What I Learned from Working with Deceased Soviet Historians

April 27, 2022

Cross-posted from Broadstreet, a blog devoted to historical political economy.

Broadstreet readers may know that Jeff and Jared are editing an Oxford Handbook of Historical Political Economy. Tracy and I have committed to writing a chapter on “HPE in History and the Social Sciences” that elaborates on various earlier contributions on the relationship between these two component parts of the field. A particular focus is the possibility of collaboration between historians and social scientists—a theme that Tracy took up in a recent post.

Let me confess at the outset that I have never myself written with historians—or at least had not until Tracy and I began working on this chapter. And yet, at some level, I have spent much of the past decade laboring alongside a collective of Soviet historians—all or nearly all deceased, but present in my research life nonetheless. It was these historians, working during the Khrushchev Thaw, who assembled the chronicle of the peasant movement in nineteenth-century Russia that Eugene Finkel, Tricia Olsen, and I first digitized, and that Dmitrii Kofanov has now extended.

A typical chronicle entry
From a social scientist’s perspective, it was nearly the ideal interdisciplinary collaboration. The archival work on which the chronicle is based is well beyond the reach of the best funded social scientists. It takes a historian’s understanding of sources to pull together even a single entry in the historical record, such as that depicted here. Where does one begin to look for mentions of peasants refusing to plow their fallow fields in response to the loss of land following emancipation? What records does one investigate to corroborate such evidence? How does one understand the incentives of those who recorded such information? These are the skills of a historian—or, in this case, a five-year plan’s worth of historians.

And yet, it is hard to know what to make of this mountain of evidence, without some exercise in aggregation. The authors of the chronicle attempted something along these lines, with tables in the final volume that summarized events in cross-tabular form. The resulting counts (e.g., by region and year) are the sort of “raw data” that I have seen used in a few papers, including my separate work with Finkel and Kofanov on rural unrest during the 1917 Russian Revolution. It’s better than nothing, but it is not the same thing as being able to aggregate up from the original chronicle entries.

By way of example, consider those same accounts of nineteenth-century peasant rebellion. Some of these are quite substantial, involving multiple estates and thousands of participants. Others are more isolated acts of resistance—not quite weapons of the weak, but the sort of thing that would have flown below the radar, if not for the idiosyncratic presence of a local observer. One wants to ensure that any statements about temporal or geospatial patterns of peasant rebellion are not sensitive to the inclusion of such “small” events. Hence the importance of the raw event data: we can check robustness to counts of “large” events only.

Aggregating up from the raw event data can also address other forms of measurement error. A particular concern of our work is the relative incidence of unrest among serfs and “state peasants” (peasants who lived on state lands) before and after Tsar Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs in 1861. As part of the emancipation process, “peace arbitrators” (Leo Tolstoy was one) were tasked with negotiating settlements between landowners and former serfs. It is conceivable that acts of peasant rebellion during this period would have been better documented on estate lands than on state land, given the temporary presence of peace arbitrators on the former but not the latter. Thankfully, the Soviet historians who assembled the event data we digitized were meticulous about documenting the archives on which each chronicle entry is based (these are listed at the end of the entry depicted above). As an alternative aggregation, we therefore restrict attention to events drawn from the Central State Archive of the October Revolution (TsGAOR), which are primarily disturbances recorded by the tsarist political police—that is, not peace arbitrators.

I could go on. The picture of peasant rebellion that emerges from this collaboration is more complete, the conclusions more confident, than would have been possible had the project ended in the 1960s. Still, this is not full interdisciplinarity. The Soviet historians working during the Khrushchev Thaw were writing for other historians. We were writing mostly for other social scientists. The two groups are separated by theory and method as well as by generations.

Nonetheless, in this experience there is the seed of a model that could support interdisciplinary collaboration in real time. One can imagine teams of historians and social scientists teaming up to identify, digitize, and analyze archival records. Historians’ sensitivity to sources would impart meaning to those documents that are collected. Social scientists’ comfort with data would serve to summarize that information in useful ways. The motivating questions would be substantially distinct, but through collaboration there might be some convergence of interests.

Such collaboration would not be easy, for reasons that Tracy summarizes in her earlier post, but at least in my corner of the world much of the groundwork has been laid. Interdisciplinary workshops have familiarized historians and social scientists with each other’s work. The GIS revolution in history has opened the door to digital methods. Not least, the development of historical political economy as a field has validated the study of the past for a new generation of social scientists. There is an opportunity here, for those who would seize it.