Nikolai N. Bolkhovitinov (1930-2008)
Sergei I. Zhuk, March 2009
2005 Honorary Foreign Member; “The best Russian friend of American historians”
On October 1, 2008, the scholar known among his American colleagues during the Cold War as “the best Russian friend of American historians” died after a massive heart attack in a Moscow hospital. This Russian historian, Nikolai N. Bolkhovitinov, had the highest rank in the Soviet/Russian academic world. Since 1992, Bolkhovitinov was an Akademik, a member of the Russian Academy of Science; and since 1988, he was also director of the Center for North American Studies at the Institute of World History of the Russian Academy of Science. In January 2006, Bolkhovitinov was awarded an Honorary Foreign Membership in the American Historical Association.
Bolkhovitinov was born in Moscow on October 26, 1930, into the family of a prominent Soviet physicist. In 1948, after many years of home schooling under the guidance of his talented parents, Bolkhovitinov entered the Moscow Institute of International Relations, where he studied world history and especially U.S. diplomatic history, which had become popular among Soviet students of history during the Cold War. In 1959, Bolkhovitinov received his doctorate in U.S. history from Moscow Pedagogical Institute, where he studied under Aleksei V. Efimov. His PhD (kandidatskaia) dissertation was about the origin and character of the Monroe Doctrine. While writing his dissertation, Bolkhovitinov discovered new archival documents about imperial Russian diplomacy. These documents became a basis for his doktorskaia dissertatsia (a Soviet equivalent of German Habilitationschrift) in 1965 about Russian-American relations in the 18th and 19th centuries.
From 1958 to 1988, Bolkhovitinov worked as a research fellow at the Institute of World History in Moscow. This institute was a remarkable place in the entire hierarchy of Soviet Academy of Sciences. Many oppositional, “free-thinking” Soviet historians who were unable to find teaching positions in the Soviet universities found jobs as history research fellows in this institute. Bolkhovitinov was among those historians who were always critical about the Soviet political system and communist ideology. They did not join a dissident movement, but they preferred to be honest and decent historians and tried to avoid participating in any ideological anti-American campaigns in the USSR.
During his academic career at the Institute of World History, Bolkhovitinov published his pioneering studies in history of U.S.-Russian relations. All his books emphasized not just the diplomatic and political, but also the social and cultural aspects of these relations. All these books, published in Moscow from 1966 to 1990, were translated into English and well received among American historians. His most important studies included The Beginnings of Russian American Relations, 1775–1815, translated by Elena Levin, introduction by L.H. Butterfield (Cambridge, Mass., 1975); Russia and the American Revolution, translated by C. Jay, preface by G.A. Lensen (Tallahassee, Fla., 1976); Russia and the United States, translated, edited, and foreword by J.D. Hartgrove (Armonk, N.Y., 1986); and Russian-American Relations and the Sale of Alaska, 1834–67, translated and edited by Richard A. Pierce (Fairbanks, Alaska, 1996). Bolkhovitinov initiated a U.S.-Soviet project to publish the most important archival documents on Russian-American relations. The result of his efforts was the publication of The United States and Russia: The Beginning of Relations, 1765–1815: Collection of Documents, editors N.N. Bashkina, N.N. Bolkhovitinov, J.H. Brown et al. (Washington, D.C., 1980). Bolkhovitinov played a major role in the compilation and preparation of the collection of documents for publication.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Bolkhovitinov also wrote about various problems of social, economic, and cultural history of the 19th-century United States. He also explored the different concepts in the historiography of colonial and modern America, such as the idea of “the moving frontier” by Frederick Jackson Turner, or the concept of “the American industrial revolution.” His book about these and other problems of U.S. history and historiography, which was published in Moscow in 1980, demonstrated to the Soviet reading audience that it was possible to write about capitalism without traditional Stalinist anti-American ideological clichés. Bolkhovitinov’s example inspired a serious interest in American history among many young and talented Soviet historians who wanted to write honestly and without ideological restrictions about the history of the United States.
Under his leadership, the Center for North American Studies became the first and most famous school of American history in the Soviet Union. During the difficult times of the Cold War, Bolkhovitinov insisted on organizing the first library collection of American historical scholarship in the USSR. Thanks to his connections in the United States, scholarly libraries in Moscow received such historical periodicals as the William and Mary Quarterly, New York History, the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, and many others. Bolkhovitinov became a founding father of the Soviet school in American studies, whose graduates now work all over the world. It is difficult to imagine the development of the Soviet (and post-Soviet) historiography of U.S. history without his influence and ideas. After 1988, under Bolkhovitinov’s leadership, the Soviet periodical Annual Studies of America (Amerikanskii Ezhegodnik) became the most serious and prestigious serial publication on U.S. and Canadian history in Europe. In 1991 and 1999, he organized two large international conferences in Moscow on the history of early America, with the participation of such American historians as Jack P. Greene, Michael Zuckerman, Peter Onuf, Marcus Rediker, and many others. In 1997–99, he supervised, directed, edited, and contributed to a three-volume project on the history of the Russian colonies in America, which became a pioneering study about Russian colonists in the history of early North America. In 2001–05, Bolkhovitinov published new studies about Russian historian-emigrants such as M. Karpovich, G. Vernadskii, and others who contributed to studies of Russian history in the United States.
The entire life and academic career of Bolkhovitinov is a good model for younger historians in both America and Russia on how to be a serious researcher and simultaneously a decent human being, trying to avoid traps of ideological bigotry and cultural misunderstanding.
—Sergei I. Zhuk
Ball State University