Mikhail Aleksandrovich Polievktov was a prominent representative of the great St. Petersburg school of Russian historians. A scion of the famous Maikov family, whose members included distinguished poets, painters, linguists, and art connoisseurs, Polievktov was himself a student of the eminent St. Petersburg historians Sergei Fedorovich Platonov, Georgii Vasil’evich Forsten, and Aleksandr Sergeevich Lappo-Danilevskii. A peer and a life-long friend of Russian historian Aleksandr Evgen’evich Presniakov, Polievktov belonged to the generation of pre-revolutionary historians that was educated during the 1880s and the early 1890s, a generation which – in the words of a distinguished North American scholar – “produced more first-rate historical scholarship than any before or since.” For more than twenty years Polievktov taught in various institutions of higher learning in the imperial capital, and produced two major monographs. By the time he was elected professor of Petrograd University in November 1918, he had established a reputation as a leading specialist on the history of Russian foreign relations in the early eighteenth century and an authority on the political institutions of the first half of the nineteenth century. His unusually thoughtful and balanced study of Nicholas I’s reign is still considered the essential scholarly treatment of the subject.
In 1913, Polievktov married Rusudana (Rusia) Nikoladze , the older daughter of Niko (Nikolai) Nikoladze and a favorite cousin of Irakli (Kaki) Tsereteli. During the February Revolution, the Polievktov and the Nikoladze families lived in the center of Petrograd, only a short walk from the Duma. Seeing revolution with his own eyes, Polievktov’s extraordinary instinct for historical events was engaged—as well as his foresight to document them for posterity. Immediately, in early March, Polievktov and Presniakov launched an effort to collect materials on the historic events; by April, the new Society for the Study of the Revolution (SSR) was officially recognized. The SSR soon divided into parts, and Polievktov headed the section called the Interview Commission of the Tauride Palace. He organized the Commission, oversaw the interviewing process, and took part in the interviews. He recruited his wife, her sister (Tamara), their friends, and his students to help with the work. In all, Polievktov’s Commission produced invaluable transcripts of twelve interviews and several summaries of conversations with central figures of the February Revolution, many of them highlighted in this exhibit.
Polievktov left Petrograd in 1920 to join his wife and son in Georgia. That fall, he was elected professor of history at Tiflis (Tbilisi) University. For the next twenty-two years, he lived and taught in Tbilisi and held successive research and administrative positions at the Georgian branch of the Central State Archival Administration. He continued to write, amassing an impressive record of publications that would lay the foundations for both the new discipline of Caucasian studies and the subfield of Georgian-Russian relations. It is quite plausible that Polievktov’s isolation from the centers of academic life in Moscow and Leningrad allowed him to avoid the clutches of Stalin’s secret police. As far as we know, he was never arrested and emerged relatively unscarred from the purges of prerevolutionary historians during the infamous “Platonov affair” of 1929-1931. This turn of fortune was remarkable, considering Polievktov’s close and longstanding ties with some of the principle defendants in that case, including Professors Platonov, Rozhdestvenskii, Tarle, as well as his former Petrograd University student and confidant Natalia Sergeevna Shtakel’berg (her letter to him is exhibited in this case). Smeared in 1931 in a Tbilisi Communist paper as a “rightist professor” and stripped of his teaching positions, Polievktov wrote an appeal to the Soviet authorities and was soon reinstated and allowed to continue with his teaching and research. He subsequently published five short books and about a dozen articles. In 1938 he suffered a mild stroke, but recovered and continued to work. He completed his last publication and submitted it to a journal on May 15, 1942, shortly before suffering a second stroke that impaired his vision and speech and ultimately led to his death six months later. Polievktov died in his own bed, surrounded by his son and wife and a few relatives from her side of the family. For a person of his generation and of his social and cultural background, dying in one’s own bed was no small feat. To paraphrase Anna Akhmatova, by the cannibalistic standards of the time, he was a very lucky man indeed.×
[Stamps on the left]
Russian Federal Soviet Republic
People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment
Department of Affairs Administration
June 28, 1920
Moscow, Ostozhenka 58, Krymskii street
The People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment hereby certifies that the holder of this document, Professor POLIEVKTOV M. A., has been assigned for a 6-month research trip to the Caucasus and Georgia on behalf of the Caucasus Historical-Archeological Institute and for the exploration of tribal societies of the Southern Caucasus.
REASON: As stated in the minutes of the 12th session of the Collegium of Academic Section of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment on presentation of the Academy of Sciences on June 25, 1920.
Deputy of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment [Signature – M. Pokrovskii]
Administrator of the Commissariat’s Affairs [Signature]
Director of the Mandates Department [Signature]
All military authorities must render assistance.
Deputy Chairman of the Republican Revolutionary Military Council [Signature – E.M. Sklianskii]
The present document regarding a research trip has been presented to the Central Registration Bureau of the Department of NKVD [People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs] Administration. It is genuine and was registered under the number 208 on June 29, 1920.
Director of the Central Registration Bureau
Deeply Respected and Dear Mikhail Aleksandrovich,
It seems that I haven’t written anything to you for 100 years and it is even frightening to begin. Before my marriage, such a long silence would have been unthinkable, but now I no longer belong to myself … my world is not what it once was.
I do not know what news you have received from our Petersburgers since my last letter (I have not received any news from you for a long time and do not know if you received my letter and a book?). But I believe that the news has reached you by now in some form or another about the beatings [purges] at the University, of both young and old alike. You probably have already heard about the removal of [Professors] Kareeva, Grevsa, Makarova, Takhtereva, and on limiting the choice of lecture topics to [Professors] Priselkov and Dobiash[-Rozhdestvenskaia], on eliminating some departments, and so on.
One cheerful mathematician joked that at their department for studying pure mathematics, because of all the cuts and changes, the only thing that remained was politgrammota (basic political education)… The nature of our situation, [those who have been provisionally] “retained” is still unknown; at present our [performance] reports are being reviewed, and we rare held for now in the ambiguous state of “former” scientific employees. In our circles, there are ongoing discussions about boycotting new [reconstituted] University, but I think these talks are premature because [such prominent professors as] Rozhdestvenskii, Platonov, Tarle and others remain.
Tsvibak [Martyn Martynovich] has been appointed lecturer at the University, he also plays an important role in the Central Archive [Administration]. Frustrations of all the demoted [colleagues] are concentrated on him, even though everyone pays him his due as an efficient exemplar of human species. He was acting dean last summer and malicious gossipers predict that he will become a rector. From among the old cadres, only Tarle succeeded to keep his position in the [Central] Archive. …
I have started an album; and some predict a promising future for it. My original idea was to collect autographs from members of our circle [of young historians], but now I would like to broaden the scope and include autographs from professors as well. I would be especially grateful to you if you could ever write on a separate sheet of paper something for my album – I would paste it into an appropriate place. Please! …×
Dear Mikhail Aleksandrovich,
I am not guilty, but, perhaps, I am … a serious of unfortunate circumstances has led me to sending you the requested reference only now.
“Leningrad Central Historical Archive. Auditors’ Department. Section II, 1834. The inventory of secret files. No. 3”
I hope that it is not too late.
Everything is sour here. Overcoming a lingering influenza while [my] pockets are chronically empty. We are still on holidays [winter break], no teaching. I am not at all enthusiastic about returning to teaching.
I wrote the introductory article to the Central Archive edition of the diary of State Secretary [E.A.] Perets (1880-1883) which relates to the history of the Loris-Melikov era. The diary is already typeset.
I have not seen Golovan’ for a long time. [I] seem unable to organize my time to see him. No news from John either, but this is my fault. I didn’t write to him in quite a while.
I am depressed, depressed like hell - old age is a sickness by itself. I do not see anybody or anything cheerful – I am so sick of everything! But it shall pass.
Farewell. Wishing all the best,
[Signature] – A. Presniakov 1/6/1927
To the People’s Commissar for Enlightenment of the Georgian SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic)
By the decree of the Collegium of the Narkompros (the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment) published on June 6 [crossed out in pencil and changed to May 28] of this year in the newspaper … I was removed from teaching in the institutions of higher learning as a professor with apparently Rightist views and therefore unsuitable for teaching new cadres for the building of socialism.
This decree and the motivation behind it took me completely by surprise since nobody has ever brought this kind of accusation against me during my teaching career in the institutions of higher education throughout the years of Soviet power. Quite the opposite, the Soviet authorities and society have always trusted me. The very same Narkompros and other leading institutions have more than once given me assignments that could not have been given to a person suspected of Rightist or reactionary leanings; I have always fulfilled these assignments quite thoroughly and successfully. Suffice is to recall that in 1927 the Central Archive [Administration] of the Georgian SSR—which was at the time under the management of the Central Administration of Scientific Institutions (Glavnauka) of Narkompros—assigned me to explore the materials that had been kept in the Leningrad archives on the history of “the conspiracy of 1832 in Georgia.” As a result, these extremely significant materials for the history of the Georgian social movements were transferred to Tiflis and became available for Georgian-Soviet historical scholarship. … In 1928 the Glavnauka assigned me to acquaint Western scholarly community with the achievements of Soviet historical scholarship on Georgia. My work on this question (published in the journal Osteuropa in 1928, no. 3), which has attracted attention in Germany, has in many ways contributed to the establishment of the correct view of the highest achievements of Soviet scholarship beyond the borders of the Union. In the course of many years, including very recently, I was a member of the Section of the Bureau of Academic Workers, and for some period I was even its Chairman—and my election to these offices has never met with anybody’s objections.
My entire work during all 14 years of Soviet power is in sharp disagreement with the current characteristics that have been ascribed to me. I have always tried to ground my teaching in institutions of higher education on the principles of Marxist methodology, and this teaching had never been discredited from the ideological point of view until a few weeks ago at the last discussion of the program in the Pedagogical Institute. My own scholarly work of the last decade has always been guided in the direction of the most pressing problems of Georgian and Caucasian historical scholarship. Being prepared by my earlier work in the archives of Germany, Austria, and Italy—which until the present time have not been seen by the eyes of modern Georgian historians and where the most interesting materials are being kept on the history of the countries of the Caucasus region—I focused my attention on the problem of dissemination of Russian capitalism into Transcaucasia, as well as the related questions of the socioeconomic and revolutionary history of Georgia. In 1926 and 1928, I published extremely valuable materials on the history of Georgian-Russian relations without which it would be impossible to reconstruct Georgian history in the seventeenth century. I was the first who, in 1924, brought the attention of historians to the materials stored in the local archive on the resurrection of 1820 in Imeretiia, Guriia, and Mingreliia. Here can be included my referred to above work on the insurrection of 1832. I continue to work on the same questions of dissemination of Russian capitalism at present time, but now I do so as a member of the Transcaucasian Historical-Archeological Institute, which I joined upon invitation from Professor N.Ia. Marr last year.
Drawn to the construction of [a new] archival system by the Soviet government as early as 1918 because of my extensive archival experience, I have also worked hard on the organization of archival affairs in Georgia. … All my activities—teaching, scholarship, and public service—are unlikely to give anyone the grounds to talk about my lack of political consciousness, or my Rightist leanings. …
Due to everything laid out above, I am requesting the review and cancellation of the June 6th 1931 directive of the Collegium of Narkompros concerning myself. I am also offering my presence for personal explanations, if it is deemed necessary, and requesting to be notified of the subsequent developments at the following address: Tiflis, Kamo Street 51, to Professor M.A. Polievktov.
[Signature] Prof. Polievktov