Reviews

The present book is not just one more work on Russia’s revolutionary year, but a history of the February Revolution seen from province. Taking part in a burgeoning trend on regional history, Sarah Badcock proposes a new history of the Revolution as experienced in the two Volga provinces of Nizhni Novgorod and Kazan. The failure of the eight months of Russia’s experiment of democracy is studied in a well informed narrative based on local newspapers and archive materials. Inside its chronological frame, the book is structured thematically on linear comparisons between both provinces (chapters 2, 7, 8) and on general investigations (chapters 3, 4, 5, 6). After an introductive overview of the year 1917 and of the two regions’ demographic features, the author states the invalidity of the dual power paradigm (“soviets” vs. “provisional government”) and looks for the roots of the latter‘s failure in the political experience of ordinary people. The local population consciously refused to obey orders that contradicted their own interests, which led to overall disorganisation.

Putting the stress on the dominance of local interests on national ones, the author introduces the split of Russian state (chapter 2) as a result of the failure of political élites to define a clear understanding of the revolution. The ethnic and linguistic variety of the Kazan province is seen as the indicator of an alleged incommunicability: “Tatars, Cheremis and Chuvash did not share language, letters or religion with the Russians which made attempts to spread news particularly difficult (p. 37).” Missing the high level of bilingualism of vernacular élites, the author completely neglects the reception of revolutionary events by non-Russians. In the third chapter, the case of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, of its heterogeneity, factionalism and organisational failings, is used to analyse the failure on local level of the democratic political system. Interesting statements are made on the importance of local conditions and popular personalities. The analysis shows with indisputable illustrations how in the countryside, occupational identities were much more important than identification with particular political parties. The non-evocation of the Ittifaq al-muslimin party weakens the relevance of the remarks on the manipulations of parties by local interests. Moving to the individual level and evaluating the selection process and the social background of local leaders in 1917, the fourth chapter confirms that party political affiliations were less decisive than local ones. Unfortunately, the author writes about local leadership without taking into account the Sufi paths and other solidarity networks involved in political life in Kazan and Nizhni Novgorod regions. The sometimes violent movements of resistance to elections among non-Russians are explained by hostility towards Russian intervention. Obsessed by communicative issues, the author pays no attention to the very active participation of Muslim urban élites in the political life of these regions. Neither Islamic reformism, nor the first Muslim Congress (in 1904 in Nizhni Novgorod) is evocated. The fifth chapter confirms on a regional basis the work by Orlando Figes and Boris Kolonitskii (Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917, New Heaven, CT, 1999) on the gap that existed between the language of villagers and that of the Revolution. The author provides full details on the difficulties encountered by the so-called “cultural enlightenment campaigns” which aimed at improving communication with non-Russians and to bring ordinary people into civil life (through theatre, songs, spectacles . . .). In chapter six, the soldiers appear as the main source of the escalation of violence and of the collapse of political authority in the regions. Deserters in particular are attributed a particularly active role in the incitement of populations against the grain monopoly in Kazan. The soldatki (“Soldiers’ Wives”) movement deepened the sense of crisis and offered an unusual example of female participation in revolutionary politics (p. 180). However, relation is not established between the half million of Muslim soldiers who sought to assert their own specific identity and the spread of the Muslim movements in 1917 among soldiers. The book‘s last two chapters concentrate on the population’s action on the key issues of land property and food crisis. During the summer, threats of famine reinforced tensions in regional administration and both regions were among Russia’s most active in terms of number of recorded jacqueries. The description of the range of pseudo legal, intimidating or violent tactics employed by peasants to gain use of land is instructive on the nature of conflicts but once again the analysis is inconsistent on the national question. Despite their centrality in modern regional historiographies, ethnic rivalries around land control are totally ignored. Some affirmations (like: “In Cheboksary uezd one of Kazan’s most politically tumultuous provinces . . .,” p. 221) are not explained at all. Other non argued statements (like: “The non-Russian population was particularly hostile to refugees,” p. 225; “Kazan province offered virulent resistance to the grain monopoly, fuelled in places by particular intransigence from the non-Russian population,” p. 227) restrain the value of a book based for the most part on complaints by administrators against their unfaithful subjects who “did not understand Russian (p. 234).”

In all, as far as official political life is concerned, the description is relevant on the progressive desegregation of central government authority, when during summer local populations acted more often in accordance with what they perceived as their own immediate interests. The book shows all the significance of locality (both urban and rural) in defining the shape of the revolutionary year. However the absence of non-Russians from the primary materials and analyses raises questions as to the book’s overall relevance in regional history. Despite the differentiation of both provinces in terms of ethnic composition operated in the introduction, this aspect remains ignored in the rest of the work, as well as the numerous recent contributions that have renewed our overall perception of Muslim political activism in 1917.

Xavier Le Torrivellec, French-Russian Centre for Human & Social Sciences, Moscow
CER: II-3.2.C-172