All Russia is Burning!: A Cultural History of Fire and Arson in Late Imperial Russia

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University of Washington Press, 2002 - History - 318 pages

Rural fires were an even more persistent scourge than famine in late imperial Russia, as Cathy Frierson shows in this first comprehensive study. Destroying almost three billion rubles’ worth of property in European Russia between 1860 and 1904, accidental and arson fires acted as a brake on Russia’s economic development while subjecting peasants to perennial shocks to their physical and emotional condition. The fire question captured the attention of educated, progressive Russians, who came to perceived it as a key obstacle to Russia’s becoming a modern society in the European model.

Using sources ranging from literary representations and newspaper articles to statistical tables and court records, Frierson demonstrates the many meanings fire held for both peasants and the educated elite. To peasants, it was an essential source of light and warmth as well as a destructive force that regularly ignited their cramped villages of wooden, thatch-roofed huts. Absent the rule of law, they often used arson to gain justice or revenge, or to exert social control over those who would violate village norms. Frierson shows that the vast majority of arson cases in European Russia were not peasant-against-gentry acts of protest but peasant-against-peasant acts of "self-help" law or plain spite.

Both the state and individual progressives set out to resolve the fire question and to educate, cajole, or coerce the peasantry into the modern world. Fire insurance, building codes, "scientific" village layouts, and volunteer firefighting brigades reduced the average number of buildings consumed in each blaze, but none of these measures succeeded in curbing the number of fires each year.

More than anything else, this history of fire and arson in rural European Russia is a history of their cultural meanings in the late imperial campaign for modernity. Frierson shows the special associations of women with fire in rural life and in elite understanding of fire in the Russian countryside. Her study of the fire question demonstrates both peasant agency in fighting fire and educated Russians' hardening conviction that peasants stood in the way of Russia's advent into the company of prosperous, rational, civilized nations.


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Fire as Gentle Cookery and Paradise Peasants as Mistresses and Masters of Fire
Fire as Apocalypse or Pathology Peasants as Victims or Vectors of Fire
Fire as Russias Historical Evil Peasants Dispossessed by Fire
Letting Loose the Red Rooster Arson in Rural Russia
The Fiery Brand Russian Style Arson as Protest Peasants as Incendiaries
Arson as Impotent Spite or Potent Practice Peasants as Vengeful Covetous or Wily Actors
Mobilizing to make Russia Modern Insuring Planning Volunteering
Fire as Insurance Hazard Peasants as Students of Prudence and Precaution
Fire Contained in the Planned Village Peasants as Residents in a Disciplined Domestic Order
Fire as the Internal Enemy Peasants as Volunteer Firefighters
Fire as an Imperial Legacy Peasants as Partners in Progress

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Page 4 - Scott, this high-modernist moment might be seen as the expression of an ideology "best conceived [of] as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws

About the author (2002)

Professor Reginald E. Zelnik, who died in a tragic accident in May 2004, was one of the most respected and beloved historians of Russia. He taught for decades at University of California, Berkeley and served as a fervent activist in the free speech movement, advocating for student and faculty rights. In tribute to Zelnik’s career at Berkeley and his professional contributions, the volume includes a list of his Ph.D. students at Berkeley, and his curriculum vitae.

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