Yuri Gotye
Yuri Gotye; drawing by David Levine

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 hundreds1 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 February 1921, when a colleague from Ekaterinburg and documents from abroad provide him with the necessary details.

Moreover, as a man of choleric, not to say destructively corrosive, opinions, Gotye clearly uses his diary as a form of therapy to unload sentiments that would never have found their way into his scholarly work. As a result, he faithfully reflects the confusion and disorientation of many people who witnessed the Revolution—in itself an essential factor in the Bolsheviks’ success. He curses everyone—the Germans, the international capitalists, the politicians, without exception, from Nicholas II “of cursed memory” to “Leiba Bronshtein” (Trotsky) and “other devils in human form”: the Russian masses, whom he refers to as “gorillas,” the Russian “boorocracy,” the Russian “democraps,” and above all the Russian intelligentsia, to which he belonged. He offers no constructive reflections, no analysis in depth. Gotye’s diary is a contribution to the raw material of history, not to historiography. One might have expected him, as a respected historian, to be a person of broad visions and generous opinions. In fact, he can only be described as a Russian chauvinist and an elitist of the least attractive kind.

Gotye’s ethnic complexes, possibly fueled by the partly French origins of his own family, are expressed through a virulent mixture of hatred, contempt, and pride. He hated the West Europeans, especially the Germans, because he felt an overpowering sense of inferiority toward them. By the same token, he reluctantly admits that Russia’s “Westernizers,” with their deep criticisms of traditional Russian culture, had been correct. “We are only fit to be manure for peoples of higher culture,” he writes, “and in our history,” from Kurbsky to Chaadaev, “only the negators have been right.” “In any case, we are not a match for the Germans,” he comments in 1917. “They are unquestionably higher than we are in every respect….One can hate them, but it is impossible not to respect them.”


His contempt is directed partly at the Great Russians—whom he consistently refers to by such epithets as “Russian swine” or “Russian carrion,” but largely at the non-Russian nationalities of the empire. The Latvians are traitors. The Ukrainians contrive to be both “crafty” and “stupid.” The distinguished Ukrainian politician and scholar Mykhaylo Hruhevsky was a “scoundrel” and “an Austrian agent.” The Jews, who feature in the diary exclusively as unscrupulous agents of the Bolshevik regime, are dismissed as “Russo-Yids” or “Jew-cowards.”

The Poles, too, are to be hated. Gotye served on a commission set up after the Treaty of Riga in 1921 to return some of Poland’s national treasures that had been carried off over the centuries by the czars; and his Russian blood boiled within him. The fact that his own library had been built around a core of books plundered from Warsaw in 1795 and 1832 did not cut any ice. “The cause of defending Russian archives and museums is a good cause, and the hatred for the Poles roused by their insane policy vis-à-vis Russia is just as strong in me as hatred for the communists.”

Gotye’s elitism, as Terence Emmons rightly indicates, had a cultural rather than a social favor. He was not an aristocrat, and held no brief for the “gentry civilization,” which in his view had failed. His intense insecurity centered around the feeling that the tiny educated class in Russia, with which he identified, was besieged on all sides by ignorance and hostility. “We, that is, civilized people who consider ourselves Russians, are a small group…lost in the world. Our fatherland has deserted us, no one stands behind us; ‘the people’ will cast us aside.” He hated giving evening lectures for unqualified students. “The gorillas, male and female, took in my monologue about the Time of Troubles with lackluster interest.” He felt offended when a Moscow drunk cursed his bowler hat—“democratia triumphans.” But he felt most offended by the betrayal of the part of the intelligentsia that was supporting the Revolution:

The same Russian animal,…about whom Napoleon spoke when he said gratter le russe [“Scratch a Russian and you’ll find a Tatar”],…has grown great and swollen in the person of the raznochinets,2 savage, uncivilized, but equipped with a bit of half-baked knowledge. Through bazarovshchina,3 nihilism, Marxism, and populism, this animal has taken over the country, has ruined and devastated his own house and land.

Gotye saw the drift as early as January 1918, when he took his wife to the Bolshoi Theater for the last time. “Triumphant louts from among the soldiers’ deputies were sitting in the imperial loge—it was disgusting and revolting.”

Despite his love for the countryside, Gotye betrayed little sympathy for the peasants, whom he largely saw as ungrateful savages. Throughout 1918 the condition of his country house at Zagran’e went from bad to worse. First it was looted; then its remaining contents were requisitioned for “the people,” and finally it was seized without compensation. In the summer of 1918, the learned professor had to mow the fields himself—which he enjoyed. But he had no heart for a fight. The Russian land had been handed over to “anarchy,” a new “Pugachevshchina.”

Everyday economic life continued to deteriorate, long after total collapse had been repeatedly announced. In February 1918 Gotye pawned the family silver. In the spring of 1919 he noted the onset of hunger. Even in the countryside Gotye could not obtain bread, only some dairy products. In May the family cook was sent 800 miles to Rostov-on-Don to exchange the parlor curtains for potato flour. In the winter fuel for heating the house and the library was unobtainable. Prices soared. Gotye calculated hyperflation in the cost of funerals—up from 30,000 rubles in November 1919, when his first wife was buried, to 33 million in March 1922. By then, a train ticket to Petrograd cost 2.5 million rubles. Famine had become a reality. Primitive barter was taking over. On the sign over the entrance to the Commissariat of Enlightenment an obscene graffito announced “Proletarian rejoice! In place of bread, eat cock!”

Political terror was thriving in league with the social and economic chaos. Gotye chronicles an apparently endless series of arrests among his acquaintances and employees—first of individuals, later of whole groups. “A genuine dictatorship of the proletariat has been introduced,” he announced in August 1918, “mindless cruelty of the dark masses, stirred up by the demogogues, directed against the more educated elements.” In September 1918 he traveled twice to Novgorod in an attempt to release his brother from the clutches of the Cheka who “were shooting their prisoners like grouses.” He used all his free moments to visit Novgorod’s deserted but “enchanting” medieval churches and monasteries.

[November 4, 1918] They have arrested S.N. Vasilenko [a composer], a man less capable than anyone of political deeds or thoughts. This is, of course, a misunderstanding, but what is it going to cost him! We are receiving a half-pound of candy each on the ration card on the occasion of the revolutionary festivities.

“[March 6, 1920] The bolsheviks have killed Kolchak. Thus do they destroy all outstanding Russian men.” “[May 8, 1922] Eleven death sentences have been delivered in the first church trial.” Having destroyed all their political opponents on the left and the right, the Bolsheviks were turning on their cultural enemies.


Somehow, throughout these tribulations, Gotye maintained an active academic and administrative career:

[September 13, 1917] Everything remains the same; just as awful as yesterday, the day before, and so on. I was confirmed as a full professor.

Later he published a study of Muscovy’s “Time of Troubles” in the seventeenth century—an episode of violence and anarchy that furnished many parallels with the contemporary situation. At the same time, he endured all manner of threats and surprises from the Bolshevik authorities—the need to be “democratically” reelected for tenure, the demands of Bolshevik dignitaries to short-circuit the library’s procedures, the requirement to provide “popular” lectures for workers, the pretense at consultations that were arbitrarily overruled. Beyond his family, the conversation of his academic colleagues provided the only source of solace.

From start to finish, Gotye has no good word for the Bolsheviks. Even before the October Revolution, he was calling them “the true symbol of the Russian people,…a mixture of stupidity, vulgarity, uncultured willfulness, lack of principle, hooliganism.” Afterward, in December 1917, he says that “at the head of what used to be Russia stand genuinely insane people who belong in a psychiatric hospital.” In February 1918, he announces that “bolshevism, as an experiment in socialist Pugachevshchina, is so savage and oppressive” that he would prefer “the domination of the mailed German fist.” Worst of all was the Bolsheviks’ arrogance. “This panurgic herd aspires to say something new to the world,” he fumes, “idiots, fools, criminals toward their ancestors and descendants….And they still think they are God-bearers, if not on behalf of the old God, then on behalf of communism, anarchism, and suchlike bugbears of Russian life.” The first Bolshevik he met in person, David Riazonov (Gol’dendakh), made the “impression of an enormous, suffocating louse which tries to hide the stench it gives off with cheap perfume.” Lunacharsky is “a pederast with intimate friendly ties with certain well-known futurists.” Krupskaya, “the Russian empress-to-be,” is “old and hideous, with the stupid face of a blind fanatic…accentuated by clearly manifested goiter.”

Lenin’s one saving grace was that he was “smarter than Kerensky” (whom Gotye had earlier characterized as “Russia’s greatest evil genius”). Lenin was a “vulgar smart aleck,” “an absolute liar and insolent fellow whom it costs nothing to play with words” or “to juggle with ideas and people.” Lenin had seized power with the aid of German money, and never ceased to put Germany first. In October 1918, in anticipation of the revolution in Germany, Lenin made a speech to the Moscow Soviet, which, as Professor Emmons informs us, has been omitted from the Soviet edition of the Collected Works. “This speech,” Gotye notes, “was saturated with…an unalterable German orientation. For Lenin, Germany remains the center, if not of the imperialist, then of the revolutionary world, and all the trash that blindly follows him believes unshakably that…a bolshevik [Germany] will decide the fate of the world.” In June 1922, Gotye learns that Lenin is paralyzed. “He is dying of syphilis,” he gloats with typical hyperbole, “after having infected and ruined all Russia with syphilis.”

At this point, not unwisely, Gotye decided to consign his diary to safety abroad. In October 1921, he had met Frank Golder, an American historian who was collecting materials for the new Hoover Library at Stanford. Golder shipped Gotye’s diary to California, where it lay for sixty years until uncovered by accident in 1982.

In several respects, Gotye’s diary may well be judged to be inferior to other well-known works of the revolutionary period. The quality of its eyewitness reportage cannot compare with John Reed’s supreme example of early glasnost—Ten Days that Shook the World (1919), with its preface by one “N. Lenin,” who recommended Reed’s book “unreservedly” as a “truthful and most vivid exposition of the events…of…the Proletarian Revolution and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” In its descriptions of everyday hardships and horrors, Gotye’s journal is not markedly more informative than scores of published memoirs. In its political detail and insight, it is entirely outclassed by the personal record of 1917 by N.N. Himmer (Sukhanov), which was published in Moscow in 1922.4

Sukhanov was as much an insider as Gotye was an outsider; and, as a close but critical associate of the Bolsheviks, he could chronicle their twists and manipulations with both familiarity and expertise. He could even relate, for example, how his own apartment in Petrograd, in his absence and without his knowledge, had been used for the conspiratorial evening that launched the October Revolution:

On October 10th…the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party assembled in full strength….Oh, the novel jokes of the merry muse of History!…This time special steps were taken to have me spend the night away from home:…my wife…gave me a piece of friendly, disinterested advice—not to inconvenience myself by a further journey after work….For such a cardinal session…the Lord of Hosts himself, with his henchmen, crept out of the underground. Lenin appeared in a wig, but without his beard. Zinoviev appeared with a beard, but without his shock of hair. The meeting went on for about ten hours until about 3 o’clock in the morning….

It was decided to begin the uprising as quickly as possible, depending on circumstances but not on the Congress [of Soviets]…. This decision was accepted by all but two votes. The dissenters were the same as in June—Kamenev and Zinoviev…. This of course could not confound The Thunderer…. Now he had the majority with him. And, besides the majority, Trotsky was with Lenin.

In comparison, Gotye’s entry for that same day looks hopelessly unaware of what was brewing:

[October 11] The general situation hasn’t changed for better or worse in the last few days. The Germans have had no great successes, but they have landed on the corner of Estland… thus acquiring a base for future moves against Petrograd. All this is being done, as Kerensky correctly put it, “not because of their strength, but because of our weakness.”… It appears that the evacuation of Petrograd will turn into the evacuation of Moscow. The idiots-in-charge want to evacuate the [cadet] corps and the institutes…. The strike of hospital workers…has progressed…. On Monday the 9th there was an emergency meeting…at which the university tried to preserve its autonomy. There will be a strike of city employees beginning on the 15th. Not enough object lessons yet.

No wonder Gotye failed to recognize the implications of the Bolshevik coup when it happened two weeks later.

Nonetheless, the value of Gotye’s diary is to be measured not in the accuracy of his political comment but rather in the contribution it makes to our understanding of the psychological landscape of revolutionary Russia. Indeed, his disorientation is an essential element of the picture. By now, the possibility of adding to the factual history of events is very limited. But a new perspective on the moods and responses of prominent people in the capital of Soviet Russia can be useful and refreshing. The total estrangement of a man like Gotye, who held a responsible post in Moscow throughout the revolutionary years, is not without significance. Even more remarkable is the fact that a leading scholar, who controlled one of the largest information centers in the country, should have complained bitterly and constantly for five years that he had no means of knowing what was afoot. It is as if a director of the Library of Congress was effectively excluded from all reliable knowledge about political life in Washington. The tiny group of Bolsheviks kept all power and control of virtually all information for themselves. The masses were managed through a mixture of arbitrary decrees, slogans, and terror. The intelligent independent citizen had no place whatsoever. The screams of exasperation Gotye entered in his diary were caused by the intellectual equivalent of sensory deprivation.

The contribution of Terence Emmons to this excellent edition is one of which Gotye himself would have been proud. The scholarship is meticulous; the translation lively and fluent; the introduction informative; the footnotes copious, but not intrusive. Emmons may possibly be criticized for his timidity in a commentary that refrains from any attempt to counterbalance the Russocentric, and frequently outrageous, text. But editorial reticence properly allows Gotye’s highly individual voice to speak more clearly.

One claim of Emmons might perhaps be challenged: he believed Gotye was eventually reconciled to the Bolsheviks, and accepted their positive “role in preserving the integrity of the Russian state.” This seems to me wishful thinking, typical of Western attitudes to Russia, although it is more starkly presented in the publisher’s jacket copy than in the editor’s introduction. It may explain the dropping of Gotye’s original title: My Observations: Lament on the Downfall of the Russian Land. For some reason Emmons allows himself to “imagine” that Gotye must have come to see certain patriotic virtues in the new regime, and “however grudgingly” to have made his peace with it. He presents no specific evidence for this conclusion. It is true, of course, that after their defeat in the Polish war of 1919–1920, and their consequent failure to link up with the expected revolution in Germany, the Bolsheviks gradually abandoned their original commitment to revolutionary internationalism. In the 1930s, Stalin’s line of National Bolshevism contained strong chauvinist overtones that might conceivably have coincided with some of Gotye’s own prejudices. But there are absolutely no hints in the diary about Gotye’s second thoughts, let alone his conversion. Gotye starts in 1917 with talk of Russia’s terminal condition. Finis Russiae, “an extinct dinosaur or mastodon.” At the end of 1921, when preparations for creating the Soviet Union had already begun, he is still writing: “One more year of Russian death is over.” Gotye himself was desperately hoping to emigrate. But he had recently remarried and started a new family. He stayed because he had no choice.

A more fitting epilogue lies in the later misfortunes of Moscow historians. One strand running through the diary is of Gotye’s rivalry with M.N. Pokrovsky, a Marxist colleague, whose political views had not prevented the publication before the Revolution of his four-volume History of Russia from Ancient Times. Between 1917 and 1922, Pokrovsky was a rising star of the Bolshevik elite, irritatingly pompous and ambitious. At various times, Gotye calls him “perfidious,” “vile,” “a disgrace to the school of Moscow Russian History,” “a self-infatuated Quasimodo,” a “Herostratos.” This made it all the more humiliating when Gotye had to beg for Pokrovsky’s political protection. In October 1918, Pokrovsky saved Gotye from potential catastrophe, when he was faced with an unpayable 10,000 ruble fine for imaginary “bourgeois speculation” in sugar. At another point, in July 1921, when NEP was being introduced, he records Pokrovsky as saying in all seriousness: “The experiment in socialism is finished and will not be repeated again.”

The fate of the two men under Stalin is instructive. Gotye, the bourgeois reactionary, escaped with five years’ penal servitude in an arctic camp during the 1930s and died in respectable retirement in 1943 at the age of seventy. Pokrovsky, the genuine Marxist, died in 1932 in disgrace. He was saved by cancer from the purge in which the rest of the once-favored Pokrovsky School, duly denounced by his former assistant, Anna Mikhailovna Paukratova, as “the spying-wrecking band of pseudo-historians,” were shot.

This Issue

June 15, 1989