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History, Villagers, and the Social Scientists: Wrestling with the Past in the Present

  • Tracy McDonald (a1)

Extract

What is the relationship between the historical Soviet countryside and the post-Soviet present both for the scholars who study them and for the population that inhabits them? Together Margaret Paxson, Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village; Jessica Allina-Pisano, The Post-Soviet Potemkin Village: Politics and Property Rights in the Black Earth; and Douglas Rogers, The Old Faith and the Russian Land: A Historical Ethnography of Ethics in the Urals create a rich, nuanced portrait of contemporary rural life in parts of the former Soviet Union. When one reads the three books together, one finds evidence of interesting continuity alongside dynamism and change that varies depending on the region and on the questions that motivated the researcher. The three works ask in varied ways how individuals in post-Soviet society perceive their world and attempt to live in it. The three studies extend far and wide across the territory of the former Soviet Union: Solovyovo, three hundred miles north of Moscow; the Black Earth, more than four hundred miles to the south; and Sepych, about one thousand miles to the east.

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NOTES

I would like to thank Susan Solomon and Janet Hyer for very helpful feedback on this review. And I would like to thank Kate Brown for her many patient and insightful suggestions along the way.

1. Shanin, Teodor, Defining Peasants: Essays Concerning Rural Societies, Expolary Economies, and Learning from them in the Contemporary World (Oxford, 1990), 2324.

2. I was struck by the degree to which her descriptions of one of her principal informant's work as a “healer” was very reminiscent of Michael Macdonald's seventeenth-century “physician,” Napier, Richard, in Mystical Bedlam (Cambridge, 1981). Like Napier, Paxson's Mikhail Alekseevich mixed traditional and modern medicine (155). In essence, he practiced what worked for his patients, and like Napier's patients virtually all were well known to him. Both men combined a good deal of counseling as well as traditional and “modern” medicinal treatments and intervention.

3. Farnsworth, Beatrice, “The Litigious Daughter-in-law: Family Relations in Rural Russia in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century,” Slavic Review 45 (1986): 4964; and Worobec, Christine, Peasant Russia: Family and Community in the Post-Emancipation Period (New Jersey, 1991).

4. Field, Daniel, Rebels in the Name of the Tsar (Boston, 1976).

5. Kingston-Mann, Esther, “Peasants, Communes, and Economic Innovation: A Preliminary Inquiry,” in Peasant Economy, Culture, and Politics of European Russia, 1800–1921, ed. Kingston-Mann, Esther and Mixter, Timothy (New Jersey, 1991).

6. I think of Pohl, Michaela, “‘It Cannot Be That Our Graves Will Be Here:’ The Survival of Chechen and Ingush Deportees in Kazakhstan, 1944–1957,” Journal of Genocide Research, 4 (2002): 401430. Pohl is one of the few historians who talks about the racial discrimination that Chechens faced at the hands of the new arrivals to the “virgin lands.”

7. There is a striking scene in Liev Schreiber's Everything is Illuminated (2005) in which a key character's tiny traditional village home sits alone in the middle of a massive field of sunflowers. The scene has even more resonance when one understands the financial and agricultural results of this particular crop.

8. For more, see his review essay, Historical Anthropology Meets Soviet History,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 7 (Summer 2006): 633649. The essay calls for greater discussion among anthropologists and historians of the former Soviet bloc.

9. Work is just beginning that uses violence as an analytical tool rather than simply as a way of describing or categorizing the Soviet state. See, for example, Kritika: Explorations in Russian & Eurasian History 4 (Winter 2003) devoted to the subject. There was a recent conference at the University of Nottingham, April 6–7, 2010, focusing on the issue.

10. In one of his least-discussed books, Political Undercurrents in Soviet Economic Debate: From Bukharin to the Modern Reformers (Princeton, 1974), Moshe Lewin looks at contemporary Soviet scholars and makes a similar argument.

History, Villagers, and the Social Scientists: Wrestling with the Past in the Present

  • Tracy McDonald (a1)

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