Pokrovskii, Mikhail Nikolaevich

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Pokrovskii, Mikhail Nikolaevich


Born Aug. 17 (29), 1868, in Moscow; died there Apr. 10, 1932. Soviet historian and party and government figure. Academician of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (1929). Member of the Communist Party from 1905.

The son of a clerk, Pokrovskii graduated from the faculty of history and philology at Moscow University in 1891 and taught in secondary schools. His views on history were influenced by V. O. Kliuchevskii and P. G. Vinogradov, as well as by the concepts of legal Marxism. In the early 1900’s he sided with the left wing of the bourgeois and liberal Union of Liberation but later joined the revolutionary Social Democrats. In 1904 he contributed to the Moscow Marxist journal Pravda and in 1905 joined a group of lecturers organized by the Moscow committee of the RSDLP. In the summer of 1905 he went to Geneva, where he first met Lenin.

After returning to Moscow, Pokrovskii became a director of the revolutionary publishing house Kolokol, joined the editorial board of the Bolshevist newspaper Bor’ba (Struggle), and engaged in propaganda work. He took part in the December armed uprising in Moscow in 1905. In 1906 he was a member of the editorial board of the Bolshevik newspaper Svetoch (The Torch) and a member of the party’s Moscow committee. He was a delegate to the Fifth Congress of the RSDLP (1907), where he was elected a candidate member of the Central Committee. Sought by the police, he went to Finland in 1907 and in 1909 emigrated to France. From 1909 to 1911, Pokrovskii belonged to the factional Vpered group, and later he contributed to several Trotskyist publications. During World War I he took a Leninist internationalist position, helped publish Bolshevik literature, and edited Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism for publication.

Pokrovskii’s articles on the history of the national economy, the domestic and foreign policy of the tsarist regime, and on social movements were published beginning in 1907 in the nine-volume work The History of Russia in the 19th Century and in the Granat Encyclopedic Dictionary. Five volumes of his Russian History From the Earliest Times, coauthored by V. K. Agafo-nov, N. M. Nikol’skii, and V. N. Storozhev, appeared in Moscow between 1910 and 1913. His Essay on the History of Russian Culture (parts 1–2) was published from 1915 to 1918.

In these works, Pokrovskii demonstrated that economic processes determined Russian historical development, as they did that of other countries. He disclosed the oppressive colonial policies of tsarist conquest and also refuted the claims of bourgeois scholars as to the peaceful character of Russian history by revealing the class struggle of the masses. Pokrovskii criticized the views that ancient Rus’ was not agricultural, that feudalism had not existed in Russia, and that the centralized Russian state had come into being through the princes’ policy of acquiring land. He also attacked the theory that all social classes had been enslaved by the state and criticized idealistic notions about Peter I’s reforms. However, in treating these and other problems, Pokrovskii fell into oversimplification, sociological distortion, and national nihilism. Thus, he exaggerated the role of commercial capital in the genesis of capitalism to the extent that he affirmed the decisive influence of commercial capital on the government’s domestic and foreign policies and insisted that commercial capitalism was the dominant economic structure in Russia from the 17th to the early 19th century.

Pokrovskii returned from emigration in August 1917. He was elected a deputy to the Moscow Soviet of Workers’ Deputies and helped establish Soviet power in Moscow. From Nov. 14 (27), 1917, through March 1918 he was chairman of the Moscow Soviet. In early 1918 he was a member of the Soviet delegation negotiating peace with Germany and also joined the Left Communists. From May 1918 until his death he was deputy people’s commissar of education of the RSFSR.

Pokrovskii served as director of the Communist Academy and of its Institute of History. In 1921 he became director of the Institute of the Red Professors, in 1922 of the Central State Archive, and in 1925 of the Society of Marxist Historians. He edited the historical journals Krasnyi arkhiv (Red Archives), Istorik-marksist (Marxist Historian), and Bor’ba klassov (Class Struggle) and was a member of the chief editorial board of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. Pokrovskii also participated in the work of Istpart (Commission on the History of the October Revolution and the RCP [Bolshevik]), the Lenin Institute, and many other scholarly institutions and periodicals. He taught at various institutions of higher education and often represented the Soviet Union at international historical congresses and conferences.

In 1920, Pokrovskii’s simplified Russian History in Briefest Outline (parts 1–2) was published; it followed the line of his earlier Russian History From the Earliest Times (1910–13). He later published a number of new monographs and collections of articles, including The Diplomacy and Wars of Tsarist Russia in the 19th Century (1924), Marxism and the Special Features of Russian Historical Development (1925), The Decembrists (1927), Imperialist War (1928), and The October Revolution (1929). He devoted much attention to the role of methodology in historiography and to promoting Lenin’s theories in such articles as “Lenin and Marx as Historians,” “Leninism and Russian History,” and “Lenin and History.” He insisted that both Russian history and the history of all the Soviet nationalities should be studied. He also directed the publication of many archival documents on the history of the revolutionary movement in Russia.

Late in life, Pokrovskii developed his historical views further, correcting errors and shortcomings of his earlier works. He sought to overcome his previous distorted sociological and nihilistic national views. He revised his assessment of commercial capital and its role in Russia’s history and later abandoned the very concept of commercial capitalism and the thesis that the autocracy was commercial capital’s instrument. Pokrovskii also revised a number of erroneous theses propounded in his interpretations of Narodnichestvo (Populism) and of the Revolution of 1905–07. He corrected his view of imperialism as merely a policy of conquest and acknowledged the bourgeois and democratic character of the February 1917 revolution, which he had previously regarded as the beginning of the socialist revolution. In addition, he disavowed his previous evaluation of the Pugachev rebellion as a bourgeois movement. However, he was not able to overcome completely his distorted view of sociology or to correct all his erroneous theses. These incorrect views had a negative effect on Soviet historiography and were criticized in a number of party documents and in the works of Soviet historians.

Pokrovskii was a delegate to the Sixteenth Congress of the ACP(B), which elected him a member of the Central Control Commission. He was also a member of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR and of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee at a number of convocations. He was awarded the Order of Lenin. Pokrovskii is buried by the Kremlin wall in Red Square.


Izbr. proizvedeniia, vols. 1–4. Moscow, 1965–67.
For a bibliography of Pokrovskii’s works, see Istorik-marksist, 1932, nos. 1–2.


Pamiati M. N. Pokrovskogo (1868–1932). Moscow, 1932.
Ocherki istorii istoricheskoi nauki ν SSSR, vols. 3–4. Moscow, 1962–66.
Istoriografiia istorii SSSR s drevneishikh vremen do Velikoi Oktiabr’skoi sotsialisticheskoi revoliutsii, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1971. Pages 366–79.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.