Imre Kertész Kolleg Jena

Professor Aaron Retish

Fellow Imre Kertész Kolleg Aaron Retish

October - December 2018
e-mail: aretish(at)wayne(dot)edu

Aaron Retish is an associate professor of modern Russian history at Wayne State University. He is a specialist in late Imperial and Soviet history with a focus on the social, cultural, and political history of the countryside. His first book, 'Russia’s Peasants in Revolution and Civil War: Citizenship, Identity, and the Creation of the Soviet State, 1914-1922' (Cambridge University Press 2008) is a regional study of how peasants’ conceptions of themselves as citizens evolved in a time of total war, mass revolutionary politics and civil breakdown. He has also co-edited with Sarah Badcock and Liudmila Novikova 'Russia’s Revolution in Regional Perspective, Book 1 of Russia’s Home Front in War and Revolution' (Slavica, 2015) that shows the kaleidoscopic nature of revolution in which local environments shaped how people experienced the monumental changes around them.  His recent research has focused on the local court system in the Soviet countryside as well as violence in the revolutionary era and ideas of penal reform in late Imperial Russia and the early Soviet Union. 

Research Project at the Kolleg

This study explores how the Soviet justice system functioned at the local level from the Communist revolution in 1917 until the eve of the Second World War in 1939. Through a deep examination of peasants’ use of local people’s courts, the most widely used courts in the land, I show the intimate interaction of popular legal consciousness and social control. People’s courts were the foundation of the Soviet judicial system. They served as the courts of first review for civil claims and everyday crimes. As such, they are an important entry into what peasants and state expected from the Soviet legal world.

I use local courts as a lens to ask four related questions. First, what do peasants’ use of the courts reveal about the vibrancy of peasant legal culture in the Soviet Union. I explore how they adapted to the Soviet legal world and how they used the new courts. For many peasants, winning their claim in court was the most profound effect of the Revolution. Court records thereby offer a rare window into village society, presenting a portrait of common household divisions, property disputes, and familial tensions and also show how important the state was in resolving these disputes. Second, I ask how did the state control and discipline its citizens. The Soviet state dedicated enormous resources to the court system as a tool to build Soviet culture and “enlighten” peasants and especially national minorities. I study how Soviet courts defined and fought against what the judicial officials termed crimes that were evidence of peasant social backwardness. Third, I ask how citizens deliberated over and meted out justice within the Soviet framework, learning to frame their own social identities to win their claims in court against fellow peasants and to defend themselves against state prosecutors’ charges.

Finally, I ask how did the Soviet state construct the courts and how did people’s court judges understand their responsibilities to spread and defend Soviet values. My project is also a history of the court administration at the local level. It studies the judges and other courtroom officials that oversaw the court on a daily basis. They projected Soviet values but they were also subjected to the larger turns of the Soviet state. A study of the local courtroom reveals a multi-laired and dynamic setting in which nobody, neither judge, defendant, or claimant, had full control over what should have been a deeply symbolic arena of state power.

Main areas of research

  • The Russian Revolution
  • Peasantry
  • Legal history and popular justice
  • Gender and ethnicity

Positions and memberships

  • Co-Editor, Revolutionary Russia
  • Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies
  • Executive Board member, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA)
  • Association for Women in Slavic Studies


Russia’s Peasants in Revolution and Civil War: Citizenship, Identity, and the Creation of the Soviet State, 1914-1922. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, August 2008.

Edited Volumes

Russia's Home Front In War And Revolution, 1914-22: Book 1. Russia's Revolution In Regional Perspective. Edited volume with Sarah Badcock and Liudmila Novikova. Bloomington, IN: Slavica Press, 2015.

Articles (selection)

“Judicial Reforms and Revolutionary Justice: The Establishment of the Court System in Soviet Russia, 1917-1922.” In Russia's Home Front in War and Revolution, 1913-22. Book 4, Re-integration: The Struggle for the State. Edited by Christopher Read, Peter Waldron, and Adele Lindenmeyr. Bloomington, IN: Slavica Press, 2018, pp.369-400.

“Social Revolutions: Peasant Aspirations.” In A Companion to the Russian Revolution, edited by Daniel Orlovsky. Forthcoming with John Wiley & Sons.

“Breaking Free From the Prison Walls: Penal Reforms and Prison Life in Revolutionary Russia,” Historical Research vol. 90 (February 2017): 134-50.

“Местная судебная система в Вятской губернии в 1917-1922 гг.” (The Local Court System in Viatka Province, 1917-1922). In Эпоха войн и революций, 1914-1922 (Era of Wars and Revolution, 1914-1922), edited by B. Kolonitsii and D. Orlovskii. St. Petersburg: Nestor-Istoriia, 2017, pp. 100-12.

“The Izhevsk Revolt of 1918: The Fateful Clash of Revolutionary Coalitions, Paramilitarism, and Bolshevik Power,” in Russia’s Revolution in Regional Perspective, 299-322.

“The Taste of Kumyshka and the Debate over Udmurt Culture.” In Russian History through the Senses from 1700 to the Present. Edited by Tricia Starks and Matthew P. Romaniello. London: Bloomsbury Press, 2016, pp. 141-64.

“Controlling Revolution: Victims of Social Violence and the Rural Soviet Courts 1917-1923,” Europe-Asia Studies 65 (November 2013): 1789-1806.