Lament for Russia

Time of Troubles: The Diary of Iurii Vladimirovich Got’e

translated, edited, and introduced by Terence Emmons
Princeton University Press, 513 pp., $39.50

The historical profession is nowhere famous for its tolerance, but there are not many countries where historians can expect to pay for their opinions with penal servitude or the firing squad. In the Soviet Union, however, the persecution of nonconformity has been the norm until very recently. In the years of the Red Terror that followed the Bolshevik Revolution, the voice of dissent was stifled by universal denunciations, house searches, and preventive arrests. Under Lenin, hardly less than under Stalin, historians harbored critical opinions at their peril. The writing, let alone the publication, of political diaries was virtually impossible. The discovery in California of exactly such a diary, therefore, covering the period between 1917 and 1922, and written by a prominent Russian historian of the day, is an event of some importance.

Yuri Gotye or Gautier (1873–1943) was a brilliant scholar among Russia’s most brilliant generation of historians. A pupil of Klyuchevsky and Vinogradov, he possessed a phenomenal command of eleven or twelve languages and intimate knowledge of archival sources, and a positivist conviction that high scholarship bettered the human condition. In a career spanning five decades, he produced works on a dazzling range of periods and topics, from archaeology and prehistory to landholding, local government, and foreign relations. Most of the time while he was writing the diary, he was a full professor at Moscow University and director of the Rumyantsev Museum (the forerunner of the Lenin Library).

Not that professional historians necessarily make the best exponents of current affairs. Terence Emmons, the editor of the diaries, quotes Hippolyte Taine, Gotye’s own favorite historian, to the effect that the most trustworthy testimony of historical events is provided by the “honorable, attentive, and intelligent” eyewitness. Yet Gotye attempts no coherent analysis of the changes unfolding before him. Deprived of all reliable sources of evidence and information, he constantly relapses into outbursts of frustration about the “same rumors, the same morass,” the “cesspool” of the Revolution, the “stupidity” of all the leading figures. In October 1917, he reports the Bolshevik takeover in Petrograd with some delay. But he gives no names. There was no fuel for heating and, with the banks shut, no money.

A month later, on November 22, he is already wondering about the Bolsheviks’ collapse. “The question now is, what is next—how will the coalition united under the name ‘bolshevik’ and consisting of extremist fanatics, people working for German salaries, and black hundreds fall apart?” An avid reader of newspapers, with a sharp ear for intellectual gossip, he knew only too well that the Bolsheviks were practicing extreme forms of censorship and propaganda. “The Bolsheviks are lying viciously,” he writes on December 11, 1918. “They lie, conceal, and distort as no other government has done.” Moscow was no place to find out what was really happening in Russia. We are “moles—blind and underground.” The murder of the Czar and the imperial family, which took place in July 1918, is not reported until …

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