Voluntary Association, Education, and Autocracy:

The Case of the "Society of Zealots of Russian Historical Education" (1895 – 1918)


Scientific background

The proposed project is devoted to a study of voluntary associations in late imperial Russia. Concepts of the public and of the public sphere, as well as a more general theory of civil society, constitute the methodological orientation and framework for the research and determine its scientific background. Theoretical literature concerning the public sphere, a corpus that rests largely on the pioneering work of the philosopher Jürgen Habermas (Habermas: 1989, 1992, 1996) is immense (Van Horn Melton: 2001; Calhoun: 1992; Trentmann: 2000; Hoffmann: 2003; LaVopa: 1992). Further, a significant number of historical studies focus on voluntary associations in Germany, England, and the United States (Morris: 1983, 1990; Clark: 2000; Blackbourn: 1984; Gamm and Putnam: 1999). Feminist thought expanded this field through its gendering of the subject (Devis: 1997; Firor Scott: 1993; Landes: 1988). The development of post-colonial studies has made it possible to examine the role of voluntary associations in the modernization process and in the emergence of modern culture in non-European societies and countries (Cahtterjee: 2001). Recognition of the relevance of the concept of civil society to the history of science has helped highlight the issue of scientific and educational societies (Broman: 2002). Consequently, an impressive range of scholarship has been published on the history of voluntary associations in a variety of national contexts and in particular spheres of activity. This includes studies of patriotic clubs and charitable associations, and mutual aid and learned societies. In exploring the modes and fields of activity of these voluntary associations, new conceptualizations have taken shape concerning both the relationship between voluntary associations and the state and the boundaries set between voluntary and state-sponsored activity (Lewis: 1996). The impact of voluntary associations on certain types of identity is another recent direction of inquiry, underscoring questions about the social standing of the members of these associations (Wach: 1996).

Insharp contrast to these trends and developments, the history of voluntary associations in Russia was studied only sporadically until the 1990s, and then mainly in relation to other subjects and certainly not as a distinctive research problem in its own right. The only exception was a series of studies of public organizations (obshchestvennye organizatsii) written by the Soviet historian, A.D. Stepanskii, in the early 1980s (Stepanskii: 1980; 1982; 1987). The first serious attempt to apply Habermas’s theory to the definition of the “Russian public” was undertaken by Douglas Smith in his study of Freemasonry in eighteenth-century Russia. Even more important than his classification of Russia’s early voluntary associations was Smith’s recognition of the methodological problems that arose because of the distinctive social composition of the Russian “public” (Smith: 1999, pp. 54-61). Further exploration of voluntary associations was carried out by Joseph Bradley, who contextualized the subject as part of a theoretical discussion concerning civil society in Russia (Bradley: 1991, 1998, 2002). Geoffrey A. Hosking’s “Patronage and the Russian State” (Hosking: 2000) was conducive to drawing the attention of scholars to the role and function of patronage and personal networks within voluntary associations (Leckey: 2005; Pétery: 2003). Particular aspects of the history of voluntary associations subsequently became subjects of inquiry. A number of studies on charitable societies in Russia were published (Lindenmeyr: 1994, 1996; Ul'ianova: 2000). Scholars of the history of science and education examined the role of scientific societies in the public life of late nineteenth century Russia (Hachten: 2002) and analyzed the role of voluntary associations in the field of extracurricular adult education (Wartenweiler: 1999). The network of voluntary associations in a distinct geographical region was the subject of A.S Tumanova’s work (1999). In a later book Tumanova also analyzed the legislative basis of the activity of voluntary associations between 1905 and 1917 (2002).

The relatively poor state of affairs regarding studies on voluntary associations in Russia calls for an in-depth investigation of the subject in a broader historical and theoretical context. A promising direction for further research lies in an examination of specific voluntary associations from different methodological perspectives.  

Research objectives and expected significance of the project

The proposed research will focus on “TheSociety of Zealots of Russian Historical Education” (Obshchestvo revnitelei russkogo istoricheskogo prosveshcheniia), which was created in 1895 and remained active until 1918. This Society emerged within the established tradition of voluntary associations. Its structure and operational methods were characteristic of the majority of learned societies that existed in Russia at the time. The Society of Zealots might thus be regarded as a typical example of Russian voluntary associations. At the same time, the Society was characterized by specific traits, including a distinct ideology (monarchist and nationalist) which it strove to advance through its shaping of a cohesive historical narrative. In pursuit of this aim, the Zealots produced teaching materials, founded libraries, published historical documents, and encouraged historical research. As such, the Society purported to be a new type of historical association, which sought to promote “useful” historical knowledge. This combination of features that were typical of voluntary associations in general and distinctive to the Society of Zealots of Russian Historical Education in particular makes this association a salient subject of research.      

By examining the history of the Society of Zealots, this project seeks first and foremost to explore the status of voluntary associations under autocracy and study its relationships and connections with other social groups and with government offices.

In addition, examining an organization that strove to make an impact on the sphere of education will enable us to explore contemporary approaches to the educational agency of voluntary associations and the distinctiveness of their educational practices. The Society’s focus on historical education raises a further set of questions. What, exactly, was their perception of the educational value of history? How did the Zealots’ political orientation influence their educational activity, and what was the specific historical narrative that they sought to promote? How was it disseminated and how did the Society’s methods compare with those of other agents of historical education that were not voluntary associations? The Zealots’ view of historical education as an ideological mission also raises a more general question concerning the role of voluntary associations in an autocratic political system.

Last, but not least, it is necessary to examine the character of the Society of Zealots as an association involved in historical scholarship. Was the Zealots’ perspective on national history unique or was it characteristic of the contemporary historical discourse? The role played by the Zealots in debates on Russianhistoriography raises questions about the interaction between a voluntary historical society and the community of professional historians. More specifically, one might ask what motivated academic historians to involve themselves in a voluntary association? What was the status of non-academic members in this historical society, and what kind of relations did they have with their academic colleagues? How did the existence of voluntary historical associations influence the very standing of history as a profession, and of the historian as a professional?

Resting on unique archival sources, this research will contribute to our understanding of social and cultural life in tsarist Russia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The study specifically aspires to deepen our understanding of the internal structure of Russian society. On broader lines, this project will enable us to re-examine common stereotypes of state-society relations in Russia, based on the conventional assumption that “in Russia the state was everything; civil society was primordial and gelatinous” (Gramsci: 1971). The history of the Zealots reveals an intricate matrix of interconnections between state and society and presents a far more complex picture than that which the “top down” version of domination and oppression offers. At the same time, the case of the Zealots calls into question assumptions concerning the emancipatory impulse purportedly inherent in voluntary associations. A close examination of associational life in Russia brings us face to face with voluntary activity characterized by a conservative rather than a liberal or liberating thrust. It will also point to processes in which voluntary associations helped build a pro-state, rather than an anti-state civil society. The significance of this type of civil society, characterized by collaboration and interdependence vis-à-vis the state rather than by autonomy and opposition to it, has already been underscored at the theoretical level (Bradley: 2002). The Society of Zealots of Russian Historical Education provides us with an opportunity to study such a development in an empirical setting.

Detailed description of the proposed research

This project is based on theassumption that voluntary associations constituted an essential component in the relationship between state and society in late imperial Russia. However, the nature of this relationship, as well as the character of Russian voluntary associations, differed significantly from patterns of associational life that developed in Western Europe. Focusing on a particular association, while examining its activity in the broad context of associational life, seems to be the most appropriate and effective method for investigating the distinctive character of voluntary associations that operated under an autocratic regime.

Status, structure and membership

The first stage of the research will be devoted to analyzing the network of voluntary associations that existed in imperial Russia, and to placing the Society of Zealots within this context. For this purpose, the process by which voluntary associations came into existence and evolved will be studied and societies active in the 1890s mapped. A comparative analysis will be most appropriate for this phase of the study.

The next stage of research will focus on the organizational structure of the Society of Zealots and the Zealots’ interaction with state, public, and private bodies. The Habermasian notion of voluntary associations will serve as the main conceptual instrument for undertaking such an examination. From his perspective, voluntary associations are viewed as self-regulating “voluntary unions outside the realm of the state and the economy,” which make possible new forms of sociability and self-definition (Habermas: 1992, pp. 453-454). The view of voluntary associations as instrumental to the connection between civil society and the state assigns special significance to such factors as the state’s attitude toward this kind of association and the participation of certain social groups in associational activity. In order to determine how these factors played out during the period under study, legislative norms regulating the activity of voluntary societies will be examined, as will state policy towards these societies.

Identification of social groups and forces that took part in associational life in general and were represented in the Society of Zealots in particular constitutes a serious methodological problem. Habermas originally regarded the development of voluntary associations as a by-product of the formation of the bourgeois public sphere. This led him and his followers to argue for the essentially bourgeois character of voluntary associations (Blackbourn: 1984, pp. 194-205). More recently, however, Geoff Eley has reinterpreted this character of voluntary associations to mean the “hostility,” through “the ideal and practice of association by organization and intent, to older principles of corporate organization, which ascribed social place by hereditary and legal estate” (Eley: 1992, p. 298). He thus takes the definition beyond mere identification with the bourgeoisie as a social class and points to the existence of a “competing public” alongside the bourgeoisie. This theoretical proposal has been supported and extended by Frank Trentmann, who claimed that the values of civil society, commonly attributed to the bourgeoisie, were articulated through voluntary associations by a wide spectrum of liberal landowners, professionals, and government officials (Trentmann: 2000, pp. 8-11). In addition, Gabriele B. Clemens has uncovered the mutual cooperation of noble and bourgeois “publics” in the framework of historical societies in nineteenth-century Germany and Italy (Clemens: 2003).

Altogether, such assumptions are of significant value for research into the history of voluntary societies in Russia. Studies of Russian public life show that, until the mid-nineteenth century, membership of voluntary associations was overwhelmingly noble (Smith: 1999, p. 58). At the same time, motivation in joining these associations was a function of one’s level of education rather than noble origins. This peculiarity of early voluntary associations in Russia has led scholars to define civil society in eighteenth and early nineteenth century Russia as a “civil society of the educated” (Raeff: 1991).In regard to the later period, existing scholarship has commonly identified associational activity with a developing stratum of intelligentsia, consisting mainly of educated members of the free professions. The history of the Society of Zealots of Russian Historical Education, however, challenges this paradigm. The founders of the Society were courtiers and aristocrats involved in historical studies, joined by a number of academicians who belonged to old noble families. The expansion of the Society’s membership brought into its fold a significant number of St. Petersburg and provincial nobles, several prosperous industrialists, a remarkable numberof serious historians, and an impressive number of clerics from all levels of the church hierarchy. To complicate the picture even further, the Society of Zealots allowed women into its ranks. This complex composition of membership not only makes it difficult to associate the Zealots with this or that segment of Russian society; it also confounds any attempt to define the “social rationale” for joining the Society. It is obvious, however, that the nature of the membership of the Society of Zealots indeed contradictedthe principle of corporate organizations, both in the old mode of the legal estate and in the new form of the professional organization. Moreover, the very notion of creating such a Society, as can be learned from its founding memorandum, rested on a vision of contemporary Russian society as comprising “contesting publics.” Significantly, then, the Zealots declared that their task was to win over public opinion against a “rival public,” which from their point of view meant the Western-oriented intelligentsia.

Prosopography, or the reconstitution of group biographies, will help resolve the puzzle of the social identity of the Society of Zealots. Prosopographical analysis will be effective in establishing a profile (or profiles) of the Zealots. In addition, the creation of a prosophographical database will make possible an examination of interpersonal relations among members of the Society that existed alongside the formal hierarchy of its membership. This hidden structure can then facilitate the search for an explanation of the Zealots’ curious liberality in regard to gender. A detailed investigation of this particular case might shed light on the general question of female involvement in associational life within imperial Russia.

Determining the Society’s organizational structure and the composition of its membership will enable progress in studying its intentions and the manner in which it functioned as an educational and historical society.

Educational agency

The Society of Zealots of Russian Historical Education sought to educate the Russian people in what they believed to be the correct version of history of the recent national past. In order to research the Society’s educational activity, we need to address its perception of what education was. The Russian term prosveshchenie, employed in the Society’s name, contained several facets. First and foremost, it referred to a general enlightenment and, as such, alluded to the universalistic message of the Enlightenment. It also represented a certain corebody of knowledge that in the latter half of the nineteenth century was usually associated with the pursuit of science (Vusinich: 1970, pp. 474–488). Prosveshchenie also connoted a way of upbringing, that is, the transmission of values and the molding of personal identity. Therefore, it is important to examine the Zealots’ approach to education in the general context of contemporary ideas about prosveshchenie. Emphasis on the “historical education in the spirit of Russian principles,” as it appears repeatedly in the Society’s founding documents, points to their educational priorities and will guide the analysis.

The next task is to mark those groups of the population that were targeted by the Society as subjects of education. The Society’s rhetoric refers to the “Russian people.” This general and rather ambiguous construct acquires a more precise definition upon examining the actual projects undertaken by the Zealots. Popular literature published by the Society was aimed principally at the literate peasantry. Libraries established by the Society were spread across a vast territory, from the Baltic regions to Siberian gubernias, and were usually located in villages. But we cannot conclude that the educational initiative of the Zealots was tailored exclusively to the peasantry. The Society also undertook efforts to produce a history textbook − albeit abortively − for use in secondary schools. Society branches located on the empire’s periphery strove to advance the russification of the local population. And so, in identifying the target publics of the Zealots’ educational endeavors, their practical actions have to be analyzed. This inquiry must include not only aspects regarded by the Society as successful (for instance, the publication of popular historical literature and of a historical journal, and the establishment of numerous libraries), but also its failures, among them the above-mentioned history textbook.

An investigation of the Society’s projects (both realized and unrealized) will facilitate an understanding of how the Zealots conceived of such issues as their educational agency vis-à-vis the state. It also may shed light on the relationship between public and private institutions in the sphere of history education. Analyzing the Zealots’ publications as a cohesive corpus will also make possible an examination of the character of the historical narrative promoted by the Zealots and which conveyed their specific vision of the Russian past and present. The Zealots' periodicals and readers can be examined as media for disseminating the historical narrative embraced by the society. The significant question, however, is whether the Zealots adopted that narrative or created it themselves. In searching for an answer, we will proceed to the Zealots’ contribution to contemporary historical scholarship.

Historical society and historical scholarship

The tasks undertaken by the Society of Zealots included promoting scholarly study of the recent past. It is therefore important to unfold the Society’s scholarly agenda and its research procedures, as well as its methods of assessment and its evaluation criteria. Guides for best essay competitions on the history of the reign of Alexander the Third that were organized and subsidized by the Zealots provide an excellent opportunity for exploring this issue. Additional sources include documentation connected to the editorial board of the Society’s historical journal, Starina i Novizna (Past and present). Thus, on the basis of these documents, we may identify those subjects which the Society considered worthy of research, as well as reconstruct the Society’s evaluation routine and the process by which materials were chosen for publication.

Our next goal is to examine the roles filled by both academic and non-academic historians in the Society. For this purpose, correspondence between the members of the Society, together with the contents of the discussions that took place at the sessions of the Society’s council and at the meetings of its history department, will be explored. Uncovering the pattern (or patterns) of interaction between academic and non-academic historians, as well as between historians and laymen within the activities of the Society or outside of it, would seem to be the appropriate method for this analysis. Existing scholarship generally views voluntary associations as being influential agents in the development of the professions (Bradley: 1991, pp. 131-148). For the most part, however, professional associations are generally the focus of study, while learned societies are seen as “a way to circumvent restrictions on professional contact” (Balzer: 1996, p. 14). The importance of voluntary associations to a profession’s development has previously been measured by the extent to which they provided a framework “where activists within an expanding number of occupational groups aspired to the corporal identity, social status, and frequently autonomy of free professions” (Balzer: 1996, p. 15). But the case of the Zealots does not exactly fit this paradigm. Taking into consideration the peculiarity of the social composition of its membership, one might assume here the coexistence of two communicational patterns: professional contacts, on the one hand, and patronage relationships, on the other. The focus of this stage of the proposed study must be, first, to confirm the existence of these patterns of communication and then to ask how they influenced the norms of professional behavior. In order to answer such questions, special attention will be devoted to initiatives of the Zealots that were meant to influence the “state of the art” in the field of historical scholarship, namely, efforts to organize discussions among historians or to launch a new historical journal of theoretical character. Analysis of these endeavors will deepen our understanding of the possible impact of such a voluntary historical society on the consolidation of the history profession.


Research sources

The source base of this project includes a wide range of archival documentation as well as published materials. The principal collection is that of the Society’s papers, which are housed in the Central State Historical Archive of the Russian Federation (RGIA), in St. Petersburg. This includes official documents related to the founding of the Society, lists of the Society’s members, protocols of its council sessions, reports by its departments, and records of the Society’s communication with state and public bodies. Another important set of documents and sources is to be found in the personal papers of Sergei D. Sheremetev, who was the permanent chair of the Society of Zealots. This collection is located in the Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts (RGADA), in Moscow and includes correspondence between the head of the Society and its leading members, Sheremetev’s personal notes regarding the Society, and materials related to the Society’s journals. The third portion of important archival sources is found in the Department of Manuscripts (OR) of the Russian National Library, in St. Petersburg, where letters by the Society’s leading figures to historians, journalist, educators, and statesmen are housed. It is important to underline that the quantity, state and nature of these documents require not only the ability to read nineteenth century Russian, but also previous experience in working in Russian archives. In our case both qualifications were acquired in the course of previous research projects.

Alongside the archival sources, the Society’s publications represent a key collection of primary sources. The first group of such publications comprises the Society’s periodical, Starina i Novizna, and its newsletters. The second consists of books published by the Society. The third group includes the Society’s catalogs and manuals for its libraries.

The Society’s sundry activities were covered bythe contemporary press. In addition, the Society’s council engaged in the public discussions that unfolded in the pages of the era’s major newspapers. Consequently, journals (both historical and educational) and newspapers, particularly Sankt-Peterburgskie vedomosti, represent an additional corpus of documents for the proposed research.

This substantial source base, we believe, will enable the production of a solid research work exploring a new facet in the social history of Russia. The results of the research will be presented in the form of a monograph and, hopefully, will be published in book format.