Serfdom, Society, and the Arts in Imperial Russia


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The Pleasure and the Power
First Edition

Richard Stites

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Serf-era and provincial Russia heralded the spectacular turn in cultural history that began in the 1860s. Examining the role of arts and artists in society’s value system, Richard Stites explores this shift in a groundbreaking history of visual and performing arts in the last decades of serfdom. Provincial town and manor house engaged the culture of Moscow and St. Petersburg while thousands of serfs and ex-serfs created or performed. Mikhail Glinka raised Russian music to new levels and Anton Rubinstein struggled to found a conservatory. Long before the itinerants, painters explored town and country in genre scenes of everyday life. Serf actors on loan from their masters brought naturalistic acting from provincial theaters to the imperial stages. Stites’s richly detailed book offers new perspectives on the origins of Russia’s nineteenth-century artistic prowess.

Richard Stites is Distinguished Professor of International Studies at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.

“[A] remarkable book… Stites has embarked on a very detailed and nuanced analysis, à la Habermas… This is a splendid book, very well and perceptively written, con brio. It makes the whole movement of Russian culture come alive, while maintaining a strict scholarly and informative underpinning, in a way which catches the reader up in the infectious enthusiasm and humane judgements of the author.” - Isabel de Madariaga, Times Literary Supplement

"In Serfdom, Society, and the Arts in Imperial Russia, Richard Stites explores the vast panorama of Russian cultural life before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. The artistic worlds of metropolitan and provincial Russia are vividly portrayed, and the manifold dimensions of cultural production and consumption are placed within their social and political contexts with consummate skill. Immensely readable and based on complete command of the published and unpublished sources, this book is quite simply a work of breathtaking scholarship which sparkles on every page with insight and erudition. Readers will stand in awe at its formidable scope and compelling narrative, and it will quickly establish itself as the definitive study of pre-emancipation Russian culture. It is yet another monumental achievement from a master historian of Russia."—Murray Frame, University of Dundee

"This highly original and very impressive book to my mind solves a crucial puzzle of Russian cultural history: through what alchemy did Russia, a cultural backwater in the early 18th century, metamorphose into an innovative powerhouse in music, art, and theater by the 1860s? Stites's book explores for the first time the many stages, provincial as well as central, on which this transformation was played out. In the process he resurrects minor or forgotten actors, works, and audiences. Throughout the book, he vividly conveys the enormous cultural investment and appetites that existed in the supposedly barren hinterlands, providing an important source of fuel for this transformation."—Priscilla Roosevelt, George Washington University

"In Serfdom, Society, and the Arts, Stites makes another significant contribution to cultural and social history. . . . His narrative is masterful and moving. In addition to being a rich repository of empirical information, Serfdom, Society, and the Arts teaches historians how to bring imagination and empathy to cherished subjects."—Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter, The Russian Review

"Stites has produced a magnificent tome, one that is at once massively and exhaustively researched, beautifully written, searchingly argued, and, just to be clear about it, a fundamental contribution to knowledge. . . . This will be an enduring text, and . . . dare I say it . . . bravo!"—Slavic Review

"Stites . . . [is] perhaps the premier American student of the interaction between culture and society in modern Russia. . . . In his newest book, he moves backward in time to examine the emergence of a Russian secular high culture in the century before serfdom—along with much of Russia's ancien régime—was dismantled by the Great Reforms. . . . A richly documented and highly readable book."—American Historical Review

"Rich and complex. . . . A highly important book. All serious students of Imperial Russia should at least familiarize themselves with it."—Brian Bonhomme, Canadian Journal of History

"This work can be used for undergraduate and graduate courses in cultural history and Russian history and enjoyed by the general public. It provides material and inspiration for further studies in many directions."—Lina Bernstein, Slavic and East European Journal

"Richard Stites succeeds once again in the art of revealing a fascinating panorama of Russian society. He provides a great picture of the arts—theater, graphic arts, and music—in pre-reform Russia, with a focus on the capitals and provinces of the empire's European parts."—Martina Winkler, Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History

"Pathbreaking and absorbing. . . . [A] remarkable achievement."—Cynthia Hyla Whittaker, Journal of Modern History

"This is a great (genuinely great) book. It is an intellectual event of primary importance, whose significance is by no means confined to Russian studies. I am confident that the book will find a broad and diverse readership, it is enormously important as a historical study; it is truly innovative in its methodology; it offers an incredible wealth of exciting material; and, last but not least, it is written in a vivid language, with remarkable insight, level-headedness, and compassion."—Boris Gasparov, Columbia University, author of Five Operas and a Symphony: Words of Music in Russian Culture

"This book is the latest of Stites's panoramic yet densely detailed studies of Russian culture, and it will undoubtedly prove as invaluable to scholars, students, and general-interest readers as his previous books have done. Russian Studies is blessed to have in Stites an energetic and rigorous cultural historian of both the imperial and Soviet periods. Stites possesses an extraordinary capacity to decipher complex social and institutional formations and thereby to underscore key issues in cultural politics by creating a picture of satisfying specificity. Nobody does it better."—Julie Buckler, Harvard University

Selected as a Best Book about Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Republics for September 2006 awarded by Foreign Affairs Magazine

Selected as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2006 by Choice Magazine

Winner of the 2008 Literature/Fine Arts Alpha Sigma Nu Book Award.
ISBN: 9780300137576
Publication Date: March 4, 2008
640 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
72 b/w illus.