Pokrovsky, Mikhail Nikolayevich

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(18681932), leading Soviet historian of the 1920s and early 1930s, chief administrator of the social sciences, and a principal enforcer of Marxist orthodoxy.

Mikhail Pokrovsky served as Vice-Commissar of Education; Chairman of the Presidium of the Communist Academy and Chairman of its Society of Marxist Historians; Full Member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (briefly before his death); and was also a member of the Presidium of the Central Control Commission and held numerous other positions.

Pokrovsky studied history at the Imperial Moscow University under the supervision of Vasily Klyuchevsky and Pavel Vinogradov. In 1905 he embraced Marxism as a creed and methodology. As a result of revolutionary activities, he spent the years from 1907 to 1917 in exile, mostly in France. There he produced his most important scholarly works, notably his five-volume History of Russia since Ancient Times. In it he stated his major thesis: Russian history manifested the same pattern of development as did other European societies in that capitalism was a natural outcome of class conflict and not a foreign implant. Russian autocracy, a mere variant of European absolutism, was created by and served the interests of merchant capitalism. The latter was an ill-defined category that Pokrovsky borrowed from Karl Marx. This thesis placed Pokrovsky at odds with most other Russian historians, who asserted that Russian autocracy, unlike European absolutism, had the power to fashion social relationships; it was, in a certain sense, "supra-class." Most of Pokrovsky's numerous subsequent writings reiterated this thesis and attacked the non-Marxist historians who did not share it.

Pokrovsky returned to Russia in August 1917 and held prominent positions in the Moscow Soviet. After the Bolsheviks took power he largely confined his activities to the pedagogical, scholarly and propaganda institutions of the Soviet government and the Communist Party. He was the party-designated leader of what was called the historical front, an array of institutions designed to establish the hegemony of Marxist doctrine and to circumscribe and finally eliminate all non-Marxist doctrines and convert or silence their adherents.

Pokrovsky elaborated a theory of cultural revolution that justified the provisional pluralism implied by the policies mentioned above: the building of communism with the hands of non-communists, at least in the short term. The policy and his theory began to flounder during the late 1920s. His concept of merchant capitalism and his leadership of the historical front came under attack from a faction of rival historians. Hastening to get in step with Josef Stalin, Pokrovsky aggressively attacked non-Marxist scholars as class enemies, but his theory of merchant capitalism clashed with Stalin's theory of socialism in one country. In 1931 Stalin upheld the authority of Pokrovsky. His "school"(i.e., associates and former students) dominated the scholarly and propaganda apparatus until 1936. In that year Stalin signaled a vituperative campaign against the ideas of Pokrovsky: he was branded as anti-Marxist and petty bourgeois, largely because his works were devoid of nationalist sentiment. Pokrovsky had helped to devise the repressive instruments that were used against him posthumously. Almost his entire school was physically annihilated. Because Pokrovsky was an anti-Stalin symbol, he received a partial rehabilitation in the years of Nikita Khrushchev's predominance. During the early twenty-first century his name has almost entirely lost its symbolic weight.

See also: marxism; stalin, josef vissarionovich


Barber, John. (1981). Soviet Historians in Crisis, 19281932. London: Macmillan Press in association with the Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Birmingham.

Enteen, George M. (1978). The Soviet Scholar-Bureaucrat: M.N. Pokrovsky and the Society of Marxist Historians. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Pokrovsky, M. N. (1966). History of Russia from the Earliest Times to the Rise of Commercial Capitalism, tr. J. D. Clarkson and M. R. M. Griffiths. 2nd ed. Bloomington, IN: University Prints and Reprints.

Pokrovsky, M. N. (1993). Brief History of Russia, tr. D. S. Mirsky. 2 vols. London: Martin Lawrence Limited.

George Enteen