Kliuchevskii, Vasilii

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Kliuchevskii, Vasilii Osipovich


Born Jan. 16 (28), 1841, in the village of Voznesenskoe, Penza Province; died May 12 (25), 1911, in Moscow. Russian historian. The son of a village priest.

In 1865, Kliuchevskii graduated from the history and philology department of Moscow University. He began his teaching career in 1867, teaching at the Alexander Military School, the Moscow Theological Academy, Advanced Courses for Women, and elsewhere. In 1872 he defended his master’s thesis, The Old-Russian Lives of the Saints as a Historical Source, and in 1882 his doctoral dissertation, The Boyars’ Duma of Old Rus’. From 1879 he was a docent and from 1882 a professor of Russian history at Moscow University. In 1889 he became a corresponding member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, in 1900 an academician of history and Russian antiquities, and in 1908 an honorary academician of belles-lettres. In the 1880’s he became a member of the Moscow Archaeological Society, the Society of Amateurs of Russian Literature, and the Moscow Society of History and Russian Antiquities, serving as chairman of the last from 1893 to 1905.

Kliuchevskii’s political views developed along bourgeois-liberal lines, eventually approaching the position of the right wing of the Constitutional Democrat (Cadet) Party. Resolutely rejecting revolution, he saw his political ideal in a bourgeois state with a representative government and with class collaboration. In his lectures and published works he caustically criticized the tsar’s autocracy and his representatives and entourage, but he never came out against the foundations of the bourgeois and pomeshchik (landowner) regime; late in the 19th century he began supporting the monarchy.

The revolutionary and democratic ideas of the 1860’s and the conditions in the era of the Great Reforms exerted a definite influence on the formation of Kliuchevskii’s historical views. He became interested in the history of the people and in their economy and way of life; under S. M. Solov’ev’s influence he began attaching decisive importance to the geographical factor and colonization in the history of Russia. Unlike Solov’ev and the representatives of the “state school,” Kliuchevskii, especially when he was at his creative peak (1880’s), concentrated on an analysis of the social and economic factors in the history of society; this was a new phenomenon in Russian bourgeois historiography. Even in Foreigners’ Reports on the Muscovite State (1866) he had devoted much attention to a lengthy description of the occupations of the population. In The Economic Activityof the Solovetskii Monastery in the White Sea Area (1867–68) and The Old-Russian Lives of the Saints as a Historical Source (1871), Kliuchevskii turned away from the statist interpretation and viewed the colonization by the Russian population of new lands as a process brought about not by the state but by the natural conditions of the country and by population growth. In The Boyars’ Duma of Old Rus’ (1882) he traced the country’s sociopolitical development from the tenth through the 18th centuries; here he laid the foundations of his own conception of the Russian historical process as a whole. He analyzed the development of the social classes (in his terminology the “manufacturing class” [military-mercantile aristocracy] and the “service class” [prince’s armed force— druzhina]), studying their mutual relationship and their role in the country’s economic and political life.

Kliuchevskii linked the development of classes with the material basis of society and emphasized the differences in rights and obligations of the various classes. He did not, however, acknowledge class contradictions and the class struggle as the basis of the historical process, and he considered the state to be an authority reconciling all elements in society in the interests of the people as a whole.

Responding to the burning topics of his day, Kliuchevskii wrote several research works, including The Origins of Serfdom in Russia (1885) and The Poll Tax and the Abolition of Slavery in Russia (1885), and reviews and publicistic articles in which he defined the general problems in the history of the peasantry in Russia: the reasons for the emergence and abolition of serfdom, the stages of the development of serfdom, and the features of the peasant economy. He believed that serfdom in Russia had been engendered by the peasants’ economic indebtedness to the landowners and that it developed on the basis of private-law relations to which the state merely gave legal sanction. He did not see the class essence of the enserfment process and underestimated the role of the feudal state in the development of a system of feudal social and economic relations. Nevertheless, his idea of the influence of social and economic phenomena on the development of legislative norms was new and had positive significance.

Toward the end of the 19th century signs of a crisis manifested themselves in Russian bourgeois scholarship, and this was reflected in Kliuchevskii’s work as well. In The Composition of the Representation to the Zemskie Sobory of Ancient Rus’ (1890–92), Kliuchevskii adopted some of the tenets of the state school, and he idealized historical figures in Empress Catherine II, 1796–1896 (1896) and Peter the Great Among His Associates (1901).

In the early 1880’s, Kliuchevskii began giving a survey course at Moscow University on the history of Russia from the earliest times to the 19th century. The course represents the sole attempt in Russian bourgeois historiography to trace the process of Russia’s historical development and define the general patterns in the development of the people and society through the formulation of fundamental (according to Kliuchevskii) theoretical problems of economic, social, and cultural life.

Positivistic views were the basis of Kliuchevskii’s methodology and historical conceptions. He tried to prove that the development of society depends on the combining of a whole series of external and internal factors: geographical, ethnographical, political, economic, and social. He viewed the historical development of society against a social and economic backdrop; however, his eclectic admission of a plurality of equally important forces (”personality,” “society,” “nature”), which in different combinations define the uniqueness of each historical stage, and his pursuance of evolutionist ideas led to idealistic conclusions that were ultimately akin to the tenets of the state school. Kliuchevskii denied that there is a sequence in socioeconomic formations (in particular, the existence of feudalism in Russia); for him the fundamental criterion for periodization was the progression of stages in the Russian people’s colonization of the East European plain. In each stage he identified the two most characteristic features, political and economic; the decisive political factor was external danger, and the leading economic factor was the mere change in dominant forms of economic activity.

Kliuchevskii was widely admired among the intelligentsia and students. He was a brilliant and witty lecturer, and in his works he showed himself to be a magnificent stylist.


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