Portraits of early Russian liberals by Derek Offord
Effective book, does just what it does on the label. It's at its best when tracing the connections and common biographical elements of different nineteeenth century Russian intellectuals, showing the social ties and links of learning that made an intellectual culture rather than just a collection of individuals. Also does a nice job of rehabilitating some of the complexity and moral engagement of the moderate Russian thinkers of this period. In much of my previous reading on them the focus had been on the more colourful, focused and extreme revolutionary theorists, with an occasional highlighting of a literary reactionary like Dostoevsky. This book makes it clear that many of the moderate writers were still committed to trying to improve the status quo for the peasantry, and that they're worth taking seriously with their ambitions, specific theories and deep ambivalence. The book is also good at showing the shift in view over time, how political viewpoints were never solid or unaltered in expression.
No major complaints. It's not top-rate history but Offord fulfills his intentions quite well, and delivers a solid piece of descriptive intellectual history. Looking at the book at a distance of several months I think the biggest liability is the way different figures have blurred together and major strands of the period haven't lasted very distinctly in my memory. That's hard to avoid with this kind of subject matter, however, and is probably one of the reasons intellectual history isn't my favorite sub-branch. I also wonder at points whether it might have been useful to widen the topic some and bring in more directly one or two radical intellectuals' lives that are implicit across the discussion. Understandably that would go against the structure here, though, and as is Offord provides a useful and well written resource for those interested in the topic.
Worse than: Industry and Empire by Eric Hobsbawm
Better than: Much Depends on Dinner by Margaret Visser