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New Biographies in World History


Big Empire, Little Stories: Biography, Microhistory, and Eurasian History

Mark A. Soderstrom


     "You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country." So began the history lesson Vladimir Putin is said to have given George W. Bush when the two leaders met at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest. "What is Ukraine?" Putin continued. "Part of its territory is in Eastern Europe, but the greater part is a gift from us."1

     Who was the "us"? Presumably, Putin had the Russian state in mind. But Russia's history, like that of Ukraine, extends back to the medieval polity of Kievan Rus, which, awkwardly for Putin's "gift" narrative, was oriented around the city that is now the capital of Ukraine. After Kievan Rus disintegrated in the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century, the lands that now constitute Ukraine were increasingly influenced by Poland-Lithuania, while to their northeast, the city of Moscow emerged as a major power as it absorbed neighboring principalities and, over time, knit together the vast, multiethnic Russian Empire. The word "Ukraine" (Ukraina) came into use during this period to denote the lands at ("u") the borderland ("krai") between the realms of Catholic Poland-Lithuania and Orthodox Russia. The latter, of course, managed to incorporate most of this borderland region by the end of the eighteenth century. Following the lead of Western European empires in the Americas, Catherine II ("the Great") even went so far as to label part of these lands—some of the "oldest," in a sense, in Russian history—as Novorossiya: "New Russia."

     But a state is not a people: who are the people behind Putin's nationalist "us"? To say simply "Russians" would cause further confusion. Whereas the English language has a single term to denote Russianness as both a marker of ethnicity and as a marker of belonging within a political community, the Russian language has distinct words for the two meanings: Russkii, from Rus (the lands and polity of old Kievan Rus), denotes "Russian" as a marker of ethnicity; Rossiiskii denotes "Russian" as a marker of political belonging. Whereas ethnic Russians were Russkii, all subjects of the Russian Empire—Ukrainian, Georgian, Chukchi, Pole, Tatar, and so many others alike—were Rossiiskii.

     Taking such complexity seriously has been fundamental to much recent scholarship on Eurasian history. Ever since the Soviet Union fractured along "national" borders—themselves drawn and, with them, new identities incubated, under Soviet rule—historians have spotlighted the human diversity of the Russian Empire. This was an empire run by a cosmopolitan royal family—Nicholas II and Alexandra spoke English at home—and with a population that was less than half Russkii by the late nineteenth century. What historians have discovered in probing the imperial, multi-ethnic, multi-confessional, and regional dimensions of its history is an empire that ruled its different peoples in different ways, with pragmatism and flexibility often defining its approach. The simplistic, essentializing assumptions of nationalist discourse were rather foreign to this world in which hybridity was often the norm, but in time they generated new ways of imagining identity and, with them, new tensions.2

     Any attempt to grasp the scale and diversity of Eurasia comes with inevitable historiographical challenges. Among them is the need to balance the general with the particular, a challenge of particular interest for the discussion here. As the editors of one of the books discussed below explain, "largely missing from the new historiography [on Russia and the Soviet Union] . . . are people—or rather, personalities. Individuals unavoidably appear in the scholarship, but the stuff of their lives is rarely central to the argument historians make about the empire or even the broader picture they draw."3 When studying an empire in which hybridity was normal, however, the individual life is an essential unit of analysis; it can offer not only a colorful and engaging portrait, but a better understanding of how the empire worked in practice: what it meant to do its work, to be subjected to its rule, or merely to be alive within its frontiers.

     Each of the books discussed below provides insight into these larger questions in its own way. Some focus on the empire's most diverse borderlands; others examine the (for many) more familiar regions of "central" Russia. But each, by carefully balancing attention between the particularities of the individual life on the one hand, and the larger structures of the empire and contours of historical change on the other, offers an enlightening, often surprising portrait that enriches our understanding of Eurasian history—and contributes to a growing contingent of historical scholarship that has taken biography and microhistory seriously.4 They help us see the Russian Empire not only from the perspectives of rulers and revolutionaries, the most iconic figures in the most familiar narrative of Russian history, but from the perspectives of the wider panoply of people who made the empire tick. Together, they provide a rich trove of material to better understand Eurasian history, place Russia and Eurasia within a world historical perspective, and engage students in the classroom.

Imagined Lives

     Among the books that hold particular promise for classroom use is Donald Ostrowski and Marshall Poe's Portraits of Old Russia: Imagined Lives of Ordinary People, 13001725.5 It brings together twenty-three brief life stories written by leading scholars of early modern Russian history. Each is crafted to introduce readers to early modern Russian society, from the rise of Muscovy through the reign of Peter I (1689–1725). Each "portrait" is approximately ten pages long—a handy length for supplementing reading assignments from a more traditional textbook. The editors divide the portraits into seven parts, each designed to reflect a different facet of Russian society: members of ruling families; government servitors; military personnel; church prelates; monks; provincial landowners, artisans, and townspeople; Siberian explorers and traders; and peasants, slaves, serfs, and holy fools.

     The most distinctive feature of Portraits of Old Russia is the style in which the portraits are written. Each chapter offers an "imaginative reconstruction," whether of an imaginary person, a composite portrait intended to depict a type, or an account of a historical figure. These are, the editors explain, "historical fiction," in which "artistic creativity and respect for the historical record work hand in hand to produce narratives that are engaging, entertaining, and informative without being misleading."6

     Such an approach, however unusual, is indeed engaging. Take, for instance, the opening of Nancy Shields Kollmann's chapter on provincial landowners:

Aleksei Petrovich Shubalov peered across the field where his peasants and men were sowing grain. It was springtime, and planting season was in full swing. In the near distance he saw what he knew was trouble—his neighbor Vasilii Vasilievich Glebov was riding in to the field on his nag, accompanied by his two sons Fedor and Ivan, nicknamed Tretiak, followed by a motley crowd of his peasants and servants. Not again, he thought to himself.7

Or Valerie Kivelson's description of a poor townswoman accused of witchcraft:

Oksanka rubbed her chafed wrists and looked back over her shoulder, taking one last look at the office of the town governor, where she had been confined in chains for eight months while her case had dragged on. Released upon the tsar's merciful judgment and decree, she somberly trudged across the square to join her husband, Mitka, who stood waiting for her. She was free to go now, but that prospect filled her with uncertainty and dread. Where would they go? How would they support themselves?8

Kollmann and Kivelson do not stop at evocative descriptions, but go on to render defendants whose paths through Muscovy's court system meander in ways that illuminate broader contours of Muscovite society and politics. Kollmann describes a fracas in which Aleksei Shubalov's son kills one of Glebov's "motley crowd," which had come to harass the Shubalovs over disputed land. She uses the story to underscore the agency with which Muscovites navigated the court system. Shubalov manages to hijack the ensuing homicide investigation by declaring that the Glebovs had insulted his wife. The Glebovs deny the charge, but rather than take an oath—and risk eternal damnation—in support of their claims, both the Glebovs and Shubalovs agree to settle the case outside of court, as the governor overseeing the case hoped they would all along. Kivelson also depicts a meandering legal dispute. Her Oksanka is a widowed soldier's wife who joins the household of a prosperous townsman as a housekeeper after her husband's long illness and death leaves her in dire straits. The townsman, however, marries Oksanka to a man indentured to serve him for seven years, whom he refuses to free after this term is up, claiming that he and Oksanka are now his slaves. Oksanka seeks assistance from a "wise woman and purveyor of spells," who gives Oksanka a potion to add to her masters' soup, so that they might treat her more kindly. After the masters fall sick, however, a household slave accuses Oksanka of witchcraft, for which she is sentenced to be buried alive with her head exposed until she starves. But Oksanka manages to stall the punishment by having her husband—with whom, despite original lack of interest, she now has children and a modicum of happiness—pay a scribe to write and send a petition to the tsar himself. The governor, who does not dare carry out the sentence while the petition is pending, is eventually ordered by Moscow to begin the investigation anew, and after eight months Oksanka is freed—but without her children, and with no prospects.

     These are only a sample of the engaging portraits that make up this unique and engaging book. Its vivid evocations of place, personal drama, and the politics of everyday life work to make Muscovite society seem almost intimate to the reader, humanizing a time and a place that often seems so remote. This is a particularly attractive feature of the book as a teaching tool. As those who have struggled to find supplementary readings on early modern Russia for use in the classroom know, the "silence of Muscovy" has left us with relatively few options that are accessible and engaging to students new to the topic.9 Portraits of Old Russia manages to engage the reader, but it does so through chapters written by leading scholars in the field known for their close readings of the sources that do survive. It also includes an impressive apparatus of explanatory materials to orient readers relatively new to the topic: an extensive timetable of events, an impressively detailed glossary of Russian terms, a chapter on Muscovite naming practices, and a transcription and pronunciation guide for Russian names.

Imperial Lives

     Stephen Norris and Willard Sunderland's Russia's People of Empire: Life Stories from Eurasia, 1500 to the Present adopts a similar structure to that of Portraits of Old Russia: thirty-one "life stories," each about ten pages in length.10 But these are microhistorical studies of individual lives, in contrast to Portraits of Old Russia's imagined evocations. And whereas Portraits seeks above all to introduce "ordinary people" across the spectrum of early modern Russian society, Russia's People of Empire aims to show how the dizzying diversity of the empire fashioned and relied upon people who lived "cross-cultural lives." Each chapter depicts a life story reflective of the cultural mixing that was not only a byproduct of empire, but that helped the empire function. Their authors take a microhistorical approach, using these lives—or episodes from them—to speak to larger themes in the empire's history.11 Some chapters examine familiar individuals: Ermak Timofeevich (1530s/40s–1585), the Cossack conqueror of the Siberian Khanate; the German Princess Sophie Auguste Frederike von Anhalt-Zerbst, who we know as Catherine II ("the Great") of Russia (1729–1796); Imam Shamil (1797–1871), who led a holy war in the Caucasus against Russian rule; the Georgian cobbler's son Ioseb Jugashvili, better known as Stalin (1873–1953). Others treat less familiar subjects: Simeon Bekbulatovich (15??–1616), the Tatar commander in the Muscovite army who briefly replaced Ivan IV ("the Terrible") as tsar in 1575–1576 and was later tonsured as a monk, the Elder Stefan; the mysterious Johannes Ambrosius Rosenstrauch (1768–1835), a German immigrant, actor, merchant, freemason religious convert, writer, and pastor who came to Russia at the beginning of the nineteenth century; Kutlu-Mukhammad Batyr-Gireevich Tevkelev (1850–19??), a nobleman, Muslim, and elected deputy to the newly formed Duma; Jahon Obidova (1900–1967), the fourth wife of a Tajik man, who fled her home and became an exemplary communist.

     As these selections indicate, the book features a diverse cast whose very makeup effectively challenges assumptions packed into the word "Russian." It does more than complicate the picture, however: it helps the reader see cultural mixing, diversity, and empire not as features of the frontier, but as fundamental components of the Russian polity—Muscovy, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation alike. How else are we to make sense of a man like Vladislav Surkov (1964–)? Born Aslambek Andarbekovich Dudayev, Surkov, a half-Chechen heavy metal fan with a portrait of Tupac Shakur in his Kremlin office, was the primary ideologist for the message of Russian revival underpinning much of Putin's tenure in office. Despite feeling liberated by the fall of the Soviet Union—"I felt an enormous sense of relief, as if a huge leech had dropped from my back"—he played a pivotal role under Putin in advocating for a more centralized state, for criticism of Western-style democracy, and for assertion of state control over the "commanding heights" of the economy.12 As Karen Dawisha writes in her blistering conclusion, Surkov

has been the chief pen behind the violation of law in the name of order; the ending of democracy in the name of its establishment; the criticism of Yeltsin-era oligarchs despite his having been the direct beneficiary of that era and being at the center of the current pay-to-play system; . . . and the promoting . . . of a xenophobic, anti-immigrant view of the Eurasian space. That he vilified the USSR as a 'leech' and saw the post-Soviet system as one of unequaled opportunity is interesting; that he has single-handedly done so much to serve as the handmaiden for the reestablishment of a vast Russian empire based on the venality of elites who rule from within thick Kremlin walls is tragic.13

To make sense of a life story like Surkov's requires, as Russia's People of Empire helps us do so well, that we not reify individuals as types—"Russian," "Chechen," "Soviet," etc.—but situate them within the contexts that made them who they were, and within the flow of history that transformed their fates.

     Surkov's is just one life story of many that teachers and students of Russian history will find captivating. Russia's People of Empire, like Portraits of Old Russia, is ideally geared for the classroom, whether as a resource for preparing lectures or as a required text. Integrating the diversity of Eurasia into surveys of Russian and Soviet history is enormously challenging, but the book's chronological structure—spanning five centuries of history—positions it well to complement and enliven textbook narratives oriented around the "central" Russia and the "twin capitals" of Moscow and Petersburg.

Forbidden Love

     Douglas Smith's The Pearl: A Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great's Russia focuses on this more familiar Russia—and on the more familiar theme of serfdom.14 But the book challenges familiar images of Russian serfdom through its intense focus on lives on opposite sides of the social fault line that separated lord from serf. Smith tells the story of the relationship between the stupendously wealthy Count Nicholas Sheremetev (1751–1809) and Praskovia Kovalyova (1768–1803), the serf who under his watch became a renowned opera singer. Nobles from around Russia, as well as Catherine II and her successor, Paul I, enthusiastically watched "The Pearl," as Praskovia came to be known, perform at Kuskovo, the Sheremetev estate outside Moscow. Sheremetev was obsessed with staging a first-rate show, and he poured his wealth into building a theater and troupe that that rivaled the best in Paris and Vienna. It was this obsession that brought him together with Praskovia, whom he first met when she was a child. She joined his theater at age nine, and he took her as his mistress by her mid-teen years. He granted her legal freedom in 1798, before secretly marrying her in 1801. She died after giving birth to their first child two years later.

     In Smith's telling, Nicholas Sheremetev was a "reluctant revolutionary." Considering Sheremetev's social position, the phrase is striking. His wealth was staggering: he owned 210,000 serfs at the time of his death in 1809. Like other elite nobles, he was raised on the assumption of a fundamental difference—sanctioned by God, tsar, and tradition—between enlightened men like himself at the pinnacle of society and the unenlightened ("dark") masses of peasants far below. Sheremetev "never completely freed himself of such beliefs," Smith notes, but was well ahead of his time nonetheless.15 Nobles who attended productions at Kuskovo were scandalized, for instance, that, instead of listing serf actor names in their familiar forms—Masha, Pasha, Sasha, et. al.—Sheremetev supplied full names, according the serfs a respect that many nobles deemed unseemly. Smith argues that Sheremetev came to accept Praskovia as his equal, exhibiting an "unmistakably modern sensibility" about marital relations and affection. The couple's shared passion for opera, and love for one another, proved stronger than the pull of tradition and the guffaws of his fellow aristocrats. Smith's description of Praskovia's funeral in Petersburg dramatically makes the point, and is reflective of the book's style more generally:

Along the route, crowds gathered to witness the procession. As the cortege made its way down Nevsky Prospect, more police had to be summoned to hold back the throng. One group, however, was strangely absent. The city's nobles did not attend the funeral even though the Sheremetevs were one of Russia's richest and most distinguished families. They stayed home because they knew the secret about Praskovia's past that this blinding splendor had been intended to obscure. She was not the descendant of Polish nobility, as the silver plate on her coffin proclaimed. Rather, she had been one of the count's serfs, the daughter of his illiterate blacksmith, and his longtime mistress.

     The nobles weren't the only ones who stayed away that day. Praskovia's husband, Count Nicholas Sheremetev, also didn't attend. He remained at the Fountain House crushed with grief, unable to rise from his bed.16

"Nicholas's personal journey of moral transformation," Smith concludes, "was one the Russian society as a whole had to undertake before serfdom could be ended."17

     But if Nicholas did indeed come to see in Praskovia "not just an outlet for sexual desire but a woman worthy of his respect, love, and name," how did she see him?18 She was, after all, his property, a serf with little power to resist her master's attention. Surviving sources provide few answers. Nicholas and Praskovia were so often together that they had little need to correspond by letter, nor did Praskovia exchange letters with friends in whom she might have confided. To tell their story, Smith relies on what he calls "conjurer's tricks" more familiar to biography than to history, such as vivid descriptions of locales and speculations about feelings and motives. Smith acknowledges that Praskovia's feelings are likely unknowable, but suggests that Praskovia was aware that Sheremetev "made her who she was, and she was grateful."19 Sheremetev's attention—his bringing her into the theater company, his educating her—utterly distanced her from fellow serfs who worked the land. It also made him a man utterly unlike so many of his peers, who were scandalized by the marriage, which raised troubling questions about noble privilege and, because he and Praskovia had an heir, disinherited numerous Sheremetev relatives.

     However speculative Smith's approach must be at times, he is an able conjurer, particularly in conveying the response of aristocratic society to Sheremetev's actions. His engrossing description of the scenes of Praskovia and Nicholas' lives, like those in Portraits of Russia, create a sense of place and draw readers in. As a result, The Pearl should prove enlightening for a wide variety of readers.

Conspicuous Consumption

     The charm of David Ransel's A Merchant's Tale: The Life and Adventures of Ivan Alekseevich Tolchënov, Based on His Diary lies not, like that of The Pearl, in its subject's extraordinariness, but in its mundaneness. As the title makes clear, Ransel's book is modeled on Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Pulitzer- and Bancroft-prizewinning A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 17851812.20 Both historians examine laconic, businesslike diaries written by people of the sort who rarely wrote diaries as a means to explore the larger community of which their authors were a part.

     Ransel's subject, Ivan Tolchënov (1754–1824), was a grain merchant based in the central Russian town of Dmitrov. For forty years he recorded his experiences almost daily, leaving behind a record of one merchant's education, commercial activities, family dynamics, civic activities, and more. Ransel's perceptive analysis of the diary challenges stereotypical understandings of the Russian merchantry as "static, benighted, and self-enclosed," showing the "multifaceted role that a merchant could play in the larger community of which he was a part, including the entire range of the social hierarchy."21

     The diary reveals a merchant who, while moving in step with the seasonal rhythms of the family trade, engaged in a project of "self-fashioning." Though remarkably prosperous in his own right, Tolchënov aspired to share in the fashions, habits, privileges, relative security that nobles enjoyed. His family had been commercially active in Dmitrov since the early seventeenth century. The town's merchants specialized in purveying grain, purchased along the Volga and its tributaries, to the imperial capital. It was along these well-traveled river routes, particularly as they acquainted him with Moscow and Petersburg, that Tolchënov whetted his appetite for social advancement. Unusually, however, he continued his formal education under the supervision of a monk at a Petersburg seminary, which helped turn him into a reader—and, likely, a diary writer—for life. He took over the family business at age twenty-four in the wake of his father's death, after which he increasingly engaged in expensive forms of consumption and civic activities: the purchase of a pocket watch, visits to gardens and parks, attendance at the theater, charitable projects, civic leadership positions, the construction of a townhouse. The latter was a flashy symbol of his rising status: the first private residence in Dmitrov to be built of brick, it was accentuated by orangeries, fish ponds, and gardens. But Tolchënov consumed far beyond his means. And despite falling deeply into debt, he could not afford to curtail his conspicuous consumption for fear of jeopardizing his creditworthiness. "His social capital," writes Ransel, "was very much also his working financial capital. Skimping was not wise."22

     Especially noteworthy about Ransel's approach is the way in which he charts the arc of Tolchënov's career and social aspirations while never losing sight of the private, emotional dimensions of the merchant's world. We catch glimpses, for instance, of how Tolchënov the father made sense of a reality in which the "teeming death of small children" was the norm. Tolchënov was the only of nine children to escape childhood alive; only four of his own sixteen would do the same. Death's frequency meant maintaining a certain emotional distance from children who died in infancy—as Tolchënov's single, terse diary entries about their deaths attest. But Tolchënov was a loving father, as his description of his daughter Katen'ka, who died shortly before her first birthday in 1786, makes clear:

[H]er intelligence was well ahead of her age, for she understood everything right away and even went beyond what you would expect. For example, seeing that a door in a room was not closed or that . . . jars of kvas were not covered, she noticed all that herself and was not content until things had been put right. She loved horses and cows, and her favorite thing to do was to visit our sorrel horses and to feed them oats, pet them, and kiss them . . . Her face resembled mine exactly and she was so very sweet, and she had two teeth, one of which at hear death remained not quite fully grown out.23

The father was similarly aware of how his pursuit of social advancement came to hurt his family. After a long bankruptcy trial and the selling of his prized house, he explained that he "deprived myself and my innocent family of all . . . through my excessive luxury and inattention to business [and . . . ] from a beautiful home I moved to the dark and noisy rooms of a Moscow apartment, where my sole occupation was the manufacture of playing cards, which in that year did not even yield a profit."24 Always a believer in the power of miracle-working icons, relics, and religious pilgrimages, he became ever more devout after his bankruptcy, particularly as his health declined with age.

     Ransel deftly places Tolchënov within larger historical and historiographical contexts. This obscure merchant's expensive, ultimately ruinous project of self-fashioning, he explains, has something to tell us about imperial Russian society. Because the empire "was ruled as a collection of socially specific groups and archives were accordingly organized and preserved by institution and social position," the interactions between different social groups has received insufficient attention from historians. Tolchënov's diary offers "a way around the barriers posed by this structure of preserved knowledge," as it reveals a merchant in daily contact with people from all social levels, hinting in the process at the "shared cultural and social practices that held Russia together and gave meaning to its collective life."25

Bitter Choices

     Like Ransel, Michael Khodarkovsky adopts a microhistorical approach in Bitter Choices: Loyalty and Betrayal in the Russian Conquest of the North Caucasus. The book introduces us to Semën Semënovich Atarshchikov (1807–1845), a Cossack officer who served the Russian army as a translator and expert on the peoples of the North Caucasus. Atarshchikov's life was defined by its liminality. Though he ultimately chose his native North Caucasus over the Russian Empire, the latter constituted not only the political community, but much of the cultural matrix through which he understood the world. Atarshchikov's story, Khodarkovsky argues, can serve as a "metaphor for the history of the North Caucasus' indigenous peoples."26

     There is much to support the claim, for Atarshchikov—like the people examined in Russia's People of Empire—is emblematic of the cultural hybridity so common to imperial situations. The son of a Chechen father and Nogay mother, he was distinguished from his Cossack peers by his knowledge of four languages: Russian, Arabic, Chechen, Kumyk. Translators like him provided not only the linguistic, but the cultural expertise that was essential to the Russian conquest of the Caucasus. But despite having made a promising career for himself in the Russian army, Atarshchikov fled across the frontier in 1841 to live among the highlanders. He converted to Islam, married a local highlander's daughter, and led raids against the Russian forces until his death in 1845 at the hands of a fellow fugitive Cossack. In the end, Khodarkovsky explains, "this model Russian officer turned out to be a native son of the Caucasus," and "his story is the story of the Caucasus itself: a region of seductive landscapes, exotic languages, diverse peoples, ancient customs, tangled identities, and divided loyalties."27

     Khodarkovsky aims to offer a "history of the North Caucasus during the three centuries of Russian conquest (1560s–1860s)," and the individual life is indeed a helpful means over the hurdles that face any historian of this complex region.28 Commonly associated with Islam today, the North Caucasus was as diverse religiously as it was in so many other respects. Not until the nineteenth century did either Orthodox Christianity and Islam gain stronger footholds here, the former as the religion of the imperial authority, the latter increasingly associated with resistance to that authority—especially following the declaration of holy war (ghazawat) against the Russian state from the late eighteenth century onward. This holy war, Khodarkovsky emphasizes, was as much about spreading Islam in the North Caucasus as it was about resisting Russian conquest. That conquest cost Russia dearly. Lack of resources, rugged mountain terrain, and resistance from the local population—sometimes aided by neighboring Islamic empires—meant that the Russian conquest was a sluggish, three-century affair. Military expenditures on the region swallowed an estimated one-sixth of the entire imperial budget in the 1840s, and Russia lost an estimated 100,000 solders in battle and vastly more to disease. "If one assumes that an equal number of natives died during the Russian conquest of the region," Khodarkovsky notes, "it would mean that two million people perished so that an estimated population of four million natives could be annexed to Russia."29

     A product of both imperial and local cultures who served throughout the North Caucasus, Atarshchikov offers a revealing vantage point on the fragmented region's history. His father Ismail, taken hostage in the 1780s—a standard diplomatic practice between the Russian state and local chiefs—learned Russian, converted to Christianity, and was then sent, as his son would be, to serve in a Cossack regiment as a translator. Ismail married a Nogay herdsman's daughter, who had been sold as a slave an Armenian merchant and raised as a Cossack. They sent their eight-year-old son back across the frontier to be raised by an atalyk—a "combination of adopted father, caretaker, and tutor" common to the region—so that he would learn the language and customs of his father's forebears. Atarshchikov spent seven years in the ancestral village, where he watched residents rebel against the local ruler, who was supported by the Russian state. As Khodarkovsky memorably puts it, "Although Semën did not yet realize it, the world of his childhood was already on an irreversible collision course with the world of his adolescence."30

     That collision course defies a brief summary, but the title Bitter Choices captures the main theme. At sixteen, Atarshchikov was enlisted as an interpreter in the army of the infamous Russian general Ermolov, who razed entire villages to intimidate would-be rebels and sold captive women and children as serfs into Russian households. "At every turn," Khodarkovsky explains, "Atarshchikov confronted the deep differences and misunderstandings between the Russian authorities and the indigenous elites . . . In essence these were two different worlds: that of the empire-state with a centralized bureaucracy and that of highly fragmented societies with their traditional kinship structures."31 Khodarkovsky is unsparing in his assessment of the Russian campaign: "Ruthless destruction and brutality were indeed the hallmarks of Russia's conquest of the Caucasus. The horrifying atrocities committed by Russian troops—the indiscriminate slaughter of the elderly, women, and children; setting houses on fire with people and animals still inside; raping; pillaging; and capturing children to take to Russia—were described by both Russian and foreign observers."32 How much such scenes had to do with Atarshchikov's decision to flee back across the frontier in 1841 is impossible to say. When he sought pardon for his first flight, he claimed that it had been an impulsive response to his grief over the sudden death of his two children, likely stricken in an epidemic. Khodarkovsky suggests, however, that some combination of guilt over his role in Russian atrocities, stymied career hopes, and a search for personal renewal were more important.33 Having left Russia behind, Atarshchikov took on a new name: Hajaret Muhammed. The name came from hajaret, a fugitive who fled lands being colonized by Russians and became committed to raiding the Russian frontier. He spent the remaining few years of his life doing just that—including a raid on his own home village, where his children were buried at the local cemetery.

Modern Subjectivity

     Whereas Khodarkovsky uses a single life to encapsulate three centuries of history on an understudied frontier, Claudia Verhoeven's The Odd Man Karakozov: Imperial Russia, Modernity, and the Birth of Terrorism covers better-trodden historiographical ground: the revolutionary movement and the city of St. Petersburg.34 But it does so in provocative ways, charting the significance not so much of one life, but of the reverberations of a single moment in that life—and in the story of the empire and, indeed, modernity more generally.

     The moment took place on the afternoon of April 4, 1866, when the twenty-five-year-old Dmitrii Karakozov fired his pistol, without success, at Tsar Alexander II in downtown St. Petersburg. Karakozov was arrested immediately, and investigators concluded that an extensive conspiracy was behind the act: that Karakozov was a member of "The Organization," a Moscow socialist group, at the center of which was "Hell," a secret cell of suicide-assassins, who were tied with Petersburg "nihilists," Siberian exiles, and an international revolutionary organization. Thirty-six defendants were tried, most convicted on counts of conspiracy, while Karakozov was executed. Whether Karakozov acted alone or as part of a conspiracy, however, remains undetermined.

     Verhoeven's aim is not to solve this almost certainly unsolvable riddle; rather, she seeks to show that Karakozov's attempt on the tsar's life was the seminal moment in the birth of terrorism. Terrorism, she explains, was a new form of political violence that reflected "the emergence of a new, modern political subject" who "seeks, via violence, to generate fear and advance change" and, by doing so, "act in a historically meaningful matter … without delay and without mediation."35 Verhoeven is critical of histories of terrorism that situate its genesis in the late 1870s, when the Russian revolutionary group Land and Freedom (Zemlia i Volia) split over the use of violence, with one faction ultimately going on to assassinate Tsar Alexander II in 1881 as The People's Will (Narodnaia Volia). The idea of terrorism, she argues, existed before this later "tsar hunt" took place, having emerged not as an organized program, but as a concept that congealed in the wake of Karakozov's shocking act:

April 4, 1866, was unthinkable. No one expected it, and no one understood it. Karakozov's shot, as a matter of fact, was an event so unprecedented that it was long simply known as 'April 4' . . . [H]aving caused a real rupture in understanding, Karakozov and his 'unheard-of' act became the subject of a cacophonous onslaught of commentary. Law, literature, media, medicine, fashion, fine arts, and religion—none was left unaffected, all sought to make sense of what seemed a senseless story, and, in so doing, each contributed to the construction of what would eventually come to be known as terrorism.36

Verhoeven develops this argument over the course of seven distinctive chapters that analyze the responses to Karakozov's act; discourse on the appearance, body, and psyche of Karakozov; and the relationship between Karakozov's act and Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, which was written at this very moment (and transformed by it).

     Among the book's most interesting themes is the relationship between terrorism and modern subjecthood. Terrorism, Verhoeven emphasizes, is a "paradigmatic way of becoming a modern political subject," rather than a mere means to an end. It is inseparable from the "material contexts of modernity":

Modernity does not cause terrorism, clearly, but it does create the conditions for the coming of a historically conscious and politically sovereign subject, and when this subject's desire to act in accordance with its nature is blocked, terrorism can emerge. This is so for, principally, two reasons. First, modernity means the increasingly instantaneous experience of belonging to a community whose members are in synchronism with each other irrespective of the physical spaces that separate them. Technology and telecommunications connect what has happened, is happening, and will happen everywhere: doing so, they produce history, and position people in relation to this history. Thus, one can feel oneself to exist either in or outside of the historical process, and for moderns, who measure the value of their lives historically, the difference matters. Second, modernity implies action that—like goods and information—freely traverses spacio-temporal terrains, and constantly contributes to the renewal of the world. Therefore, in sum, the potential for universal redemption and autonomy is immanent to the materials of the modern, and modern subjects come to know this on a very elemental, everyday level—essentially, it is a knowledge that is inscribed on their bodies, simply because of their being in the modern world. When the tension between this knowledge of the coming community and the prohibition to participate in its construction becomes unbearable, the body may break out of its bind through action known as terrorism . . . Violent to the extent it cannot be legitimate, terrorism is politics in becoming.37

     Verhoeven's analysis of the patriotic reaction to Karakozov's act illustrates her larger point about the material contexts of modernity. Her third chapter, "A Life for the Tsar: Tsaricide in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," examines the story of Osip Komisarov, the hat-making apprentice of peasant background who, so the story went, saved the tsar's life by knocking Karakozov's arm and foiling his shot. If Karakozov laid bare the threat of the anonymous individual in the crowd, the Komisarov story served to neutralize it. Through a variety of paraphernalia that the "orgiastic reproduction" of Russia's nascent capitalism made possible—mass produced candies, beer, cigarettes, stories, jokes, commemorative coins, and so forth—the Komisarov story took shape, with Komisarov serving as a symbol of the timeless unity between tsar and people. Within days of the event, Komisarov was not only ennobled by the state for his act, but "celebrated, toasted, applauded, and gifted . . . worn, played, drunk, eaten, smoked, reproduced, distributed, sold, bought."38 The man was less palatable than the image: frequently drunk, he abused his newfound celebrity, and his relatives attracted unwanted attention. (His father was a convicted arsonist, while his wife shamelessly demanded special treatment as the "wife of the savior.") The symbolic weight of Komisarov's elevation grew accordingly debased.

     That Komisarov failed to live up to his image was beside the point, however. Verhoeven's analysis, by historicizing the making of this symbol of "traditional" Russia, turns on its head a common narrative about Russia in the wake of Karakozov's act. Far from indicating, as has sometimes been suggested, that enthusiasm for Komisarov the Savior was evidence that Russia was still too traditional to support terrorism, we see instead a remarkably modern project in the making. Komisarov, like the terrorism his image was intended to counteract, was a creation made possible by the material contexts of modernity itself.


     A wannabe tsaricide whose failure gives rise to modern terrorism; a North Caucasus Cossack who chooses his "native" self over his "Russian" one; a merchant with too strong a penchant for self-fashioning for his own good; a stupendously wealthy magnate who marries his serf: what to make of such a cast?

     Willard Sunderland provides a useful hint in his exemplary microhistory, The Baron's Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and Revolution. Contemplating the life of his subject, the anti-Bolshevik warlord Baron Roman Nikolai Max von Ungern-Sternberg (1885–1921), Sunderland wonders "which of our more familiar categories [Ungern would] have listed on his vita: German, Russian, European, Asian, Eurasian?" Finding no satisfying choice, he suggests that "Perhaps we should just say that he belonged to the tsarist empire and leave it at that."39

     Each in its own way, the books discussed above help us make sense of that empire and the myriad lives that together comprised it. The more familiar story of an oppressive, reactionary autocracy ruling a "backward," largely peasant civilization hand in hand with a noble aristocracy, increasingly challenged by a tiny intelligentsia that destabilized it—is still a meaningful one. But it is increasingly tempered by a colorful, compelling cast of characters who don't always fit the mold that such a narrative sets aside for people of their station. Looking up from a stack of books that force us to think about individual lives by examining individual humans in a level of detail that does justice to their humanity, we see a far more interesting picture. It is a picture of an empire in which, yes, different groups of people bumped up against each other like billiard balls, with the collisions between some giving rise to larger change. But it is one in which contact was itself constitutive of identity; the billiard balls were mottled in color, becoming more so with time. It would be too simple, and not all that helpful, to say merely that these books "complicate" our picture of the Russian Empire and its peoples. They do, but what they do best is introduce us to individuals who came to be who they were because, with differing levels of awareness and affection, they called that empire home.

Mark A. Soderstrom is an assistant professor of history at Aurora University in Aurora, IL. His primary research area is Imperial Russian history, and he teaches a range of courses on Russian, Soviet, Environmental, East Asian, and World History. He can be contacted at


1 "Blok NATO razoshelsia na blokpakety," Kommersant (April 4, 2008):; David Remnick, "Putin's Pique," The New Yorker (March 17, 2014):

2 A useful overview is Nicholas B. Breyfogle, "Enduring Imperium: Russia/Soviet Union/Eurasia as Multiethnic, Multiconfessional Space," Ab Imperio, no. 1 (Winter 2008): 35–86.

3 Stephen M. Norris and Willard Sunderland, Russia's People of Empire: Life Stories from Eurasia, 1500 to the Present (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), 4.

4 For helpful discussions see Jill Lepore, "Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography," Journal of American History 88, no. 1 (June 2001): 129–144; and the American Historical Review forum "Historians and Biography," American Historical Review 114, no. 3 (June 2009): 573–661.

5 Donald Ostrowski and Marshall T. Poe, Portraits of Old Russia: Imagined Lives of Ordinary People, 13001725 (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2011).

6 Ibid., xxiv.

7 Ibid., 179.

8 Ibid., 200.

9 Robert O. Crummey, "The Silence of Muscovy," Russian Review 46, no. 2 (1987): 157–164.

10 Norris and Sunderland, Russia's People of Empire.

11 Ibid., 4.

12 Ibid., 342–343.

13 Ibid., 347.

14 Douglas Smith, The Pearl: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great's Russia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

15 Ibid., 9.

16 Ibid., 2.

17 Ibid., 2, 50.

18 Ibid., 36.

19 Ibid., 73.

20 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 17851812 (New York: Vintage, 1991).

21 David Ransel, A Russian Merchant's Tale: The Life and Adventures of Ivan Alekseevich Tolchënov, Based on His Diary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), xi–xii, xix.

22 Ibid., 117.

23 Ibid., 122–123, 127.

24 Ibid., 189.

25 Ibid., xi–xii.

26 Michael Khodarkovsky, Bitter Choices: Loyalty and Betrayal in the Russian Conquest of the North Caucasus (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011), xi.

27 Ibid., 5

28 Ibid., 5.

29 Ibid., 12.

30 Ibid., 45.

31 Ibid., 80. Michael Khodarkovsky develops this theme at length in his Russia's Steppe Frontier: The Making of a Colonial Empire, 15001800 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004).

32 Khodarkovsky, Bitter Choices, 132.

33 Ibid., 143.

34 Claudia Verhoeven, The Odd Man Karakozov: Imperial Russia, Modernity, and the Birth of Terrorism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009).

35 Ibid., 6.

36 Ibid., 5–6.

37 Ibid., 4, 7.

38 Ibid., 72, 78.

39 Willard Sunderland, The Baron's Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014), 233. My World History Connected review of the book can be found at

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