07 March 2007

Very Little Knitting Here

Okay, because several of you have so sweetly inquired and because I’m still really bad at explaining it, I’m going to take a stab at saying what my dissertation is about in 500 words or less. Or maybe a few more. Whatever.

It’s a microhistory based on the private papers of a single Russian gentry family. Dating from 1820 to 1875, the archive includes diaries by both parents and one of their children, as well as the mother’s brother (who was also best friend to the father of the family). Supplementing the diaries are thousands of pages of letters, notebooks, and legal documents. My dissertation connects this family story to three major themes in the historiography of nineteenth-century Russia: 1. Gender roles and the structure/dynamics of the family among landed, serf-owning elites. (In Russia unlike western Europe and America at this time, married women retained ownership of property after marriage and it has recently been found that significant numbers of women also managed their own property and sometimes their husband’s also. My dissertation was motivated in part as a response to this work – I wanted to find out what it meant for marriage and family when women were running the family estates.) 2. How did differing gender roles and family dynamics affect how people interpreted major western European ideas like the Enlightenment, Romanticism, nationalism and domesticity (i.e., the notion of ‘separate spheres’ for men and women, closely related to myths of ideal motherhood). 3. Given that Russian elites frequently spoke about their state and many social institutions (from serfdom to schools) as metaphorical “families,” how does our understanding of these institutions need to shift once we realize that what Russian elites meant by “family” in the nineteenth century was actually quite different from the western European model that historians have long assumed they were merely imitating?

My argument, in short, is that among the Russia gentry landowners the “home” was understood to mean the entire village(s), encompassing not only the immediate family and its needs but also a hierarchal community of extended relations, paid servants, clergy and serfs along with the fields, mills, workshops, churches and village homes that made up an “estate.” While it was not a universal rule that the “mistress of the house” was also the manager of this entire self-sufficient universe, such was often the case and this work was considered a natural extension of a woman’s sphere. The mother of the family I’m studying (who shall remain nameless so that a google search done by a future job search committee won’t find this blog) was able to manage the family estates, including her own property and that of her husband, with remarkable success for several decades while their children were growing up. Her activities freed her husband to devote himself to what he considered a father’s role (which is also in sharp contrast to the western model): the intellectual and moral guidance of their children. Intellectual activity in general was highly prized by nineteenth-century Russian society, and the notion of moral education (“vospitanie”) especially so. The father of this family went on, after his children were grown, to develop his ideas about vospitanie into a sort of program for solving Russia’s increasingly dire social dilemmas (which he published in local journals), and my dissertation explores how his ideas developed out of the Enlightenment and Romanticism but through the peculiar lens of the Russian family model in which mothers were principally managers -- providing for the family’s material comfort -- while fathers were (supposed to be) nurturers and moral guides. This understanding of family was at the basis of how these people (at least) understood the nature of the village and the noble-serf relationship (in other words, a form of paternalism) as well as their own relationship to the tsar as his servitors but also his “children.” People like this family represented the backbone of conservative support for the monarchy, and their image of the village community was the basis for early Russian understandings of national identity. However, when the tsar emancipated the serfs in 1861 in such a way as to impoverish both the serfs and their former landowners and to destroy the ties that had bound villages together, the bulwark of rural national conservatism led by an educated and paternalistic gentry class was essentially atomized and alienated from the state and from each other. Thus, my dissertation also contributes to discussions about the development (or relative lack thereof) of Russian national identity and the effects of the serf emancipation of 1861.

Okay, that was probably a lot more than 500 words, and I didn’t even mention knitting. The mother of the family also knitted, mostly stockings and some scarves, mentioning knitting in nearly every entry of her diary along with her many other daily tasks. More about that elsewhere, I hope.


ayla said...

I think your dissertation sounds fascinating.

I know that there's an html tag out there that will keep google from finding your blog, if you want. It's used on my diary site. If you want it, let me know.

laura said...

Wow! That's really fascinating. Thanks for "teaching" - I learned a lot!

nishanna said...

whenever i read your blog, i am starkly reminded that i am avoiding work of my own. Your thesis sounds extreamly interesting.

Nichole R. said...

Very cool! I'd love to read it, when you're done. I love the fact that the mother mentions knitting all the time. It sounds like it will be an impressive piece of work!

Loose Baggy Monster said...

This sounds great! I'm especially interested in the way you situate the Russian family lens as something different from a "mere imitation" of European notions of family and government. Was this family situated primarily in more urban centers in the Western portion of Russia? I wonder what it might look like in other areas of the country....Keep your chin up, you're almost there (and you're work is fascinating, perhaps BECAUSE it's different than the other dissertations your adviser has seen).

hege said...

Kate, this is absolutely fascinating. I would love to hear more about this family and their lives and their whole culture. You could write a book about it! I will buy it! Also, I can see where having a live in translator is useful ;) Thanks for sharing this!