Calamities: A Call for a New Conceptual Toolkit

It’s been a week and I’m exhausted. I’ve been writing, posting, blogging, and petitioning, about what we as academics and my institution, LSE, could do to help Ukraine. The agony of the powerlessness of the first few days has now subsided for there are contours of concreteness now appearing, out of the blitz of emails, signature campaigns and posts. There may be funds to host Ukraine scholars fleeing the horrors of the war, and more support for our existing students from the region.

The year is 2022 but just as well it could be back in time, in 1922. It feels surreal because I find myself reliving the drama of calamity that I had researched and have put to rest—or so I thought!—with the publication of my book The Estate Origins of Democracy in Russia: From Imperial Bourgeoisie to Post-Communist Middle Class (Cambridge University Press 2022). It is about the long-term socio-economic and political consequences of the Russian Revolution. For that project, I analysed materials about the adaptation of Russian Imperial society to the calamities—they occurred simultaneously or in quick succession—class-based witch-hunts, civil war, repressions, refugee crises, famines, and the epidemics of the 1920s-1930s. But there were archival documents that affected me particularly deeply as a scholar. I saw a barely touched file in a Russian provincial archive about how the professoriate and students at the nascent university in the Volga region of Samara, conceived with love and care before the Revolution, responded to the horrors that befell their region and their country, in 1917-1920s. How they fought malnutrition and exhaustion and just got on with ensuring the smooth start to the semester, that students got housing and food. And importantly, that they have access to books; the professoriate made the monographs available from their own personal collections. These—the students and the professors—were the “bourgeoisie”—the groups that the Bolshevik dogma had marked out for extermination.

Handwritten NoteHand-written note concerning hiring of Samara University faculty, f. 3931m, op. 1, ed. khr. 30, l. 10, Central State Archive of Samara Oblast (TsGASO)


Protocol, discussion concerning transformation of extant Pedagogical Institute into Samara University involving professoriate and local bodies, 27 July 2018, f. 3931m, o. 1, ed. khr. 30, l. 12, TsGASO

The paradoxical normality amidst the war and human misery calls for a serious engagement with the question of what it is that political, social, and economic shocks do to the fabric of society. How should we conceptually and empirically make sense of these processes when we analyse their long-term socio-economic and political effects?

Eight decades ago, the founder of the sociology department at Harvard University and political refugee from Bolshevik Russia Pitirim Sorokin wrote a book called Man and Society in Calamity. Aside from calling attention to the socially shattering effects of calamities, Sorokin underlines their restorative and regenerative role; for they may create new momentum to, and even amplify, the structures of extant knowledge. The book is not widely cited outside of sociology; indeed, it has been almost forgotten. It is time we reintroduce the concept of calamities as a serious subject of academic study.

In social sciences, as I discuss in the blog here, calamities like wars and revolutions, which often go together with other shocks, have been regarded as the “great leveller”—not only do they arguably decimate entire populations and communities, but they obliterate the wealth and assets of those hitherto privileged—in Russia, aristocracy, merchants, tradesmen, and the “bourgeois” professionals. Such perspectives, as I write in Estate Origins, are derived from “calendric” approaches to calamity. They focus on immediate events and policy and their tangible, visible, easily measurable consequences for society. The problem with these approaches is that they eschew embedding the history’s “great” and “ordinary” thespians in what the political scientist Marcus Kreuzer conceptualises as “thick” aspects of historical time. Kreuzer, drawing on prior work in the sociology of time, distinguishes between physical aspects of time as encapsulated in dates, tempo, duration, and pace of events on the one hand, and, on the other hand, historical time that is context specific but also transcends the metric aspects of time.[1]

My book illustrates how calamities may not only fail to obliterate extant structures of society but inadvertently amplify them. This is because individuals are socialised in milieus—familial, community, other—and are embedded in institutions—educational, professional, religious—with a far broader historical-temporal reach when it comes to the goalposts, milestones, and the heroes and idols to emulate and follow. Furthermore, calamities incentivise fall back on extant skills and resources. As I write in my book,

Long-established institutions whether in medicine, education, or veterinary sciences—encapsulating the edifices, skills, and horizons in training and experience—acquire urgent resilience in such troubled junctures precisely because no time could be wasted on creating new, properly “communist” institutions, lest millions more people die of starvation or disease and survivors take to the pitchfork to dislodge the opportunists who have seized power…

My assumption concerning the great dis-leveler[2] effect of fast-based revolutionary whirlwinds precisely derives from sensitivity to immediate urgency of knowledge as against the temporally far more protracted, stable, and slow intergenerational processes of institutional construction, and of intra-institutional social and cognitive embedding. Calamity in such times of crisis finds strange bedfellows with stability!

In other words, historical time transcends the one or successive episodes of calamity and has a far wider temporal reach preceding, and following temporally, that of the immediate calamitous occurrence. Drawing on Kathleen Thelen’s work in historical institutionalism, we may consider calamities as encouraging political actors to “eschew experimentation and instead fall back on familiar formulas—resulting in institutional reproduction, not change.”[3]

That social structures, institutions, and values survive major political and economic shocks may sound self-evident to the Broad Street readership. But it has not been so for the generations of scholars who have written about the social consequences of the Bolshevik Revolution. In fact, so ingrained has been the revolutionary state-building paradigm in how we think about Russian polity that we have seldom considered the utility of delving into the intricacies of Imperial society for understanding social divisions in Russia now. And yet, as Russia pursues its senseless war and the world watches the plight of people in Ukraine but also observes the Russians contesting the brutal machinery of the Putin regime at home, the long historical perspective on society is more prescient than ever.

To understand the sources of resilience and contention against the Putin regime we tend to look at institutions—political, coercive, or corrective. But as I write in this blog here, we have forgotten that institutions are embedders of social structure. Much of what we know about divisions in Russian society comes from public opinion research. Yet, surveys are not always the best instrument for discerning the deep chasm that continues to divide Russian society and that finds its institutional reflection in support for, or contestation against, the Putin regime. For instance, public opinion researchers have noted that contemporary higher education is not always the best predictor of support for Putin. As the below graphs using regional education and press freedom data show, social status before the Revolution comes out as a far better predictor of regional democratic outcomes in Russia. Specifically, as Alexander Libman and I write in our recent APSR paper, the pre-Revolutionary regional and district share of meshchane—the estate that we conceptualize as the urban proto-bourgeoisie in Russia—appears to explain better whether there will be greater demand for, and supply of, democratic processes and institutions at a sub-national level.

Imperial Russian society, as I discuss in the short video here has been rigidly stratified along the lines of estate (in Russian sosloviye)—a feudal relic that formally survived until the Revolution of 1917, but that continued to find echoes and reflection not only in how individuals self-identified (e.g., aristocrat, meshchanin) but in the human capital, values and aspirations, and indeed resources that came from embeddedness in professional-educational milieus that channelled individual possibilities in Bolshevik Russia. This chasm never disappeared as the Soviet decades went on. Bolshevik policy inadvertently calcified it. Soviet planners tried to curb the exodus of peasants feeling into towns following brutal collectivisation, famines, and epidemics. They trapped peasants in collective farms, the kolkhozy; for many years, kolkhozworkers were not entitled to passports that would ease transition into cities. After the passport regime changed, the social mobility that typified the life of the poorly educated peasant was usually to join the factory workforce or the new middle class of clerical workers, rural teachers, or nurses. The most elite professions tended to be colonised by those with ancestral origin in educated milieus of pre-Bolshevik Russia. As I show in my book, the probability of ascent into high-status occupations of academicians, professoriate, cultural and artistic figures in Soviet Russia was lower for someone who had been illiterate and not already on the way to the urban estates of meshchanin, artisan or merchant before the Revolution. Even those with backgrounds in the rural bourgeoisie had an advantage in the process. (My own ancestry illustrates this—my great-grandfather owned the main retail outlet in the steppe village in the Samara region and the family belonged to a quasi-Protestant sect called the Molokans; they valued literacy and numeracy and quickly ascended into the Soviet status professions).

Consequentially, the “middle class” that emerged out of the Bolshevik route to social mobility could be described as “new” as distinct from the “old” educated groups who were more successful at ascending into autonomous professions and high status. Furthermore, as Bryn Rosenfeld masterfully demonstrates, the middle classes incubated in public sector institutions tend to support the state. In Russia under Putin, resources have been channelled into the machinery of state repression via the creation of the Russian Guard (Rosgvardiya), and augmentation of other coercive institutions like the police and army. Yet, institutions like Rosgvardiya not only create opportunities for social mobility of groups that had been historically marginalised; they may also consolidate and amplify the sense of social division expressed in grievances of the long-underprivileged majority against the small elite of “Westernised urbanites.”

These dynamics of institutional embedding and political expression cry out for further research. But our understanding of social divisions that find their articulation in political regime support and contestation in autocracies like present-day Russia would be incomplete without a systematic study of the interaction between calamities and society understood from the perspective of long historical time.

[1] Marcus Kreuzer, “Varieties of Time in Comparative Historical Analysis.” In The Oxford Handbook of Time and Politics, edited by Klaus H. Goetz. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019, p. 4.

[2] Here I paraphrase Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.

[3] Thelen, How Institutions Evolve, 292.


  • Tomila Lankina

    Tomila Lankina is Professor of International Relations at the LSE’s International Relations Department. Her research focuses on comparative democracy and authoritarianism, protests and historical patterns of human capital and democratic reproduction in Russia and other states. She is the author of two books and has published articles in the American Political Science Review (forthcoming), American Journal of Political Science, British Journal of Political Science, Comparative Political Studies, The Journal of Politics, Comparative Politics, World Politics, Demokratizatsiya, Europe-Asia Studies, Post-Soviet Affairs, Problems of Post-Communism, and other journals. Her latest book is on the historical drivers of inequalities and democracy in Russia. It is titled Estate Origins of Social Structure and Democracy in Russia: The Discreet Reproduction of Imperial Bourgeoisie (Through Communism and Beyond). Cambridge University Press, 2021 (in production).

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