Vasily Osipovich Klyuchevsky

The Russian historian Vasily Osipovich Klyuchevsky (1841-1911) explored the socioeconomic fundament of Russian cultural and political development; his writings have become the basis of modern Russian historiography.

Vasily Klyuchevsky was born in January 1841, the son of a rural Orthodox priest. Having decided against a career in the Church, he completed the undergraduate degree of the historical-philological faculty of Moscow University in 1865. In 1872 he received his master's degree, defending a thesis on the lives of the saints as historical sources; in 1882 he received his doctorate. He began his teaching career in 1867, and in 1879 he was invited to teach at his alma mater, where in 1882 he became professor of history. In 1900 Klyuchevsky was elevated to academician of Russian history and antiquities in the august Imperial Academy of Sciences.

Klyuchevsky was nurtured intellectually in the heady political and philosophical atmosphere of the Russian 1860s. In the period of the 1905 revolution, he was close to the moderate wing of the Kadet party and ran unsuccessfully for election to the State Duma. But he was a scholar, not a politician, though not immune to the political currents of his day. Within a year of his undergraduate degree he published a significant monograph on the testimony of foreigners about the Muscovite state, in 1885 a study of the origins of serfdom in Russia, in 1887 a history of Russian social classes, in 1896 a study of Empress Catherine II, and in 1901 a monograph on Peter the Great and his advisers.

The greatest achievement of Klyuchevsky was his broadly analytical Kurs russkoi istorii (1903; Course of Russian History), which was based on his popular lectures and covered the history of Russia from ancient times to the 19th century. Klyuchevsky differed from the so-called statist school of the earlier tradition in Russian historical scholarship, which included B. N. Chicherin and S. M. Solovev. The statists granted great significance to the role of the autocratic and imperial state in shaping Russian development, while Klyuchevsky shifted focus from the state to social, economic, and environmental factors. He was particularly attentive to questions of geography, peasant migration, and the social composition of institutions. He looked beyond the reign of specific czars and emperors, beyond the traditional political and military dramas that held the center of attention in earlier Russian histories. His study of the boyar Duma, the subject of his doctoral thesis, is in fact an essay on the history of the sociopolitical development of Russia from the earliest times to the 18th century.

Klyuchevsky was a brilliant lecturer and a consummate stylist of historical prose. His influence can be seen in the work of his most outstanding students, A. A. Kizevetter and M. K. Lyubavsky.

Further Reading on Vasily Osipovich Klyuchevsky

Klyuchevsky's Kurs russkoi istorii was translated by C. J. Hogarth (5 vols., 1911-1931); the translation is faulty and misleading. Liliana Archibald retranslated volume 4 of the Kurs as Peter the Great (1958) and volume 3 as The Rise of the Romanovs (1970). Biographies of Klyuchevsky are in Anatole G. Mazour, Modern Russian Historiography (1939; 2d ed. 1958), and Bernadotte E. Schmitt, ed., Some Historians of Modern Europe: Essays in Historiography (1942).

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