Seminar CLXXII: regions, Russia and Robertians

One of the more interesting things I saw in the tail end of 2019 (because yes, sorry, backlog still that far back) was an attempt by three colleagues of mine (two since sadly moved on) to start a new sort of seminar, at least, new for us in History at Leeds. The colleages in question were Dr Jamie Doherty, Dr Fraser McNair and Professor James Harris, and what they wanted to do was build a dialogic seminar on political cultures. They managed one go, on 21st October 2019, and then it stopped, not because it was a bad idea but because, I believe, they had decided to have a second go towards Easter 2020, and you may recollect how the world’s plans for 2020 worked out. By the time it was possible to regroup, not everyone was still in place, and so this one go was all we got, which was a pity, as I’ll try and show.1

The way it worked was pretty simple: two colleagues with expertise in quite different periods lined up with 15-minutes papers about the same theme, as they saw it from their perspective, and then everyone else got to join in too in chaired discussion. The chosen theme was ‘Regionalism’, and in the arbitrarily blue corner, perhaps from his native county, but of course flying colours for the tenth century as seen from mostly the European West, was Fraser, while in the corner that is red with the people’s blood, and tooled up with more knowledge on how Stalin’s USSR worked than some would ever want, there was James.2 In this analogy, Jamie was referee, though the analogy makes this sound much more oppositional than it really was. What it really was was fun, and a way of doing a seminar that really did get a bigger conversation going; my notes record contributions from eight people other than the speakers and about twice as much discussion as papers. I wish all seminars came out like that! So this is how it went, sort of blow-by-blow.

    McNAIR: first let’s try and define a region. Obviously there’s several possible scales, in the Carolingian world (with modern English analogies) pagus (e. g. the Black Country) and county (e. g. Worcestershire), and in the eleventh century lots of the latter become units of a higher level; but because of that confusion, is it maybe better instead to say that a region is a unit that is not the centre to which it relates?
    HARRIS: when I looked at the first Soviet Five-Year Plan, I found the numerous regions the USSR recognised through giving them representation competing for central investment, and not working together to demand a collective voice; the quicker response to the simplest instructions brought the most investment, so the regions effectively encouraged the centre’s resort to dictatorship by promising to do what they were told better than their competitors!

Then the conversation started. The chunks in my notes break up like this:

  1. Communications (Fraser, James, someone I didn’t know then and someone surnamed Morris I now can’t identify): if there were no communications obviously power couldn’t operate but how far are they two-way? Can regions talk back? In Carolingian Europe they came to assemblies to speak and be heard; but over time it was people at the centre who were sent out to the regions and eventually they stopped coming back. In the USSR communications back to the centre were so voluminous that they had to be filtered, but they were also deficient, working through preferred routes only and saying what the centre wanted to hear; that definitely didn’t mean the regions were uncontrolled though!
  2. Jamie asked if political ritual was used as a mask, or protection, for communication in Stalin’s USSR and James confirmed that it absolutely was: the ritual of choice was self-recrimination as a way of getting the right to speak, and approaches to the ‘court’ were made through formulae too. This was James showing that he listened to his medievalist colleagues in the pub, I thought, and I was very pleased by this speaking of our language. Fraser added that regional rituals also existed and that is also worth thinking with, and James stressed that informal communications were obviously hugely important but are mostly unattested, something which struck chords for several of the medievalists present, including me.
  3. Fraser then started looking for levels of unit we might all share; the Spanish Empire’s myriad island dependencies as described by Iona McCleery for us didn’t look good for this, but it seemed for a moment as if bishoprics might be something that was at least recognisable over most of our areas, even if in the USSR they obviously weren’t very important. Fraser pointed out that their arguments for their power rested on a central structure more than a regional one, but this proved to be a division: Fraser’s bishops addressed their faithful using their central significance, but James’s regional representatives used the region as base to talk to the centre, the only Soviet audience worth having. For a long time, following Matthew Innes of course, I’ve understood the Carolingian Empire as working at peak with both of these dynamics at once; but of course that doesn’t mean every part of a political system has to have them both in balance, and I could probably do with thinking more with this as well.
  4. So we then came round to scale, as we so often should; this started with Fraser asking if regions could exist without a centre, as he thought eleventh-century France was such a thing, defined instead by its edges; this, for me, was also the position of Catalonia after the Carolingians, sharing only a language and not being anyone else’s, but itself being only regions with no shared centre, not even Barcelona, and that raised the question of how small a region can be. To that James noted that some representatives on the Soviet Central Committee had a political weight well above their demographic one because of representing large empty areas, so that there the problem was more how big one could be! This, I think, is a Europe versus Eurasia issue, but still quite important.3
  5. The last conversation was one for the modernists, however, being about how industrialisation and the people flows towards cities which it created, and then globalisation and the deindustrialisation it has caused, altered these dynamics by dispersing identities. Sean Fear thought that we have examples of regional identities being rested on globalising flows – I don’t know what he meant now, but I think of the Fair Trade movement as a possible example – while someone else spoke of diasporas as non-geographical regional identities, and was met with the argument that physical proximity still enables cooperation better. Sean’s point may have been cities arising as identities more important than the regional backgrounds of their constitutent members, as he ended with that, and here there would certainly be things medievalists could have added about performing group membership in ways outsiders can learn; but we were out of time…

As you can tell, in retrospect it’s hard to draw much of a continuous thread out of this, and it would have been nice to have the future instalments of the series to see if threads kept emerging and suggested areas of work. What this did show, however, and even in this messy write-up I hope still shows, was that we could actually all talk about the same things wherever and whenever our study areas sat on maps and timelines, without even having to look for similarities enough to make our examples, you know, correlative. We were dancing round being able to have conversations here about historical phenomena in a usefully comparative fashion, and it’s rather a shame we didn’t get to do more of it. It showed the potential for collegial discussion that I described long ago existing even outside of a so-called college, if we’d only had the chance to build on it.

1. Retrospectively, now, it’s hard not to see the pandemic as the point where we in universities all ramped up to being 100% service-delivery personnel, and I don’t personally feel we’ve ever been allowed to step back down to where we were before. Consequently, I can’t now imagine a thing like this happening that wasn’t led by postgraduates or postdoctoral scholars, and indeed even this was one-third the work of one of the latter.

2. James is probably most famous either for his most recent book, James Harris, The Great Fear: Stalin’s Terror of the 1930s (Oxford 2016), or an earlier one he co-wrote, James Harris and Sarah Davies, Stalin’s World: Dictating the Soviet Order (New Haven CT 2014), but the one that was most relevant here was probably his first, James Harris, The Great Urals: Regionalism and the Evolution of the Soviet System (Ithaca NY 1999).

3. Iona McCleery had, indeed, already pointed out the weirdness of calling somewhere like West Africa a ‘region’ simply because your centre of relevance for your own perspective is elsewhere, even though it’s bigger than most countries, when a ‘regional’ saint’s cult might have a reach only of a few towns; as ever, scale is tricky but has to be reckoned with.

2 responses to “Seminar CLXXII: regions, Russia and Robertians

  1. I’ve noticed a difference between US and UK usage. Americans will happily refer to Western Europe as a “region”.

    By contrast, to take an example, consider local government in Scotland. WKPD: “The 1973 Act created a system of nine two-tier regions and three islands areas …” So a Scottish “region” was, roughly speaking, about one-ninth of the area of the Scottish mainland and inner isles. That is, it was rather a wee thing.

    (One of those regions carried a name that was the epitome, I thought, of governmental creativity: “Central Region”.
    Personally I’d have been perfectly happy had such places as Clackmannanshire continued to exist. And, lo!, a later rearrangement resurrected it. The history of Scottish local government is a study of endless fannying about.)

    • I was rather pleased to see Rutland come back, but my grip on the shiring of Wales and Scotland both is, as they say, not what it should be. The English shires at least have roots back into years with three digits in. Clackmannanshire, by contrast, is as far as I’m concerned academically, still Manau…

      As to your bigger point, I’m not sure it’s a linguistic difference so much as a local – or even regional – one, being down to what size of territory the local one is. The USA, having states bigger than many European countries, can consider the term ‘region’ for the next level up; our insular context means everything fits within the shores and the territories which must then be distinguished from country or county must necessarily be smaller than at least the former. I expect that when scholars of either extraction start talking about Central Asia the usage becomes more mutual.

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