Ethnic Violence vs. Imperial Segregations: Multinational Criminality in the Russian Imperial City as a Space of Conflict and Cooperation

Ilya V. Gerasimov, Center for the Study of Nationalism and Empire

Research Grant, 2011

For over two decades, I’ve been studying a variety of topics in the history of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. As I see now, all of them have one thing in common: they address different aspects of the phenomenon of societal self-organization, involving various social groups in diverse historical circumstances. The research project that resulted in the writing up of the book manuscript with the support by the foundation began in the late 1990s, and was conducted in archives and libraries in five countries. Focusing on case studies of four Russian imperial cities (Vilna [Vilnius], Odessa, Kazan, and Nizhny Novgorod), I was trying to reconstruct the peculiar worldview of the majority (close to 90 percent) of the urban population in Imperial Russia that can be cautiously identified as plebeian society: i.e., all those who did not belong to the fairly well-studied privileged and middle classes. The collected materials revealed a paradoxical situation: in the early twentieth century, when the population of urban centers was swelling at an astonishing pace (mainly due to migrants from the countryside), both the outdated legal norms and the modern hegemonic public discourses failed to regulate the bulk of the urban society. The imperial legislation did not fit the realities of the rising mass society, while the majority could not culturally, socially, and even technically (e.g. in terms of availability of the produced print runs of newspapers) belong to any public sphere. And yet, this rising mass plebeian society displayed a surprisingly high coherence and even standardization that can be seen in all four very different and distant cities that were used as case studies in my research. How was this coherence achieved in a society in flux, contrary to the inertia of social institutions and traditions, in violation of the legal norms of the well-ordered police state, and beyond the reach of public discourses?

Ethnically marked criminal violence emerged not only as a socially menacing phenomenon but also as an important indicator of intergroup boundary realignments.

I argue that there was in fact a common language of communication within that society, and self-representation of that society, only it was nontextual (nondiscursive). Social practices can be viewed as such a distinctive language of social self-description and self-representation. I identify three such main social practices: patriarchality (that helped people to sustain stability by pretending to be unaware of the competing projects of political or national mobilization); the middle ground (a peculiar mechanism of creative mutual misunderstanding); and criminal violence. In particular, ethnically marked criminal violence emerged not only as a socially menacing phenomenon but also as an important indicator of intergroup boundary realignments, and a side-effect of new patterns of emerging social solidarity. Violence can be senseless but is never meaningless, and my study elaborates on discovering those context-sensitive meanings of violence used by plebeian social groups that had no means or skills to express their interests and concerns through any elaborated public discourse and therefore relied on direct action.

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