Historians and Historical Societies in the Public Life of Imperial Russia

By Vera Kaplan | Go to book overview

4 The Society of Zealots of Russian
Historical Education: Conservative
Activism and the Quest for
Useful History

THE FOUNDERS OF the Society of Zealots of Russian Historical Education saw themselves as defenders of Russia’s type of autocracy, embodied in the image and policies of Alexander III. They therefore launched a society intended to commemorate the late tsar, to promote knowledge about the historical significance of his reign, and to advance studies in national history “in the spirit of Russian principles (v dukhe russkikh nachal).”1 Contrary to the existing historical associations, the Zealots subordinated their society’s scholarly aims to its educational goals, conceiving the latter in overwhelmingly political terms. In accentuating their ideological motivation, the Zealots made explicit those political aspects of history that had already been implicit in the practice of other historical societies; moreover, the Zealots’ choice of ideology as a common denominator had a decisive impact on the society’s composition. The Society of Zealots did not grow “organically” from a friendly circle or the expanding academic community but was carefully constructed by a group of ideology-driven courtiers, high-ranking bureaucrats, and conservative historians with the express intention of combating the growing influence of liberal sentiments among the Russian public. In their political views the members of this group represented a new kind of ultranationalist conservatism, whose basic thrusts were activism, opposition to the hegemony of the liberal obshchestvennost’ in public life, and a distinctive kind of populism.

Remaining active until 1918, the Zealots could boast of some remarkable achievements. Created in 1895 by a group of twelve people, the society numbered 976 members five years later, a figure that increased to 1,084 in the following year (1901). The Zealots founded local branches in major gubernias of the Russian empire, established a network of libraries extending from the Baltic region to Siberia, published their own historical journal and newsletters, and issued books and booklets devoted to various aspects of history and contemporary politics.2 Yet while trying to create a new type of association, the founders of the Zealots utilized the experience of the existing societies, adopting some well-established

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