Historians and Historical Societies in the Public Life of Imperial Russia

Historians and Historical Societies in the Public Life of Imperial Russia

Historians and Historical Societies in the Public Life of Imperial Russia

Historians and Historical Societies in the Public Life of Imperial Russia

Synopsis

What was the role of historians and historical societies in the public life of imperial Russia? Focusing on the Society of Zealots of Russian Historical Education (1895-1918), Vera Kaplan analyzes the network of voluntary associations that existed in imperial Russia, showing how they interacted with state, public, and private bodies. Unlike most Russian voluntary associations of the late imperial period, the Zealots were conservative in their view of the world. Yet, like other history associations, the group conceived their educational mission broadly, engaging academic and amateur historians, supporting free public libraries, and widely disseminating the historical narrative embraced by the Society through periodicals. The Zealots were champions of voluntary association and admitted members without regard to social status, occupation, or gender. Kaplan's study affirms the existence of a more substantial civil society in late imperial Russia and one that could endorse a modernist program without an oppositional liberal agenda.

Excerpt

It all began with an archival discovery. While in Russia in 2005 for the purpose of finalizing my previous research project, I was astonished to find a rich collection of practically untouched documents belonging to the formerly unknown Society of Zealots of Russian Historical Education in Memory of Alexander iii, which was established in 1895 and remained active until 1918. These archival materials revealed a surprising picture. Well-known personages of the Russian past—the aristocrat Count Sergei Sheremetev, the poet Arsenii Golenishchev-Kutuzov, the former revolutionary Lev Tikhomirov, the historian Sergei Platonov, the conservative politician Dmitrii Sipiagin and the renowned orientalist Esper Ukhtomskii, as well as many other familiar figures—appeared there in unexpected roles and situations. Sheremetev turned out to be a devoted historian and the authoritarian head of this historical society; the refined lyricist Golenishchev-Kutuzov demonstrated the ability of an experienced politician as he skillfully pulled strings at the Imperial court in order to bring the society into existence, while the former narodovolets Tikhomirov acted as his unofficial adviser. University professors participated in an endeavor that was initiated and controlled by amateur historians; future Minister of Interior Sipiagin wrote the rules for the society’s free public libraries, and the ideologist of Russian imperialist policy in the Far East, Ukhtomskii, came into conflict with other members of the society because he criticized Russification of the empire’s Western regions. It was not only the personal composition of this voluntary body that aroused my curiosity. the documents revealed an intricate matrix of interconnections between state and society, far more complex than the one portrayed by the stereotypical top-down version of domination and oppression. Yet the same sources also indicated that the activity of the Society of Zealots did not bear out the assumption (generally accepted in contemporary historiography) regarding the emancipatory impulse purportedly inherent in voluntary associations per se. Its founders’ worldview was essentially conservative, geared to defending Russia’s type of autocracy, which, they believed, was embodied in the person and politics of Alexander iii. Still, the Society of Zealots championed the principle of voluntarism, promoted the importance of associational activity, and refused to impose estate, occupation, or gender limits on its membership.

A further search in the archives and libraries of St. Petersburg and Moscow made the riddle of conservative activism even more fascinating. I found the . . .

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