Or the many reasons for reading about the past, perhaps the most natural and common one is curiosity and the love of a good story. Although it probably is the least philosophical approach, there always will be a place for the sliceof-life history because a well-written depiction of life in an ancient polis, a single battle in the midst of a larger war, or a tumultuous decade in another land during another time is intrinsically interesting. Certainly, the historian should do more than simply weave a fascinating tale, but it is the story that first captures our attention. As in literature a good story is insufficient; in addition to knowing what happened, we also want to know why. We ask the historian for causal explanations: Why did the polis and its unique institutions develop as they did? How did the stronger side waste its superiority and lose the battle? Is there a reason that turmoil suddenly intensified after years of calm? The answers never are simple and certain, in part because there are so many ways of explaining the same events.
Some historians look to great men, believing that individuals can and do mold history. They study Stalin to understand Soviet Russia in the 1930’s, and they study Gandhi to understand India during the same decade. Others, Leo Tolstoy for example, reject that premise and posit that history is the result of complex events, myriad persons, and unexplainable forces. Battles are won and lost not by great generals but by thousands of persons who have no sense of making history and by uncontrollable forces—weather, geography, unanticipated events. That is too fatalistic, suggests a third thesis, for surely events can be traced back to ideas. Some are obvious and closely related, such as the connection between Marx’s ideas expressed in the middle of the 19th century and the Russian Revolution enacted at the beginning of the 20th century. Others are more doubtful and tenuous: the supposed connection between Luther’s Reformation and the growth of German nazism. Most often, of course, there are no neat explanations and it is a combination of great men, social conditions, and ideas that engender the events we isolate for study.
Even then, when the cause of an event can be explained with a degree of certainty, the individual who first looked to the past out of curiosity may remain unsatisfied. As in every other aspect of our lives, one cannot avoid for long the overriding question: What does it mean? The answers depend on one’s perspective. For some observers the meaning of history is found not in the events themselves, but in the lives of those persons affected by the events. The real meaning of that war in 1812, Tolstoy opines, can be discovered by looking at the lives of individual Russians at every level of society. Others, to the contrary, will ask what it means for the broader society. If men do make history, if different social conditions do cause different results, and if ideas do have consequences, then we can and must ask which kinds of men and which forms of society and which ideas we want to encourage. And if we really are ambitious and agree with Eric Voegelin that human existence is best known in man’s historical existence, we might compare the period under investigation with other periods throughout history in an effort to extract some clues about what it means to be a human being.
W. Bruce Lincoln’s In War’s Dark Shadow: The Russians Before the Great War isprimarily history of the first sort, a fascinating story. It consists of two broad parts: the first six chapters sketch a composite portrayal of Russian society at the end of the 19th century; the remainder of the book follows the events—both great and seemingly insignificant—between the war with Japan in 1904 and World War I. As a slice of life, especially of those “remote areas of Russian life that remain virtually unknown in the West” to the nonspecialist, it is a complete and satisfying account.
Although the narrating of the events themselves is not new and is often based on secondary, scholarly works, that is of lesser importance than the book’s depiction of what it was like to be a Russian at the turn of the century. Most likely, one would have been a peasant and would have suffered so that Russia might be a great nation in the circles of European politics. The peasant’s life was onerous by any standards, but it seems more difficult when the raw statistics are consulted. Imagine an outbreak of syphilis so great that in some places as many as four out of ten children had it, having been infected by mothers prior to birth. And it is no wonder that productivity lagged so slowly, given the fact that by 1914 only 10 percent of the peasants had either an iron plough or a plough with iron teeth. Peasant life wasn’t as ideal as Tolstoy depicted it to be.
Still, there was evidence of Russia’s entering the modern industrialized world. Industrial growth doubled in the 1890’s and then again in the first five years of the 20th century. Two groups emerged. The first comprised the new industrialists—often old believers or former serfs—who followed the path of our Rockefellers and Carnegies in amassing great wealth and advancing the arts. One was Pavel Tretiakov, scion of a textile fortune, who, in 1898, gave Moscow a collection of 1,757 paintings done by Russian artists. Not surprisingly, the fortunes of Tretiakov and others were at the expense of another group—the emerging urban class. Troubling that new class were all of the problems that had plagued urban industrialization elsewhere in the world: housing shortages, disease, drunkenness, child labor, industrial accidents, and an underclass of human beings. Some transcended that existence, however, by becoming literate and learning a skill. Eventually they became a revolutionary, political force.
Russian revolutionaries existed independent of urbanization and developed rapidly in the 1860’s. They came from many directions: some were middle-class intellectuals who retreated to theory; some were populists who began as enlightened youths, traveling the countryside at the end of the 1870’s educating the peasantry, and who ended as radical terrorists; some were nihilists who criticized every accepted value and institution and who believed that society must be destroyed so that it could be reconstructed on scientific and rational bases; and some were socialists who shared a common origin but differed widely on how to carry out a successful revolution. All of these revolutionaries were in bitter conflict with the final group, members of the old guard who wished to preserve the Russia that had served them so well for so long. Although frequently incompetent and insensitive to the social problems that surrounded them, they fully understood the nature of the battle and willingly resorted to extreme measures to maintain their position. Over the years the Czar and his supporters instituted pogroms against the Jews, senselessly engaged the Japanese in a losing war, proposed minor and temporary solutions when even significant ones might have been too late, and finally sent unprepared peasants—often without weapons—to fight a war in Europe.
Lincoln’s primary purpose is to convey a feeling for Russian life 80 years ago, and thus he doesn’t attempt to explain why the society developed as it did, nor does he suggest why a Bolshevik revolution occurred. Underlying the whole inquiry is the belief that events are caused by the complex interaction of men, ideas, and social conditions. Although there is no single great man, the story of Russia’s entering the 20th century is replete with identifiable individuals. Lincoln interjects vignettes of specific industrialists, generals, revolutionaries, and other actors as illustration of the broader social groups. Likewise, he shows that ideas help explain events. Lenin and Martov may be the main protagonists among the socialists, but to understand them one must realize that they are tied to Plekhanov and then Marx by a single idea that evolves over time until it is applied to Russia in 1917. Similarly, one cannot understand the ideas of the nihilists who captured the imagination of Russian novelists of the day without understanding their roots in Western scientific, rational thought. But the key to understanding that period is to recognize that neither men nor ideas exist in a vacuum. Both evolved from and responded to a society that was alive and in flux. Historians speak of the 1905 revolution, but Lincoln reminds us that it was a revolution only after the fact. The real truth of that revolution was not that revolutionary men and ideas were leading the way, but that the government was weak and that thousands of Russian people spontaneously expressed their hunger, anger, and frustration.
That is why the meaning of these times for Lincoln is not to be found in universal statements about human existence or in neat causal explanations for past events. The real meaning is to be found in the lives of the Russian people; individuals with names and personal histories. Consider the discussion of Tretiakov. Most accounts would emphasize his great wealth and patronage of the arts. The more revealing truth, however, is that the reason he collected art of living Russian painters instead of European art is that he doubted his ability to distinguish between authentic paintings and forgeries. That single story says much about what it meant to be a Russian entering a new world. Such profiles provide clues about human existence as they show that beneath the different cultures and forms of government there are simple beings suffering, struggling, daring to change, grasping the familiar, and most important—whether consciously or innately—trying to make something of their lives.