The key to weaponizing urban space is the same as the key to being a successful London cabby: acquiring “the Knowledge.” Aleksandr Mikhailov, the tactical genius of the illegal Russian populist party Land and Freedom, had a store of maps of St. Petersburg that he virtually memorized and then augmented with intimate knowledge of the city’s back alleys, passageways, and courtyards. Armed with this information, Mikhailov was able to elude police surveillance and instruct his co-conspirators in the fine art of the urban dodge until overconfidence led to his easy arrest (193). These techniques of evasion, among other tactics, came into being with the revolutionary underground, and in Underground Petersburg: Radical Populism, Urban Space, and the Tactics of Subversion in Reform-Era Russia, Christopher Ely investigates the synergy—and contradictions—of the development of the Russian radical populist movement in the context of urban modernity. As Ely points out, the historiography of Russian radicalism is largely intellectual history that focuses on the movement’s ideological underpinnings. The material conditions of the movement—and new approaches in general—have been conspicuous in their absence, as revolutionary history is no longer the magnet it once was. The exception has been revolutionary terrorism, which after 2001 attracted a cohort of historians wielding new approaches and presenting “origin stories” of modern terrorism that challenged traditional narratives and interpretations. Ely’s contribution, simultaneously retro and innovative, is to reintegrate the history of revolutionary terrorism into the history of the populist movement, and to elucidate the nexus of space and power, as the populists commandeered urban space in order to carry out a campaign of revolutionary terrorism that culminated in regicide. Ely characterizes the radical populist underground as a “subversive heterotopia,” employing Michel Foucault’s concept designating “other places” that may reinforce or challenge hegemonic ideologies and practices, including churches, prisons, museums, brothels, amusement parks, and bohemian districts (24–25). In Ely’s account, radical populists consciously constructed the underground “as a refuge from ever-expanding police scrutiny, a locus of social and political connection for radicals and their supporters, an insurrectionary base of operation, and a remarkably effective platform for gaining visibility and notoriety for the populist movement” (25). By establishing the underground as a base for waging asymmetrical warfare, the radical populists were able to project an aura of power disproportionate to their actual strength and numbers. The irony, of course, was that the ideological roots of revolutionary populism were located in the Russian countryside, and that the populists imagined the peasants as their natural constituency. This is an irony that Ely underscores, as Underground Petersburg traces the geographical trajectory of populism from its origins as an intellectual movement in the reform-era Russian city (including Petersburg and Moscow), to idealistically motivated student activism in the Russian countryside, to the pragmatic formation of a conspiratorial underground in St. Petersburg. Ely describes the populists’ steep learning curve as they explored the possibilities of rural and urban spaces for propaganda, agitation, and subversion. While Ely recounts the well-known frustrations of the populists in the countryside (their culture shock, isolation, and harassment by authorities) and hence their relieved return an urban milieu, he brings to the fore the autocracy’s quest for security and its strenuous efforts to reserve urban space for what Jürgen Habermas had termed the “publicity of representation” in order to illuminate why, precisely, the populists found themselves driven underground (30). Ely’s insights into the importance of urban space, the revolutionary underground, and more broadly the material and tactical aspects of the revolutionary struggle are so intriguing that the reader is left wanting more, especially in the earlier chapters in which these elements recede to the background of a more general history of radical populism. With its spatial and urban studies focus, Underground Petersburg promises, but does not deliver, a vividly rendered sense of place and space—thick descriptions based on previously untapped sources such as contemporary maps, photographs, or the St. Petersburg municipal archives. Likewise, Foucault’s nebulous and underdeveloped concept of “heterotopia” requires further elaboration to transform it from a buzzword into a genuinely productive analytical tool. How do Foucault’s “heterotopic” concrete physical spaces themselves function as constituents of a revolutionary underground, which is less a physical space (and not at all confined to Petersburg) and more a spatial metaphor for networks and practices? Chapter 6, “Organized Troglodytes,” the rewarding heart of Ely’s study, unpacks these practices (disguise, false identities, urban orientation) and networks (conspiratorial apartments, fellow travelers, specialists, material resources) in subsections, each of which could be fruitfully extended into its own chapter. Underground Petersburg convincingly demonstrates the role played by geography, rather than ideology or teleology, in transforming bookish and idealistic intellectuals into radical urban militants. The creation of a formidable underground and the intoxicating success (and media attention) of urban operations drove radical populists down a tactical course that ended in terrorism and ultimately shaped their ideology as well. In Ely’s analysis, the relatively malleable and non-doctrinaire members of Land and Freedom’s militant offshoot, the People’s Will, became, through their exposure to media and public opinion, “liberal” terrorists who sought to intimidate the government into granting Western-style political freedoms and civil liberties. Of course, an autocratic regime beset by terrorist violence is not inclined to relax repression. This raises the question of what kind of power the populists could claim to have built or wielded. Ely returns to the issue of the populists’ power repeatedly, but ultimately admits that they possessed the power “to shock and awe” (270), and ultimately to expose the weakness of the monarchy, but not to introduce meaningful political change. Yet Ely’s final compelling argument is that the populists’ success can be measured by their imitators—underground insurgencies across the globe as well as counterrevolutionary forces—among them, the tsarist political police, who adopted the radical populists’ conspiratorial tactics (271). As an original and highly suggestive contribution to the historiography of radical populism and revolutionary terrorism, Ely’s Underground Petersburg breaks new, “heterotopic” ground, and future historians are sure to follow. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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