New research project on cultural historiography in Russia during the so-called Sattelzeit

Historians look at Russia in the late 18th and early 19th century to learn how a people does create the concept of its own history

25 June 2018

Much of teaching in schools is based on textbooks. But in addition to their actual purpose, they can also be a valuable source for historians. Russian textbooks dating to the end of the 18th century provide information about how the Russian state wished to portray the world at large, Europe, and the Tsarist Empire. These books underwent revision when a secular education system was introduced in Russia after 1786. Today they enable us to better understand how historiography functioned in Russia at that time. Research into this aspect is the objective of the new research project titled "Before Cultural History. Functions and Dynamics of Russian Historiography in a European Context (1750-1830)", which is sponsored by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and was initiated in early May 2018 at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU).

School history textbooks are just one of the sources used. Also under investigation are the major historiographical works of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. "We are particularly interested in which perceptions of a Russian culture were developed in the so-called Sattelzeit, the epoch from about 1750 to 1850 that saw the transition from the Enlightenment through the Romantic period to the Modern era," explained Professor Jan Kusber of the East European History division at JGU. "The textbooks give us the state-sanctioned view of history and represent a medium that experienced a wide range of distribution."

An intensive debate began in Russia in the late 18th century concerning how Russian culture was to be defined and what exactly Russia had contributed to the history of humanity. Important publications appeared that outlined the core aspects relevant to the new emerging national consciousness, and these became increasingly focused on the subject of historiography. It was at this time that many ideas, concepts, and ideals found their way from Western Europe to Russia. This was facilitated by various developments that occurred in the second half of the 18th century: a change to forms of written communication, simplified printing techniques, the establishment of new publishing houses, and a rapid-growing market for books.

Deciphering Gothic script: specialized skills required to study source materials

But how did Russia perceive human culture, European culture, and its own culture at that time? What perceptions were developed and what sort of concepts that originated from other European countries were adopted, adapted, and further elaborated? "Historiographical works written in France and Germany served as models. Russia wanted to create something similar, and so used these two countries for the purposes of orientation," explained Kusber, who is heading up the new DFG project. It wanted to delineate its large empire not just in geographical and political terms but also describe the various customs and traditions and the importance of the mother country to its people. A great deal of this can be found in school textbooks.

According to Kusber, the fact that these books and other source material are being analyzed in Mainz is because the necessary expertise is available here. "The German and French works which served as models or orientation aids in Russia in the 18th century were printed in Gothic script or blackletter, and the often German-speaking members of the Russian Academy of Sciences wrote using Gothic script. What we have is the skill to actually read these texts." A publication on the subject of historiography in Russia in the late 18th and the early 19th centuries is to appear in 2020, first in German language. Those involved in the project hope that this will provide the starting point for a Europe-wide comparison.