Martin on Soloviev, 'History of Russia, Vol. 23, Tsar Alexis: A Reign Ends' and Soloviev, 'History of Russia, Vol. 43, Catherine the Great in Power: Domestic and Foreign Affairs, 1763-1764'

Sergei M. Soloviev
Russell E. Martin

Sergei M. Soloviev. History of Russia, Vol. 23, Tsar Alexis: A Reign Ends. Gulf Breeze, Fla.: Academic International Press, 1998. xx + 208 pp. Sergei M. Soloviev. History of Russia, Vol. 43, Catherine the Great in Power: Domestic and Foreign Affairs, 1763-1764. Gulf Breeze, Fla.: Academic International Press, 1998. xxxiii + 303 pp.

Reviewed by Russell E. Martin (Westminster College) Published on H-Russia (May, 1999)

The appearance of two new volumes of the translation of Soloviev's Istoriia Rossii s drevneishikh vremen (History of Russia From Earliest Times) is an event surely to be greeted with enthusiasm by professors of Russian history and their students. And rightly so. Soloviev's History is regarded universally as an indispensable source for Russian history from pre-Christian times (the first chapters of this multi-volume work treat the history of the early Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe, as well as questions of geography, climate, and so on), through 1774, when the narrative ends.

Soloviev's History first appeared between 1851 and 1879 in twenty-nine volumes, but the current translation project has (quite appropriately) been based on the famous "Gray Edition" published in the Soviet Union between 1959 and 1966 (fifteen "Books" with two volumes in each, plus index). For twenty-two years now, separate volumes of this translation have been appearing nonsequentially (the first to appear was Volume 9, in 1976), and the latest two, translated and edited by Martha L. Lahana and Daniel L. Schlafly, Jr., represent the twenty-first and twenty-second installments of a planned fifty-volume English edition.

These two books treat very different periods in Russian history, but foreign relations occupy the larger parts of both. The first, Lahana's Volume 23, corresponds to Chapters IV and V of Volume 12 (Book VI in the Gray Edition). Here, Soloviev completes his treatment of the reign of Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich (1645-1680) by devoting considerable space to Russia's foreign relations. Soloviev provides a highly detailed account of the delicate dealings with Poland and the Cossacks in Ukraine over war with the Turks, peppering his narrative with lengthy excerpts from primary sources, some of which have not been published elsewhere. He treats relations with other Western European states with the same care, if not the same detail. It is one of the praiseworthy characteristics of Soloviev's History that sizeable portions of his work are devoted to regions and peoples that are often ignored by other scholars of his day and our own. There is a very useful description of Siberia and its peoples, of the Far East, and of the "Orthodox East"--Armenia, Georgia and Greece. The fact that so little in English is available for these regions in this period makes this volume all the more important, especially to students and non-Russian speakers.

The volume concludes with a brief but (what has come to be) influential assessment of Aleksei's family life. We learn about the tsar's two wives (Mariia Miloslavskaia and Natal'ia Naryshkina), and, in particular, how Aleksei came to select Naryshkina as his bride. She had been the ward of Artamon Matveev--"one of the men closest to the tsar" (p. 131)--and was evidently introduced to the tsar by him. Matveev's role here is crucial, according to Soloviev, since Matveev is described as a man who had a "love of foreign novelties." In these pages Soloviev is foreshadowing an argument he would develop in another place, that Peter the Great's (Tsar Aleksei's son by Natal'ia) penchant for western things comes from his mother, who derived it herself from her years in the Matveev household.

It is only very recently that this view, which has become a commonplace in the literature on Peter, has been challenged (e.g., by Professor Paul Bushkovitch of Yale). Also noteworthy here is Soloviev's assessment of Aleksei's character. In and amongst the description of Aleksei's physical appearance, or praise for "the beauty of [his] nature" (p. 139) or his "profound religious faith" (p. 133)--much of which Soloviev supports with large extracts of rare archival materials, including personal letters--is the more general appraisal of a reign which, to his mind, was dynamic and modernizing.

The other volume, Schlafly's Volume 43, corresponds to Chapter III of Volume 25 and Chapter I of Volume 26 (both published as Book XIII in the Gray Edition). This volume treats two years (1763 and 1764) at the opening of Catherine's reign, and, like Lahana's volume, emphasizes foreign relations. Soloviev's central focus is Poland, whose political disintegration colors Russian's relations with Europe in these years. Soloviev describes Russia's relations with the major European powers in turn. The treatment is uneven, but Soloviev nonetheless demonstrates how Russia's foreign policy in the West hinged almost entirely on its diplomatic and strategic objectives with respect to Poland. We thus have a remarkably detailed treatment of the divisions in the Polish nobility--of the placement of Stanislaw Poniatowski (Catherine's former lover) on the Polish throne, of the placement of Ernst Biron on the puppet throne of Courland, and the warming relations between Russia and Prussia (two states with their eyes on Polish territory)--presented by Soloviev through the personal correspondence of Catherine and Frederick the Great.

But if foreign policy makes up the bulk of the text in this volume, key elements of Russia's domestic life and politics are not ignored. Covering as it does two years so close to Catherine's usurpation of the throne from her husband in 1762, this volume devotes space to questions of Catherine's legitimacy, including a very detailed, even gripping, treatment of the Mirovich conspiracy to put the infant Ivan VI on the throne. Other important domestic topics are treated too, including Catherine's confiscation of monastic lands, the Old Belief, the expanding prerogatives of the nobility, and a detailed (and often humorous) treatment of the chaos in provincial administration. To be sure, the chapters on domestic policy give some life to what might otherwise have been a rather difficult read.

Much of what is laudable--and lamentable--in these two volumes derives in part from general policies adopted by the editors and in use since the first volumes began to appear. These policies aim to render Soloviev's text "suitable for the widest possible range of readers" (vol. 23, p. xiv). We see this goal in action when we note that Soloviev's original topic headings, which appeared only in the table of contents in the Gray Edition, have been moved directly into the text of the English edition in the appropriate places. This makes it vastly easier for readers to follow the narrative, and, for those interested in doing so, to move back and forth between the Russian and English versions.

But we see this goal in less fortunate decisions as well. Soloviev's own extensive notes to sources have been deleted in these and all other volumes in this series because, to quote Schlafly's justification, "their highly specialized archival, documentary and bibliographic nature is of value solely to specialists" (vol. 43, p. xiii). More than Soloviev's own notes have been deleted, however. The Soviet Gray Edition supplied additional notes which expanded upon Soloviev's original references--notes about the notes--often providing the precise modern location today (whether archival or published) of the source in question. Considering how much of the text in Soloviev's work is actually direct quotations from primary sources, this is no small sacrifice. To be sure, the critical apparatus of the Gray Edition provides a fine example of the high caliber of textological and publication skills in the Soviet Academy in the 1950s and 1960s. Alas, this scholarship is, so to speak, "lost in the translation."

To be sure, these volumes reflect the strengths and weaknesses of these general editorial policies in different measures. Lahana took to heart the general editorial policy with respect to Soloviev's notes. She replaces them almost entirely with her own commentary. And while they do provide helpful biographical and other background information for the general reader on terms and persons mentioned in the text (as well as useful citations to English-language secondary sources), many of her notes seem obscure or unnecessary. Is it really necessary, for example, to tell us that "Tiflis is now called Tbilisi" (p. 168, n. 14), or that the Kamara river is "often spelled Kumara" (p. 178, n. 62)? And the phrase "Europoid with a Mongoloid admixture" (p. 172, n. 1) in reference to the Pechenegs mystifies me.

Schlafly, by contrast, was at times willing to violate the general editorial policy on notes, with happy results for the reader. Schlafly provides not only extremely thorough and well-documented notes of his own, but he also sometimes inserts Soloviev's original reference, and (less frequently) even the notes added by the Soviet editors of the Gray Edition. Users of the Schlafly's volume will have more of a sense of the erudition that went into Soloviev's work than users of some other volumes in this series, including Lahana's. Moreover, Schlafly translates the letters that appeared in appendices in the Gray Edition, and inserts two additional appendices of his own--a list of diplomats mentioned in the text (with dates of service) and a handy table of terms for court and military ranks in both English and Russian transliteration. Schlafly clearly had a concern for the non-specialist user of his volume; it is hard not to view Schlafly's work as a model for how futures volumes in this series should look.

And while one might be hesitant to say something about the translation--surely the trickiest part of the job producing these volumes--we again find editorial policy creating as many problems as it might resolve. According to Lahana's introduction, "it has been necessary to deviate considerably from a literal treatment" for the sake of readability (vol. 23, p. xiv), and to avoid, in Schlafly's words, a "bizarre Russianized text" (vol. 43, p. xii).

To be sure, both translators produced texts that are both highly readable and generally accurate. But one might still quibble here and there. In Lahana's volume: "nave" is a better word for "church" when referring to that part of Orthodox churches where the laity stand in prayer; Russian obraz (as well as, of course, ikona) ought to be rendered "icon" in English (p. 63); and simply "drafts" is probably better than "black copies" (p. 141). And despite the preference for readability over a literal rendering of the original text, one still finds in Lahana's translation some phrases that seem rather awkward or stilted (e.g., "Ordin-Nashchokin, who had not Matveev's caution?" [p. 149]; "credulous boyar" [p. 144]; and so on). Schlafly's volume is in this respect, as with the notes, generally much better. The same choices were made--readability over a literal translation--but the final product seems not to sacrifice too much of the latter for the sake of the former. And while one might certainly quibble with many of Schlafly's decisions, his volume seems to achieve the goal of producing a translation "as readable as possible consistent with accuracy." This reviewer simply wishes that this had not been the goal.

But none of the reservations or regrets mentioned above turn our welcome of these volumes lukewarm. Having directed students to Soloviev's History in my own courses, I fully recognize the contribution editors and translators in this series, Lahana and Schlafly included, have rendered to the teaching of Russian history at the college level. The Herculean task of bringing Soloviev's work to the English-only world is two steps closer to completion; and Lahana's and Schlafly's volumes will be greeted with genuine enthusiasm by grateful professors and students alike. And rightly so.

Copyright (c) 1999 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact

Printable Version:

Citation: Russell E. Martin. Review of Soloviev, Sergei M., History of Russia, Vol. 23, Tsar Alexis: A Reign Ends and Soloviev, Sergei M., History of Russia, Vol. 43, Catherine the Great in Power: Domestic and Foreign Affairs, 1763-1764. H-Russia, H-Net Reviews. May, 1999. URL:

Copyright © 1999 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at