Monday, October 17, 2011

Mark D. Steinberg's "Petersburg Fin de Siècle"

Mark Steinberg is professor of history at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and editor of the journal Slavic Review. He is the author of The Fall of the Romanovs and Voices of Revolution, 1917, both published by Yale University Press, and of Proletarian Imagination: Self, Modernity, and the Sacred in Russia, 1910–1925.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Petersburg Fin de Siècle, and reported the following:
A page beginning with the words “knife cuts” and ending with talk of street “performance” might not seem a typical or even serious way to write about the years of turmoil and consequence in Russia between the 1905 and 1917 revolutions. The stories between these words might seem more like curious and sensational asides: a worker who pretends to the police to have been mugged so that he can steal money he was delivering for his boss, an elderly former teacher who offers free lessons to an unemployed youth she meets in church who then goes to her home and smashes in her skull with a heavy cobblestone to rob her, a war refugee who swallows poison on a crowded street and then steals from the kind stranger who took her home to nurse her. But perhaps these stories are more telling of the historical meaning of that place and time than more conventional accounts of leaders and big events. Such stories, everyday stories obsessively reported in the daily papers (my main source in this book), seemed to speak of matters of great historical and even philosophical significance: evidence of ubiquitous deception and falseness in modern life; of the painful loss of certainty about what is true and real, of the whole of the modern age as an illusion of progress—all arguments made at the time by ordinary observers. Stories like this, along with others in the book about, for example, decadence and a growing crisis in the public mood or about “epidemics” of violence and suicide, spoke of “disenchantment” (a very common term in the Russian press then) with the promise that modern civilization and progress would bring greater happiness. That a socialist revolution ended these years reflected this disappointment. But the results of the revolution would also come to prove the truth of such doubts. Of course, the realization that progress is often an illusion, that modernization leaves so many ruins in its wake, is not only a Russian story.
Learn more about Petersburg Fin de Siècle at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue