Faculty Publication - Voluntary Associations in Tsarist Russia

Science, Patriotism and Civil Society by Dr. Joseph Bradley

Voluntary Associations in Tsarist Russia adds to the existing literature on the growth of civil society in imperial Russia by focusing on voluntary associations, especially learned societies, closely watched by tsarist officialdom but neglected by historians. By exploring the capacities of individual and group self-definition, initiative, and self-organization, the book reconstructs the broader institutional framework in which associations operated and assesses their role in the development of civil society under the imperial regime.

This study will give voice to organizations in a country not known to be favorable to private initiative. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Russians populated a growing public sphere with societies based on the model of the European enlightenment. Owing to the mission of the learned societies, Russian civil society became inextricably linked to patriotism and the dissemination of scientific knowledge. Associations raised consciousness, accorded an opportunity for special-interest constituencies of men to enter the public arena, framed policy issues, and mobilized a public in the language of representation. Although civil society and the autocratic state are often described as bitter rivals, cooperation, not confrontation, in the project of national prestige and prosperity was more often the rule. However, an increasing public assertiveness challenged autocratic authority, as Russian officialdom was unwilling to relinquish its tutelary supervision of civil society. Thus, associations became a focal point of a contradictory political culture: on the one hand they fostered a state-society partnership; on the other hand they were a critical element in the effort to emancipate society from a personalized autocracy and arbitrary officialdom.

This book also puts the development of Russian associations into the comparative perspective of European history and political theory. Although scholars often emphasize the peculiarities of Russian development, Russia’s societies were part of a broader European phenomenon. A study of associations highlights the relationship between state and society in authoritarian regimes where civil society is most vigorously contested. Because authoritarian regimes close the channels of representative politics and make it difficult for their subjects to act freely in concert, associations demonstrate the potential for the self-organization of society. They cultivate the micro-spaces of initiative and autonomy not completely under state control where the capacity of citizenship can appear. By suggesting how the practice, as well as the idea, of citizenship could emerge under autocracy, this study conceptualizes the development of civil society and the way in which the disenfranchised could enter public life.

By giving initiative and agency to the long forgotten founders, officers, and members of private associations, and by examining the role of voluntary associations in the formation of civil society, I will suggest alterations in the map of public life in tsarist Russia. This book will document the opportunities, as well as the limitations, of individual initiative under autocracy; the cooperation, as well as confrontation, with political authority; and the forces that kept tsarist Russia together as well as those that broke it apart.