New Book | Ben Eklof, Tatiana Saburova – A Generation of Revolutionaries: Nikolai Charushin and Russian Populism from the Great Reforms to Perestroika

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Dear Colleagues and Friends,

Дружба, семья, революция. Николай Чарушин и поколение народников 1870-х годов. Татьяна Сабурова и Бен Эклоф (Москва. Новое Литературное Обозрение, 2016)

A Generation of Revolutionaries: Nikolai Charushin and Russian Populism from the Great Reforms to Perestroika. Ben Eklof and Tatiana Saburova Forthcoming: Indiana University Press (October, 2017)

Tatiana Saburova and I would like to call your attention to our recent (in Russian) and forthcoming (in English) work on a rather obscure Populist revolutionary, his family and friends, and their journey through the Russian history from the mid nineteenth century until the Stalinist era and beyond. Those of you interested in life in the provinces, the history of zemstvo and the press will find much of interest as well.

In the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917, a struggle soon arose over how to write the history of the half century leading up to that epochal event. Populist memoirs written at the time represented a collective effort by aging revolutionaries to defend their legacy against the encroachments of increasingly militant Communists historians. Among this generation of Populists was Nikolai Charushin (1851-1937). His telling of the formative years of the movement in the 1870s, of time spent incarcerated, and of decades of exile in Siberia, is part of the generational narrative often drawn upon by modern historians.

Yet his name has largely been forgotten, and the full reach of his long life, beginning with the era of the Great Reforms, and ending in the Stalinist era, overlooked. Indeed, most of the Populists’ memoirs written end with their release from incarceration around the time of the 1905 revolution, leaving the events of their later lives obscure. Deploying the tools of the new biography, memory and generational studies, as well a social and political history, this work seeks to rescue from oblivion the plenitude of these lives, ranging from childhood to old age and closely examining Charushin’s passage through these turbulent times, accompanied throughout by others of his generation. In so doing, the intricate web of friendships and alliances- of revolutionaries, public activists, family and business circles and even government officials- within which his life was lived—is exposed.

In describing the choices confronted along the way by Charushin, by his lifelong companion, Anna Kuvshinskaia, and by their friends, the authors provide a generational history of the closely knit cohort of Populist revolutionaries of the 1870s. At the same time these biographies are embedded in the larger history of the Russian Empire from the time of the Great Reforms in the mid-nineteenth century until the Stalinist era and even the period of Perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev. As such, this book tells that story through the eyes of its participants and the differing lenses of two historians from different cultures.

This generation of revolutionaries has often been described as having renounced all familial bonds in their quest for revolution. Instead, the authors cast the “Woman Question” of the times in a new light, showing how domesticity and revolution were interwoven. The book underscores how women revolutionaries themselves constructed notions of equality and regarded their own roles in life; the centrality of hearth, family and children.

Among the many figures who crowd the pages of this book are Charushin’s two siblings, Ivan and Arkadii—one a well-respected civil servant and the other a prominent architect. Their life stories are sketched in, the strong bonds uniting the three brothers are emphasized, and the dense strands linking not only family, but also state and society in late Imperial Russia are delineated. Photography—and specifically photography of empire—is touched upon, for during his years of exile Charushin earned a living in Kiakhta, the prosperous tea entrepot on the Chinese border, as a commercial photographer, but also while traveling in Mongolia with the renowned explorer Grigorii Potanin. Local government and the provincial periodical press, both of which were key nodes of Charushin’s engagement in civil society after his release from exile, occupy a prominent place in his life story. The same is true of cultural activities; like other Populists, he played a role in establishing libraries and museums in Siberia. After the revolution he found sanctuary and meaning working as a bibliographer in the local library.

The lives portrayed in this volume, while marked by suffering and loss, are also rich with experience. By describing the “plenitude” of the lives of these Populists, the authors seek to provide a different perspective on the movement, describing the brief turn to terrorism as an aberration in the movement’s long history and one in which the context as well as methods differed fundamentally from terrorism today.

The authors draw upon an extensive unpublished correspondence among Populists to elucidate their private worlds and responses to events throughout their lives. The legendary Vera Figner was an active contributor to this exchange of views; her reaction to the Revolution is compared to that of Charushin, with whom she maintained contact. Figner was also instrumental in launching the collective effort of memoir writing by Charushin and others which anchors the body of this work. As such, the perils and fragility of memory feature prominently, whether in the telling of childhood, in the collective construction by Populists of a “traveling narrative” depicting the years of incarceration and exile or, finally, in the “memory” wars of the Perestroika era.To write this book the authors spent more than three years working in archives in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kirov (Viatka in the 19th century) as well as in libraries and manuscript collections in the same cities and in New York City (Columbia University).