Solovev, Sergei Mikhailovich

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Solov’ev, Sergei Mikhailovich


Born May 5 (17), 1820, in Moscow; died there Oct. 4 (16), 1879. Russian historian. Member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences (1872).

The son of a priest, Solov’ev graduated from the University of Moscow in 1842; he was influenced by T. N. Granovskii and the philosophy of G. Hegel. From 1842 to 1844 he lived abroad, working as tutor to the children of Count A. P. Stroganov and attending the lectures of F. Guizot and J. Michelet in Paris, K. Ritter and L. von Ranke in Berlin, and F. Schlosser in Heidelberg. In 1845, the year in which he offered his first course in Russian history at Moscow University, Solov’ev defended his master’s thesis, “On the Relations Between Novgorod and the Grand Princes”; in 1847 he defended his doctoral dissertation, “History of the Relations Among the Russian Princes of the House of Ru-rik.” From 1847 he was professor at Moscow University.

From the 1850’s to the 1870’s, Solov’ev published various studies, essays, and articles, in which he followed the principle he had set forth in his “Historical Letters” of 1858: science must answer to the questions of life. In 1863, the year of the Polish insurrection, he published History of the Fall of Poland, and in 1877, during the Russo-Turkish War, Emperor Alexander I: Policies and Diplomacy. Solov’ev also wrote on problems of historical theory, as in “Observations on the Historical Life of Nations” and “Progress and Religion,” and on historiography, as in “Eighteenth-century Russian Historians,” “N. M. Karamzin and His ‘History of the Russian State,’ ” and “Schlözer and the Antihistorical Trend.” His Public Lectures on Peter the Great (1872) proved to be an event of interest not only to the science of biography but also to Russian society at large.

From 1864 to 1870, Solov’ev was dean of the faculty of history and philology of Moscow University; and from 1871 to 1877, he was rector of the university. In later life, he was chairman of the Moscow Society of History and Russian Antiquities and director of the Armory.

After leaving his early Slavophile interests behind, Solov’ev came over to the Westernizers, taking a position of moderate liberalism. He found serfdom and the political regime of Nicholas I distasteful but feared the peasant movement. After the death of Nicholas I, he was history tutor to Nikolai Aleksandrovich, heir to the throne, and in 1866, history tutor to the future emperor Alexander III, at whose bidding he began writing “Note on the Contemporary Situation in Russia,” a work he never completed. Solov’ev defended university autonomy as set forth by the Statute of 1863; in 1877, when his efforts in this direction failed, he was forced to retire.

The principal work of Solov’ev’s life is History of Russia From Ancient Times. Twenty-eight volumes were published between 1851 and 1879; the 29th and last volume, which recounted events to 1775, appeared posthumously. Solov’ev wrote History of Russia in counterpoise to N. M. Karamzin’s History of the Russian State, which in the first half of the 19th century was regarded as an official history. He counterposed his idea of historical development to Karamzin’s subjectivist approach. He viewed human society as an organism, one that grows “naturally and necessarily”; he refused to differentiate the “Norman” and “Mongol” periods in Russian history and placed his primary emphasis not on conquest but on internal processes of development, such as colonization, the rise of new cities, and changes in the princes’ conceptions of their patrimony and character of their authority. Solov’ev was the first to posit a direct link between the process of state centralization and the struggle against the Mongol yoke. He attempted to interpret the oprichnina (seeOPRICHNINA) as a struggle against boyar separatism; nevertheless, he clearly condemned the tsar’s cruelty.

Although Solov’ev favored the comparative historical method and stressed the developmental features common to both Russia and Western Europe, he nevertheless noted Russia’s uniqueness, which, in his opinion, stemmed from Russia’s geographical location between Europe and Asia and from its centuries-long struggle against the nomads of the steppe. In Solov’ev’s view, Russia initially bore the brunt of invasion from Asia; only later, in the 16th century, did Russia take the offensive, acting as Europe’s outpost in the Orient. A religious man, Solov’ev tended to see this as the “triumph of Christianity over Islam.” Maintaining that change in state forms lies at the crux of historical development, he attributed to socioeconomic history a role secondary to that of political history. He saw in the peasantry’s enserfment a measure made necessary by Russia’s natural conditions, such as its immense distances and harsh climate, and by the needs of the state, especially the need to “increase the troops.”

The Time of Troubles of the early 17th century held a special place in Solov’ev’s historical conceptions. Solov’ev presented the period as a reaction by all antistate forces and elements against centralization, a process that had been completed in the second half of the 16th century, at a time when the primary need of the state was the “need for education and closer contact with the countries of Western Europe.” He saw the causes of the Time of Troubles as primarily the decline in national morality and the emergence of the cossacks, and the Time of Troubles itself as a forcible interruption of the organic course of Russian history. After the Time of Troubles, in his view, movement resumed along the “legal” path, from the frontiers at which the Rurikovi-chi had halted in the late 16th century.

Solov’ev acknowledged the necessity of the formation of a state based on the seigniorial order but denied the necessity of the popular masses’ class struggle against this state. His depreciation of the class struggle and denial of its necessity and progressive character emerged with special clarity in his study of the peasant wars of the 17th and 18th centuries. Solov’ev was interested above all in the reforms of Peter I, and he was the first to demonstrate their objective necessity. In his opinion, the transition from the “old to the new” Russia came in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, signifying Russia’s initial step on the path of Europeanization, that is, on the path of bourgeois development. Since he neglected the class bases of Peter I’s policies, Solov’ev could not understand the popular resistance to Peter’s plans.

The copious factual material—from the 17th century, primarily archival material—on which Solov’ev based his works is set forth in accordance with the idea of historical necessity; all the facts are woven into a single, orderly system. Solov’ev was thus able to give an exceptionally powerful and vivid picture of Russian history through the ages. His works ushered in a new, bourgeois period in Russian historiography and influenced all later Russian historians, such as, V. O. Kliuchevskii, N. P. Pavlov-Sil’vanskii, and S. F. Platonov. Solov’ev’s History of Russia is of great scholarly importance even today.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.