Mark Bassin, Christopher Ely, and Melissa K. Stockdale, Eds., Space, Place, and Power in Modern Russia: Essays in the New Spatial History

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Mark Bassin, Christopher Ely, and Melissa K. Stockdale, eds., Space, Place, and Power in Modern Russia: Essays in the New Spatial History. viii + 268 p., ill. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010. ISBN-13 9780875804255. $42.00.

David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, Russian Orientalism: Asia in the Russian Mind from Peter the Great to the Emigration. xii + 298 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. ISBN-13 978-0300110630. $40.00.

David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye notes in his book on Russian orientalism that what Asia means to Russia is extremely complex: "Much more familiar with the East than other Europeans, Russians have invariably seen the Orient in a multiplicity of hues. Whether foe or friend, danger or destiny, other or self ... their perceptions of Asia have defied easy characterization" (238). How, then, has the East been perceived and understood, interpreted and reinterpreted by Russians? What kind of impact has the "East" had on Russian political development, Russian culture, and the Russian mentality? What role has Russia's peculiar geographical location between East and West played in shaping its identity? These and other questions are analyzed in the two books reviewed here, which are unified by their attention to the role of space in Russian history and self-perception.

Of course, such an approach is not completely new. Generations of historians, economists, sociologists, and geographers have recognized the tremendous role of a spatial factor in the life of Russia, even at times claiming that the "soul of Russia" and the main trends of its development were a function of its territorial magnitude. Yet it is not traditional "geographical determinism" that constitutes the theoretical base of the two books under review. Space is treated here as a postmodernist category, fluid and unstable, open for interpretation and reinterpretation, created and re-created by human imagination and social activity. Geographical boundaries, note the editors of Space, Place, and Power, are not necessarily objective and absolute: very much to the contrary, they are often provisional and discursive. Russian space should be contextualized within broad global trends such as colonization and urbanization, and scholars' attention should be directed away from the "centers" of societies to their peripheries, which are increasingly seen as sites of historical significance (4, 8).

It is within this framework that the authors of the two books under review analyze diverse topics related to the spatial dimension of Russian history. John Randolph and Richard Stites demonstrate how the factors of space and place helped create and reinforce various social communities and hierarchies: Randolph explores the specific social group of iamsbchiki (coachmen) along the road between Moscow and St. Petersburg; Stites examines the traditional social hierarchies as represented on the dance floors of the 18th and early 19th centuries. In the 18th century the necessity of supporting travel along the main imperial road, Randolph notes, compelled the tsarist government to create a specific class of individuals who, while not free, possessed a certain elements of distinction and autonomy granted by the state. In the cases of conflicts between the iamshchiki and influential travelers, including powerful officials and landowners, the authorities frequently had to support the coachmen, a highly unusual social inversion in the age of serfdom (84-90). For many 18th- and 19th-century travelers, iamshchiki symbolized the best qualities of the Russian narod (common folk). As Stites shows, the narod was also represented at the noble and imperial balls in national costumes and stylized peasant dances, which became especially popular in conjunction with the Napoleonic invasion of Russia (111).

Even as space formed group identities and influenced social activities, it was in turn shaped and reshaped by people, as is evident in a number of articles presented in Space, Place, and Power. …