Russian History and the Digital Age

Kritika, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Russian History and the Digital Age


As historians of Russia have immersed themselves in the unpublished sources made available to them in the postcommunist era, it has been easy to overlook a less glamorous change in their working conditions: the creation of electronic catalogues in the two main libraries of the Russian Federation. For decades, a rite of passage for young scholars was their first acquaintance with the kartoteha in the Lenin Library or the Saltykov-Shchedrin State Public Library (now the Russian State Library [RSL] and National Library of Russia [NLR], respectively). Given the unsuitability of the open catalogue for all but specific searches--not to mention its omissions, due both to censorship and to human error--researchers had to throw themselves on the mercy of the bibliograf or of the custodian of the sistematicheskii katalog. American Ph.D. topics had to accommodate themselves to the thematic divisions established by Soviet bibliographical science.

Often, no doubt, the Ph.D. topics were enriched by this encounter with the structures of Soviet knowledge. But the card cabinets of the catalogue hall nonetheless set quite rigid parameters for historical inquiry. Especially by the end of the 20th century, with powerful search engines already commonplace in the West, Russian libraries were becoming an aggravating anomaly. Now, however, specialists can do keyword and thematic searches across a vast corpus of printed books and enjoy the huge convenience of instantaneous checking of references.

Historians of Russia are still less pampered than their counterparts in American or British studies, who are reputed never to get up from their desks as they survey a virtual library that includes almost everything published to 1800 as well as much of the rest. (1) But digitization in Russia has nonetheless gone far beyond the kartoteka. We now have at our disposal the electronic libraries of the RSL (just over 80,000 volumes at the last count) and NLR, as well as the large literary corpus of Lib.ru. (2) Pushkinskii dora offers an important online collection of primary sources and serial publications. (3) Medievalists are well served by a number of specialized sites that range from birchbark gramoty to monastic manuscripts. (4) Early modernists can view online 16th-century prints and much else besides. (5) Modernists, as might be expected, have an even greater menu of possibilities--from a project on the institutional structures of the USSR to the "people's history" of LiveJournal. (6) In some ways they may even be better off than colleagues specializing in the history of Britain or France: on the one hand, they can benefit from Russia's relaxed attitude toward intellectual property; on the other, they have access to grassroots projects that hold up transparency--in defiance of a distrusted state--as a cardinal value. (7) Not that more established institutions are standing aloof: museums, from the Kremlin to the Kunstkamera, have added their rich collections to the Internet cornucopia. (8) Here and elsewhere, digitization has transformed the range and the quality of (audio-)visual material available for studying and teaching Russian history. Last but not least, the Russian language now has its online national corpus, a fundamental resource for the practitioner of Begriffsgeschichte, as well as many other breeds of historian. (9)

In short, Russianists, wherever they may be, can with increasing frequency let their fingers do the walking. They may now get lucky by finding an obscure work on Google Books or on the Russian spinoff Gbooks. (10) Instead of taking the bus to Khimki to read kandidatskie dissertatsii, researchers may well be able to find out what they need to know on the website of the Higher Attestation Commission (Vysshaia attestatsionnaia komissiia), a notorious gatekeeper that is now opening some new doors for scholarship. (11)

Is there a cloud to this silver lining? Although the new resources have certainly changed our lives for the better, they still have their limitations. …

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