History in Russia Comes of Age: Institution-Building, Cosmopolitanism, and Theoretical Debates among Historians in Late Imperial Russia

By Berelowitch, Wladimir | Kritika, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

History in Russia Comes of Age: Institution-Building, Cosmopolitanism, and Theoretical Debates among Historians in Late Imperial Russia


Berelowitch, Wladimir, Kritika


In the late 1880s, Russian historiography entered a period of rapid change. This is well-known to both Western and Russian historians and requires no further demonstration. (1) It was also the post factum perception of contemporaries. The St. Petersburg historian I. I. Lappo described the 1890s, in particular, as a time when "Russian historical scholarship flourished mightily," which he attributed particularly to the opening of archives and the expanding number of academic positions at universities. (2) Comparing this period with earlier ones, we find that it was marked not only by a rising volume and quality of historical writings but also by two trends that, while obviously not encompassing all of this scholarship, were nonetheless dominant.

The first of these trends was a rapid historiographical opening to the West. This put an end, in many cases, to the relative isolation of the previous period, roughly the 1850s-80s, when the study of Russian history had developed under a kind of "protectionist" regime that nevertheless allowed it to develop its own periodization, sources, and specific terminology and problemics. As one might expect, the opening was felt most strongly by scholars of universal history, for whom chairs had gradually been established since the beginning of the 19th century and especially after 1835, alongside the establishment of chairs in Russian history. By the turn of the century, historians such as Pavel Vinogradov (1854-1925), a specialist on medieval England, or Nikolai Kareev (1850-1931), a historian of the French Revolution, had made such distinguished names for themselves in the West that the former held the Henry Maine Chair at Oxford from 1903 until his death in 1925, and the latter undertook research on the French peasantry and was published in France (as was Vinogradov in Great Britain). (3) This opening to Western Europe was reflected in the increasing frequency of foreign travel by "universalist" historians as well as in their lecture courses, such as those on the Middle Ages by Vasil'evskii and Grevs (on whom, more below) or Vinogradov's universal-history textbook. These historians were not shy about presenting their audiences with sweeping historiographic vistas. (4)

However, the opening to the West also touched specialists in Russian history of the generation sometimes called "the students of Kliuchevskii." As is well known, their teacher had a poor grasp of foreign languages and did not travel abroad. Increasing contact with German, French, and British universities and historical journals produced a minor intellectual revolution among the younger generation of Russian historians. In Russia itself, professors like Vinogradov systematically pushed their history students to read foreign literature and approach Russian and world history from a comparative perspective.

This revolution fueled the second trend to which I alluded earlier: the impressive developments in the study of social history that placed Russia, in Terence Emmons's view, at the forefront of the European historiography of the time. (5) Social history--or rather, the social history of institutions, for that was in fact the main thrust of the studies that Kliuchevskii initiated. The attractiveness and prestige of European (French, British, German) sociology accounted for much of this development. Leaving aside the historian, ethnographer, lawyer, but above all sociologist Maksim Kovalevskii, historians were often the first in Russia to discover the Western sociologists: Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer (who dominated the landscape of the human sciences beyond the turn of the century), Henry Maine, Emile Durkheim, and others. Western historians who might be considered social historians were also introduced into Russia, including Fustel de Coulanges, who was read, translated, discussed, and greatly admired, as well as Edward Augustus Freeman (honorary professor of history at St. Petersburg University), Georg Ludwig von Maurer, Georg Waitz, Karl Lamprecht, Frederic Seebohm, Frederic William Maitland, and others. …

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