. 6)

The authors of this collected series of articles primarily seek to understand the protean nature of obshchestvennost’ and the various ways scholars have interpreted the term over the years, such as civil society, the intelligentsia, the public, etc. The authors all see these terms as either too broad (the public), too narrow (the intelligentsia), or simply inapt because of the influences of “the prolonged Tsarist autocracy and the particularities of modernisation in Russia”. (p. 7) The editor defines obshchestvennost’ as “a social or public identity constructed through discursive and practical activities, and distinguished from the state, society in general and narod ”. (p. 4) The authors of the essays use this or similar definitions as touchstones in their own analyses, but also demonstrate how there is no one definition precisely because the changing conditions in the late empire, the revolutionary years, and the Soviet era influenced the conceptualization of the term.

With these goals in mind, the authors, clearly profoundly influenced by the scholarship of Vadim Volkov, Joseph Bradley, and Alexei Yurchak, the last of whom participated in the discussions of the volume, analyze obshchestvennost’ not through a simplistic binary understanding of state versus society or state and society or ruler and ruled, as mentioned in the introduction and throughout the set of essays. They instead investigate this concept through the interface, i. e., cross-border components, of state and obshchestvennost’. They note that the Soviet era offered a paradoxical time in the state and society relationship, particularly from 1929 forward with the emergence of Stalin and Stalinism, with much more limited space for civic agency. Nevertheless, collaboration between the Stalinist state and obshchestvennost’ occurred, even if in a circumscribed social space under the realities of Stalinism.

Effectively using archival materials and secondary literature, this outstanding collection of essays effectively illustrates how obshchestvennost’ metamorphosed over the course of the following century. By the late Imperial period, according to Yoshiro Ikeda’s essay on the era of World War One, some Russian liberal proponents conceived of it as “an imagined and highly moralized community struggling for the idea of progress”, and “a surrogate for a public sphere”. (p. 62) The Bolshevik Revolution catalyzed the metamorphosis in new ways with the Communist conceptions of a sovetskaia obshchestvennost’ that by definition privileged the working class and the leading position of the state under gosudarstvennost’. Over the next couple of decades, under the pall of Stalinism, agency remained, albeit under duress. Two of the essays, Yasuhiro Matsui’s analysis of community activities in Moscow in the 1930s and Mie Nakachi’s study of the Soviet medical profession, specifically address obshchestvennost’ in the Stalinist era and demonstrate that it continued to exist, although not in direct opposition to the state but in cooperation with the state. Its advocates did not regard themselves as an opposition but in their interface with the state, considered civic agency in partnership with the state (p. 110), and under the conditions of the Great Patriotic War helped “to embolden Soviet specialists of women’s medicine” to seek more control over women’s medicine. (p. 134) The Thaw of the late 1950s and the early 1960s, during which the government sponsored more active civic agency, although with specific limits, manifested itself in the vigilante brigades and the comrades’ courts, topics of the seventh and eighth chapters. Even here, the idea of cooperation was paramount as opposed to active opposition of the late Tsarist era.

This collection of essays provides an excellent starting point for further research on both conceptions of obshchestvennost’ and obshchestvennost’ as lived experience. There is little to criticize in this work. The editor acknowledges that the temporal limitations of the study that begins in the mid-nineteenth century and end in the 1960s is problematical, and that assessment is correct. This reviewer would have liked to have seen analyses of obshchestvennost’ and its continued evolution in the Gorbachev era and in the post-Soviet era. Nevertheless, this collection of essays successfully accomplished what it set out to do, offering insightful and comparative analyses of obshchestvennost’ as part of the lived experiences of Russian and Soviet history. It additionally presents new challenges and possibly offers novel ways to understand more perspicaciously, as the editor ends the book, how to comprehend “contemporary governmentality, or in other words, a proper arrangement of the triangle of state, market and society”. (p. 223) This collection of essays then is a useful addition to the literature not only on obshchestvennost’ but also on the role of agency even under the most oppressive governments.

Curtis Richardson, Chapel Hill, NC

Zitierweise: Curtis Richardson über: Obshchestvennost’ and Civic Agency in Late Imperial and Soviet Russia. Interface between State and Society. Ed. by Yasuhiro Matsui. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. XI, 234 S., 3 Tab. ISBN: 978-1-137-54722-4, http://www.dokumente.ios-regensburg.de/JGO/erev/Richardson_Matsui_Obshchestvennost_and_Civic_Agency.html (Datum des Seitenbesuchs)

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