Private Life in Russia: Medieval Times to PresentSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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A year ago discussions began around the prospect of bringing together scholars for a workshop on private life in Russia. This idea presented itself because it seemed as though not only faculty and graduate students at the University were investigating various aspects of Russian private life, but also some of the most innovative scholarship in Russian studies — nationally and internationally — intersected with private life studies. On the weekend of October 5-6, 1996, scholars from Russia, Canada, and the United States came to Ann Arbor for a workshop-style conference, Private Life in Russia: Medieval Times to Present.
The mini-boom in private life studies in Russia can be seen as a result of the convergence of various theoretical and geopolitical changes. The end of the Cold War has freed intellectuals from their preoccupation with Kremlin politics and revolutionary narratives and has allowed them access to a broad range of new archival and published materials. This in turn has opened new fields of inquiry — from the entrance to archives in formerly closed cities to the possibility of doing innovative field research in Russian country homes [dachas]. Private life studies in Russia also reflect the confluence of two broader influences: feminist and queer theories on the one hand, and theorists such as Michel Foucault and Jurgen Habermas on the other.
One of the results of these changes — as evidenced by the conference papers — is that scholars have begun to explore the "unpublic" spaces of Muscovite, Imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet societies. As in Western European studies, this exploration not only allows new subjects — such as dress, domesticity, emotions, sexuality and gay life — to be taken seriously, but it also begs for a more textured re-examination of subjects such as leisure activity, household relations and life cycle celebrations. The study of private life challenges thinking about traditional historical narratives and stimulates the search for new historical subjects, and the exploration of new source materials. The influence of feminist theories on Russian private life studies also forces a reconsideration of the once-assumed disjuncture, or "separateness," between public and private life.
This shift toward the study of the private realm in Russia partly reflects a borrowing of the analytical frameworks of Western European studies. It also — and perhaps more significantly — allows an interrogation of these very frameworks. Perhaps what is most important, however, is that scholars can begin to explode assumptions, born in the western European context, about what constitutes the private and what constitutes the public. Subjects which western European theorists categorize as belonging to public life can occupy a private place in Russia: the power structure of Muscovite Russia, where kinship relations intermingled with princely politics; the 19th-century custom of conducting business in the domestic space of the parlor; and the Soviet practice of "writing for the drawer," where authors hid their most creative writings to be circulated only among friends, to name a few. The conference brought to the fore the understanding that the study of Russian private life reveals the divisions within private and public life as historically and culturally contingent rather than as a fixed division which exists outside of history and culture.
Scholars at the conference considered these questions - - theoretical, historical, and historiographical. Participants discussed topics such as spouse relations in Muscovy, meanings of gay pride in late-twentieth century Russia, notions of love in the Khrushchev period, and narratives on love in girls' notebooks in contemporary Russia. Six panels represented multiple disciplines and several centuries of Russian history. Scholars wrestled with the meaning of the word "private" in various contexts, and, at moments, abandoned it all together. The conference resulted in a reformulation — and, for some historical periods, rejection — of the categories public and private.
Scholars struggled with the difficulty of using the rich source materials now available to study private life in Russia, such as funeral rituals, icons, girls' notebooks, interviews with health professionals, familial letters, suicide notes, court records, diaries and Stalinist propaganda.
The conference was supported by the Office of the Vice President for Research, Rackham Graduate School, the International Institute, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, the Center for Russian and East European Studies, History, Slavic Languages and Literatures, Sociology, and Women's Studies.
Rebecca Friedman is a graduate student in History. She organized the conference along with Margaret Foley, a graduate student in History and Naomi Galtz, a graduate student in Sociology.