Thrown Overboard from the Steamer of Modernity

Geoffrey Hosking

  • Russia in 1913 by Wayne Dowler
    Northern Illinois, 351 pp, £30.50, October 2010, ISBN 978 0 87580 427 9

In 1913 Osip Mandelstam published his first book of poems, Kamen (‘Stone’). His father was a successful Jewish glovemaker from Warsaw who had moved to St Petersburg and sent his son to the Tenishev lycée, probably the finest school in Russia. There Mandelstam had received a broad-ranging education centred on the classics. He revelled in his escape from what he called the ‘tongue-tie and languagelessness’ of provincial Jewish life into the rich and cosmopolitan culture of the Russian metropolis. When he applied to St Petersburg University, however, he came up against the quota imposed to restrict Jews’ access to higher education. In order to go to university – though probably also from some degree of personal conviction – he had himself baptised as a Methodist.

Mandelstam’s story is part of the varied and contradictory texture of Russian life in the decade after the 1905 Revolution. Most Jews were permitted to live only in the Pale of Settlement in western Russia, but Mandelstam’s father belonged to the first guild of merchants, and that status meant they could live in the capital city. Being Jewish proved no bar to Mandelstam’s fine secondary education, but it did impede his progress afterwards. What saved him was that after 1905 all forms of Christianity were legally recognised, so conversion to a church which had not long ago been viewed as heretical removed the impediment.

This fast-changing society is described in Wayne Dowler’s challenging book. Most general histories of Russia portray the years following 1905 as a lull before the 1917 Revolution, a period in which serious internal conflict was waiting to break out again, while nobles continued to fritter away their fortunes and lose their cherry orchards. Some historians even see in these years a steady drift towards socialist revolution, but Dowler attacks such ‘extreme reductionism’. In fact, major changes were taking place, and they were gradually creating a pluralist society: the peaceful negotiation and settlement of conflicting interests was becoming easier. He asserts that, ‘if Russia was still far from becoming a liberal capitalist democracy in 1913, it was even further from socialist revolution. Severe stresses and tensions remained, but the clear trend before the war was towards co-operation and integration.’

This had been made possible by reforms going back to the 1860s. After the serfs were emancipated in 1861, the government set up zemstvos, elective local government assemblies; it created independent law courts; it eased censorship and expanded education at all levels. Civil rights were complemented by a form of constitutional rule in 1905-6, when the tsar sanctioned the creation of an imperial legislative assembly, the State Duma, representing much, though not all, of the adult male population. From then on, speakers in the Duma gave voice, sometimes forcefully, to a wide range of political opinions, and its debates helped to educate the public about society’s problems. Partly stimulated by the Duma, in the years after 1905 there was an exponential growth in the publication of books, journals and newspapers, and they too were politically varied and often fervent. New interest groups were set up representing women, workers, peasants and students, as well as the various professions, ethnic groups and religious faiths. At the same time, voluntary associations were multiplying to deal with social problems; and their demands and ideas were also being highlighted in the newly self-confident press. The radically oppositional 19th-century ‘intelligentsia’ had not disappeared, but was gradually dissolving into a broader, more pragmatic and more diverse middle class.

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