Marina V. Loskutova
Associate Research Fellow, European University at St. Petersburg, Russia
Lecturer, Academy of Liberal Arts Education, St. Petersburg, Russia
Local and regional identities in the late Imperial Russia:
A case study of the Russian Northwestern provinces
Presently I am working on a research project “ Provincial landscapes, the politics of memory and regional identities in the late Imperial Russia: a case study of the Russian North-West (1870s-1914)”. The project examines the transformation of local and regional identities in Russia, and their interaction with broader Russian national / imperial identities in the late 19 th – early 20 th centuries.
Until very recently local and regional identities attracted little attention in historiography – a discipline that since the time it developed into an established academic field in the 19 th century, has been predominantly concerned with nations and nation-states. However, with the post-Communist transformations in the political geography of the Central and Eastern Europe, the ongoing process of European integration, and parallel rise of regional identities and politics, local history emerges as a new focus of socio-historical research. In the 19 th century Russia amateur local historical and ethnographical research was becoming an increasingly popular enterprise, especially as the century was drawing to its close. Sometimes it was even considered as a potential alternative to over-centralized state-sponsored vision of history promoted by the mainstream academic historiography (e.g. by a prominent Russian historian A.P.Shchapov). The heyday of local historical and ethnographic research fell on the 1910s-1920s when the movement even acquired a special term (kraevedenie) and attempted to establish its own institutional base as an independent field of academic research. Undoubtedly, the growth of voluntary organizations, the rise of public initiative and the emergence of civil society in Russia in the last few decades preceding the World War I and the Revolution provided a new stimulus to local historical and ethnographic research. Far less acknowledged are such factors as the collapse of the Russian Empire with its administrative divisions and boundaries during the war and revolution, the weakening of academic hierarchies and the loosening of ties linking provincial societies to the leading research centres in Moscow and St. Petersburg that must have been of a crucial importance for boosting local research activities in the 1920s. Not surprisingly, local historical and ethnographic were brutally quashed during Stalin’s “revolution from above” (1928-1931) when the party-state drastically remodeled the whole system of research and education in the country imposing rigid ideological control over academic activities. While local research societies were dissolved and their membership purged the academic field itself was transformed into “the history of factories and plants”, thus fitting the overarching model of history narrated from the centralized state perspective.
Predictably, the kraevedenie movement of the late 19 th – early 20 th century attracted considerable scholarly attention in the post-Soviet Russia. In the 1990s, many universities and colleges established separate chairs of regional studies at their history departments. The number of popular and academic publications on the subject has been growing exponentially. Most scholars, however, are interested in particular events, institutions, and personalities related to the local studies movement of the late 19 th – early 20 th centuries; few of them conceive kraevedenie as a form of collective memory developed by provincial intelligentsia by “recovering” and “preserving” (and in effect, creatively remoulding) pre-existing local oral and written traditions. Perhaps even more tellingly, these studies never raise the issue of regional / local identity as such, almost invariably taking established administrative divisions as a “natural” unit of analysis, or providing sweeping generalisations concerning Russian “provincial culture” as a whole.
In my project I use local historical and ethnographic research as a convenient vantage point for exploring the making and remaking of local/regional identities in the late Imperial Russia and for examining the relations between the imperial “centre” and localities in the field of cultural production. The project focuses on two main issues: 1) The making of visual images (monuments, sites of interest, iconic landscapes) and related historical narratives of a region; 2) The interaction between the “nation-wide” academic institutions and their agents – historical, archaeological, ethnographic and geographical societies and their journals – and local amateur researchers, and their role in shaping collective memories and regional identities.
At the moment I have already collected and examined substantial amount of data on artistic and academic joineries and expeditions to the northwestern provinces of Russia in the 19 th – early 20 th centuries, on the “discovery” of local and regional “sites of interest” and the transformation of traditional religious pilgrimages into modern tourist practices, on the participation of provincial amateur scholars in the academic projects launched by major scholarly associations and societies of imperial standing (the Russian geographical society, Moscow Society of Lovers of Natural Sciences, Anthropology and Ethnography, Moscow Archaeological Society). Potentially, the scope of the project might be expanded in order to build up a base for comparative analysis by including into consideration Byelorussian and Lithuanian provinces, and by extending the chronological framework of the project to the 1920s.
It is complementary to a broader project of the European University at St. Petersburg, Russia, “From history to histories: Teaching the Past from a Local Perspective” (2005-2008), which aims at transforming university and college courses on Russian history by shifting the focus of teaching and research from a standard state-oriented paradigm towards a "history from below" approach.