Maksim Maksimovich Kovalevskii

Kovalevskii, Maksim Maksimovich


Born Aug. 27 (Sept. 8), 1851, in Kharkov; died Mar. 23 (Apr. 5), 1916, in Petrograd. Russian historian, jurist, sociologist, and ethnologist. Academician of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences (1914).

In 1872, Kovalevskii graduated from the department of law at the University of Kharkov. He completed his education in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, and London. Between 1878 and 1887 he was a professor in the department of law at the University of Moscow. Despite the wholly moderate character of his opposition to the autocratic-bureaucratic regime, Kovalevskii was barred from teaching in 1887, after which he moved abroad.

From 1905 to 1916 he was a professor at the University of St. Petersburg. In 1906, Kovalevskii founded the constitutional monarchist Party for Democratic Reforms. He was elected to the First State Duma in 1906 and to the State Council in 1907 (from the academic curia). In 1909 he acquired the journal Vestnik Evropy and became a member of its editorial board.

Although Kovalevskii expressed positivistic views, he was also influenced by Marx and Engels, both of whom he knew personally. Among Kovalevskii’s numerous scholarly works his studies of the commune were especially important and were highly esteemed by the founders of Marxism (An Outline of the History of the Decline of Communal Land Ownership in the Canton of Waadt [London, 1876] and Communal Land Ownership: The Causes, Process, and Consequences of Its Disintegration [1879]). The latter was a comparative historical study of Western European, Slavic, Caucasian, Indian, and other peoples. With regard to the problems of the commune, Kovalevskii polemicized against the Russian Narodniks (Populists) and against Western European scholars (for example, N. D. Fustel de Coulanges) who defended the thesis of the age-old existence of private ownership of land.

Kovalevskii went on three expeditions to the Caucasus (1883, 1885, and 1887). The materials assembled by him on the Ossetians and other Caucasian peoples (primarily those of Dagestan) were the foundation for his studies on tribal relations and the forms taken by them during their decline. Among his works on this subject are Contemporary Customs and Ancient Law: Ossetian Customary Law in the Light of Comparative History (vols. 1 -2, 1886), Law and Customs in the Caucasus (vols. 1–2, 1890), and Tribal Life in the Present and in the Recent and Remote Past (vols. 1–2, 1905). Kovalevskii established the significant historical role of the extended family or the partriarchal-family commune as forms of tribal disintegration—a discovery that Engels considered very important (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21, pp. 61–62, 63, 130, 134, 139–40). In the work The Origin of Contemporary Democracy (vols. 1–4, 1895–97)—the most important attempt in prerevolutionary Russian historiography to provide a generalized elucidation of the social and political preconditions of the Great French Revolution and its initial stage—the development of political doctrines was linked to the struggle to establish various social and state systems. The same subject is treated in the work From Direct Rule by the People to Representative Government and From a Patriarchal Monarchy to Parliamentarianism (vols. 1–3, 1906).

Kovalevskii made a great contribution in his analysis of the peasant problem in France on the eve of the Great French Revolution. Following the lead of N. I. Kareev and opposing I. V. Luchitskii’s viewpoint, he rejected A. de Tocqueville’s thesis that property ownership was widespread among the small-scale peasantry in prerevolutionary France. In The Economic Growth of Europe Prior to the Emergence of the Capitalist Economic System (vols. 1–3, 1898–1903)—a consideration of the problems of Western European feudalism—Kovalevskii mistakenly considered the growth of population to be the principal cause of changes in the economic structure.

In sociology Kovalevskii perceived the general theory of social development and attempted to study history in a sociological cross-section (for example, Present-day Sociologists, 1905, and Sociology, vols. 1–2, 1910). In opposition to Marxism he consciously espoused the idea of evolution and the gradual improvement of social institutions. Arguing against the subjective method in sociology and the neo-Kantian oppositon between the social and the natural sciences, Kovalevskii considered the fundamental sociological law to be the law of progress, which involves the growth of social solidarity. He regarded the class struggle as a sign of immaturity or, conversely, as a symptom of the “degeneracy” of a given social structure. Drawing on examples from the history of Great Britain and France, he attempted to demonstrate the danger of the sharpening of social conflicts—a process that leads inevitably to revolution. His study of Western European history also engendered his political doctrine of the constitutional or “people’s” monarchy, to which he ascribed the mission of a supreme intermediary between the classes and which he considered the defender of the interests of the popular masses. In his earlier works on concrete historical problems Kovalevskii in fact assigned principal importance to socioeconomical processes. However, in his later sociological works, most of which were written during and after the Russian Revolution of 1905–07, he emphasized the mutual interaction of a number of factors in history, assigning a considerable role to psychological and biological factors.


Ocherki istorii istoricheskoi nauki v SSSR, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1955–66.
Tokarev, S. A. Istoriia russkoi etnografii. Moscow, 1966.
Materialy dlia biograficheskogo slovaria deistvitel’nykh chlenov Akademii nauk, part 2. (List of Kovalevskii’s works.) Petrograd, 1917.