Fortune Favors the Bold

Historians interested in Russia and Germany face some similar challenges. In both cases it is difficult to see past the cataclysmic events of the twentieth century.  Bolshevism and Nazism tend to attract more researchers than earlier periods and they cast a long shadow: it is all too easy to view earlier developments in these countries through the lens of twentieth-century events. This is, of course, in some cases desirable: we want to understand the historical roots of the 1917 Revolution or the rise of National Socialism. But reading backwards also runs the risk of creating teleological narratives of inevitability – seeing the future in the Prussian military state, in the weak Russian tsar, the failed land reforms or the impoverished Russian peasantry.

To complicate things further, access to archives was severely limited (for foreign researchers) before the 1990s, and those inside the USSR and the GDR (where the German central state archives mostly ended up after 1945) had to work within the ideological constraints imposed by those regimes. This made it especially difficult for those working in fields like economic history, where the kind of innovative research being done for other countries was not possible for Prussia or Russia (or the rest of eastern Europe). The result is a large gap in certain literatures. If one is interested in, say, the economics of agrarian society or the abolition of serfdom, in the case of both Prussia and Russia, one will be relying primarily on an older (pre-Soviet) historiography while learning to read between the lines of histories written – at least superficially – within a Marxist explanatory framework.  (Though if one persists in this, one is often rewarded with interesting and important empirical nuggets!)

When things opened up in the 1990s, there wasn’t exactly a rush to remedy this situation. This was probably at least partly due to the decline in interest in this part of the world after the Cold War. It was also that academic fashions had changed. Subjects like serfdom and agrarian society, and other kinds of “history from below” had become much less popular, as had the kinds of local or regional studies associated with the Annales or the Cambridge Group. (There are some notable exceptions, especially studies of Prussian serfdom, such as that of Hagen and, more recently, Eddie.) The same goes for things like proto-industry, material culture, and comparative standards of living in pre-modern societies. Now that things have opened up, eastern Europe (including Russia) is being incorporated into newer areas of study – histories of empire and globalization, as well as quantitative accounts of long run economic development (as in this new volume edited by Matthias Morys).

While this is, overall, a good thing, the newer research draws attention in different ways to the existing gaps in our historical knowledge. Much has been done to locate new sources of data and create quantitative accounts of various phenomena: demographic change, standards of living, structural change in east European economies. But there is still the question of how we explain the trends observed in quantitative studies. To explain (for example) stagnation in the agrarian sector over time or a sustained decline in GDP in more concrete ways (beyond “communism”), the first step would be to turn to the historical literature.  As noted, one can learn a lot from the older literature (and the Soviet era literature as well) but the preoccupations of those researchers were often different as were their research methods, so it’s harder to close the gap. And the gap may be growing ever larger, since the trend in history is now toward the investigation of cultural phenomena rather than studies of concrete material conditions on the ground. (The overhaul of Marxist scholarship has certainly been thorough!)

This state of affairs (brought to my attention through my current comparative project) got me thinking about two larger problems. The first is the way history and quantitative social science ideally inform one another – as complements, the way I’ve described in earlier posts. When they work well together, the relationship is invisible and largely taken for granted. If we think about the history of the British industrial revolution, for example, we can see a constant interplay between the findings of different disciplines. So many of the issues that have dominated the research agenda over time are addressed by historians and economists (and political scientists, too): serfdom, enclosure, standards of living, consumption, welfare provision, taxation, trade, protectionism, urbanization, demography. They don’t address these things in the same way or ask the same questions, but then, that’s the point – it’s what makes them valuable. By asking the same question in different ways and bringing various sources and methods to bear on it, we can see things from a number of different angles and create a richer, deeper store of knowledge. But more to the point is that these fields and their research questions have co-evolved, each informing the others over time.

In eastern Europe, on the other hand, that process was disrupted by a political intervention that placed formidable constraints on what could be studied and how it could be approached (especially in politics and economics). And the process of realignment is trickier since the disciplines are more out of sync and the choice of research programs is now strongly influenced by outside trends (for many reasons) and varies significantly by field.  So, while I am often reminded of how little we know about the past, generally speaking, that sense is even more overwhelming in the case of, say, Russia. (If you are wondering what, specifically, I have in mind, my running list of things to research in my next life will be the subject of a future post.)

The second of these larger problems concerns the way we choose subjects of study. I noted that academic fashions had changed by the time the archives in eastern Europe had opened again. But the academic enterprise has changed as well, and this, too, has surely affected research agendas – and not only in eastern Europe. There are greater pressures on researchers worldwide that constrain decisions about what to work on: those outside the anglophone world, for instance, feel it necessary to conform to research agendas that will enable them to publish in top anglophone journals in order to secure funding. This is underscored by the demands of an increasingly global academic job market. And then there is the relentless emphasis on “productivity” and the blunt instruments (quantity of output!) used to assess it.

Considerations like these create pressure to choose a project with a guaranteed payoff, not something that requires a lengthy reconnaissance mission to local archives that may or may not result in the identification of a suitable source base to address the question proposed. For historians, this might mean choosing a topic one knows can be addressed using an existing literature or an existing archive (those studying serfdom, for instance, know which estates or manors generated extensive source materials and are more likely to choose one of those rather than scouting around for possible sources in a little-studied region). For social scientists, this might mean letting the data available determine the question to be asked. A dataset in hand is, after all, worth two in some yet unidentified archive. The discovery of new sources takes time and there isn’t much of that on offer in the modern university context.

I’d like to think that fortune still favors the bold, in research as elsewhere, but as one who studies the effects of institutions, I’m also well aware that even the boldest can be thwarted by the existing incentive structure. So this is just a reminder – to myself as well as Broadstreet readers – that there are whole historical worlds in dusty stacks of documents no one has looked at yet (I’ve seen them, tied up in string in the corners of provincial archives in Russia!). What do you wish you knew about the way things worked in the past? Maybe it’s time to try and find some answers.


  • I am Professor of Social Science History at the California Institute of Technology. I am interested primarily in the character and role of institutions in premodern societies, and how they affected the decisions ordinary people made in their everyday lives. To date, my work has focused on the role of entities like states, landlords, communities, and households in central and Eastern Europe before 1900. My current research project examines the relationship between state capacity and the rise and decline of serfdom in Europe, in particular the cases of Prussia and Russia.

Leave a Reply