Pitirim A. Sorokin

The Person

On February 27, 1917, the first day of the mass demonstrations that were topresage the Russian Revolution, an ardent young intellectual and rebel, whohad twice been imprisoned by the Czarist authorities for his revolutionary ac-tivities, noted in his diary: "It has come at last. At two o'clock in the morningI hasten to set down the stirring events of this day. Because I did not feeltoo well and since lectures at the University had virtually ceased, I decided tostay at home and read the new work of Vilfredo Pareto, Trattato di SociologiaGenerale." If the writer of this entry had written nothing else in his life, thesesentences would stand as a classic example of the tortuous love affair betweenintellectuals and revolution, of the complicated tension between theory andPraxis. The writer was Pitirim A. Sorokin.

From Ikon Painter to Professional Revolutionary

Sorokin was born on January 21, 1889, in a remote village in northernRussia's Vologda Province, inhabited by a non-Russian people of Ugro-Finnishorigin, the Komi. The area consisted mainly of primeval forest stretching formany hundreds of miles in all directions. The small villages of the Komi werelike tiny islands in a huge and engulfing forest vastness. The Komi spoke theirown language but almost all were fluent in Russian as well. Industrializationand urbanization had not yet come to their land, and they subsisted mainly byfarming, supplemented by fishing, hunting, lumbering, and trapping. TheKomi never knew the serfdom that had marked most of the rest of Russia formany generations. They managed their local affairs autonomously throughvillage self-governments similar to the Russian mir or communal peasant com-munity. Land was held in common by the village; from time to time it wasdistributed and redistributed among individual families according to their needsand size. The houses of the village leaders and elders, of the priests, teachersdoctors, storekeepers, and village policemen were more spacious and comfort-able than those of ordinary villagers, but otherwise the conditions of the in-habitants were nearly equal. Sorokin, the future analyst of social stratificationhad little to draw upon from childhood memories, except by way of contrastwhen he set upon this task many years later in a totally different environment,the state of Minnesota.

Sorokin was only three years old when his mother died--her funeral wasthe first conscious recollection etched in his mind. His father was of Russianorigin, born in Veliki Ustyug, an ancient northern city that was a center ofarts and crafts. He had served his apprenticeship in one of the artisan guildsand had gained his diploma as "a master of golden, silver and ikon ornamentalworks." He subsequently moved to a Komi village and there married a youngwoman who bore him three sons--Vassily, Pitirim, and Prokopiy.

After the death of their mother, the two older boys, Vassily and Pitirim,lived with their father; the youngest lived with an aunt. At times their fatherpresented the loving image of a conscientious, affectionate, and protectiveguardian who took great pride in his craftsmanship and his standing in themany villages through which he wandered in search of work. At other times,however, he was given to long sprees of drunkenness that often resulted indelirium tremens. During one of his drunken outbursts, depressed, violentlyirritated, and enraged at his sons, the father snatched a hammer and struckboth brothers. As a result, Pitirim's upper lip was somewhat misshapen formany years. Deeply affected, the ten-year-old Pitirim and the fourteen-year-oldVassily left their father's house, never to return. They immediately decided tomake use of their exposure to the father's craft and to start independent careersas itinerant craftsmen, moving from village to village in search of customers.They never met their father again and heard of his death about a year later.

Young though they were, the boys managed to get commissions for paint-ing and decorating churches, even a cathedral, gilding and silvering ikons andcandelabras and making copper or gold ikon covers. Only sporadically did theyattend various elementary schools. Nevertheless after a few years of this no-madic life, Pitirim, at the age of fourteen, secured a modest scholarship at theKhrenovo Teachers' Seminary. Travelling to the seminary by steamer and rail-road, the young country lad had for the first time an intimation of the charac-teristics of big cities and industrial regions. The world of peasant culture, ofrural folkways, of religious custom and of semipagan folklore now lay behindhim, never to be reentered except for short periods, but always to be retainedin his imagination and memory. Though he was to go on to live in the rapidlyevolving urban and industrial Gesellschaft of Russian, and later, Americancities, his life work was shaped to a large extent by his formative years in thevillage Gemeinschaften of the Komi people of the northern forest.

The city people and their sons in the Khrenovo Seminary at first treatedSorokin as a yokel because he lacked urban polish and sophistication. While hesuffered from their contempt, the youngster himself, still in his homespunclothes, was inclined to agree with their judgement of him. But it did not takehim long to acquire urban ways and manners and to buy his first ready-madesuit. He soon was the leader of his class, despite his previous nomadic life andhis previous sporadic schooling. The seminary, which was run hy the RussianOrthodox Church, was concerned primarily with training teachers for theChurch's elementary schools. But because it was located near sizable urbanand industrial centers--and hence open to the winds of new doctrines--theschool actually provided a quality of education more advanced than most otherseminaries. Students and teachers freely interacted with townspeople, with thelocal intelligentsia, and with leaders of political opinions of all shades, frommonarchists to Social Revolutionaries and Social Democrats. Immersing himselfin the study of a variety of new books, journals, and newspapers that his newlywon friends and acquaintances had thrust upon him, Sorokin soon shed hisprevious Orthodox religious and philosophical beliefs. The new ideas he wasexposed to and his growing awareness of the miserable social and political con-ditions of Imperial Russia soon turned the peasant youth into an urban agnos-tic, a believer in scientific theories of evolution, and an active revolutionary.(The ferment created by the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and the harbingersof the revolution of 1905 also contributed to this transformation.) Neverthe-less, because he still clung to his earlier belief in self-help and individualism,he was repelled by the Marxist determinism of Social Democracy; youngSorokin became instead an ardent member of the populist Social Revolutionaryparty. Though now an urbanite, he was still powerfully attracted by theGemeinschaft populism of the Narodniki, whose gospel he was helping tospread among students and factory workers, as well as the peasants of the sur-rounding countryside.

On the eve of the school's Christmas vacation in 1906, Sorokin was sched-uled to address a group of workers and peasants. As he entered the meeting hallthe police arrested him, escorted him to a horse-and-sleigh, and delivered himto a local prison. Prison treatment during the last years of the Czar's regimewas no longer as harsh and inhuman as it had been in previous days. Prisonsby now in fact became "graduate educational institutions" for revolutionaries,who gathered in interminable discussions of revolutionary theory and used theirenforced leisure to read the works of Marx and Engels, of Kropotkin andLavrov, of Tolstoi, Plekhanov and Lenin, as well as Darwin, Spencer, andother evolutionist and "progressive" thinkers. Sorokin probably learned morein prison than he could have absorbed in an entire semester's work at hisSeminary.

Prison also afforded Sorokin his first acquaintance with common criminalsand this led to his choice of criminology and penology as his area of specializa-tion during his later stay at St Petersburg University. In addition, Sorokintransmuted his lived experience into academic knowledge his first book, Crimeand Punishment, Service and Reward, was published seven years after his firstimprisonment.

Sorokin remained in prison four months before he was released. Thoughdischarged from his school, he was received by most teachers and students as ahero of the revolution; yet stigmatized as a revolutionary, he could not beadmitted to another school nor could he find any type of employment in theregion. He therefore resolved to become an itinerant preacher spreading therevolutionary message, not unlike his earlier experience with painted ikons.Pitirim Sorokin, sought by the police for escaping from their supervision in hisplace of residence, disappeared, and an anonymous "Comrade Ivan" emerged asan organizer, speaker, and instructor among factory workers, students, andpeasants throughout the Volga region. Most of the meetings he addressed andthe demonstrations he led were peaceful affairs, but on one occasion, with alarge group gathered together, Comrade Ivan, standing on a tree stump highabove the crowd, fiercely denounced the regime. The meeting was broken upby the police with whips and sabers, which resulted in the deaths of twoworkers and a police officer and the wounding of several Cossacks, workers,and policemen. Thereafter, upon the urgings of his friends, Comrade Ivanretired to his aunt's house in the Komi village of Rymia, where he stayed fortwo months, helping with the farm work and visiting with boyhood friends.With no hope of continuing his education or of finding employment, Sorokinresolved in the fall of 1907 to make his way to St. Petersburg.

From Coser, 1977:477-480.


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