Рецензия на книгу Д. Ранзела "История русского купца"

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Опубликовано: Russian Review, vol. 68, no. 4 (October 2009): 709-10.

Ransel, David L. A Russian Merchant's Tale: The Life and Adventures of Ivan Alekseevich Tolchёnov, Based on His Diary. Indiana-Michigan Series in Russian and East European Studies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. xxvi + 320 pp. $24.95 (paper). ISBN 978-0-253-22020-2.

To the question "What can be done with diaries?" posed by Irina Paperno to readers and researchers in a recent debate on diaries and intimate archives (The Russian Review 63, October 2004), David Ransel offers an excellent answer, powerfully convincing and rich in detail. His beautifully written A Russian Merchant's Tale is a first-rate scholarly work that challenges our perception of a non-elite person’s daily life in the provincial Russia of the second half of the eighteenth century – the social group, the time and the place we know so little about. Using the method of microhistorical research, Ransel aims to put together a picture, which "takes us beyond the stereotypical understanding we have long had of merchant community and family life as exclusively static, benighted, and self-enclosed" (p. xii), and he masterfully achieves this goal. He takes as a starting point of a meticulous exploration the very laconic, often incomprehensible, almost account-book-style entries in the diary of Ivan Alekseevich Tolchёnov (1754-1824), a merchant in the town of Dmitrov, who kept track of his daily routine for nearly forty years since 1769. Ransel then combines that material with a broad spectrum of historical, legal, literary, and other sources, in order to question, explain and add dimension to his primary source. The result is microhistory at its best. Ransel manages to bring a life, turned nothing but dry text, back to life again.

Having chosen "a man… in his interactions with other men" (p. xix) as the focal point of his research, Ransel closely examines a merchant’s life in the era of change that shaped the diarist's consciousness and determined a dramatic turnaround in his situation. By presenting the human side of the great reforms, A Russian Merchant's Tale shows the price of modernization and westernization of Russia on the individual level, which often surprises and always enlightens the reader. Son to a first-guild merchant, Ivan Tolchёnov inherited, as a young man, a large fortune, increased it through hard work and good connections, and raised himself to a position of high influence among his peers and Dmitrov residents at large, who elected him mayor. Affected by the new trends in society under modernization, he developed a taste for the gracious and rich lifestyle that he copied after the local and even capital nobility with whom he associated himself. That led him, eventually, to complete ruin and loss of the merchant status. Ransel shows, however, that Tolchёnov's high lifestyle was not his caprice, but rather a necessity and even obligation stemming from his social standing as businessman and the town’s highest official. Yet his devotion to shaping a new, more cultivated ways of life for his community ended up placing upon him a financial burden too high for a merchant to bear – a fact he found the courage and honesty to admit in his diary.

Ransel's very nuanced approach to the people and the places in a transitional time has allowed him to provide Tolchёnov’s private testimony with a vivid historical context and thus turn it into a meaningful portrayal of an entire community and its framework. On many levels, the book is a groundbreaking and thought-provoking contribution to the historiography of the eighteenth-century Russia.

Olga E. Glagoleva, Toronto, Canada

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