Mikhail Shcherbatov

Mikhail Shcherbatov bigraphy, stories - Imperial Historian

Mikhail Shcherbatov : biography

July 22, 1733 – December 12, 1790

Prince Mikhailo Mikhailovich Shcherbatov ( July 22, 1733 – December 12, 1790) was a leading ideologue and exponent of the Russian Enlightenment, on the par with Mikhail Lomonosov and Nikolay Novikov. His view of human nature and social progress is kindred to Swift’s pessimism. He was known as a statesman, historian, writer and philosopher, and was one of the most visible representatives of the nascent Russian conservatism during the second half of the 18th century.

M. M. Shcherbatov received a good-formal education. He studied history, philosophy, literature and medicine. Until the end of his life he had a vast collection of 40,000 volumes in his home library. Like all educated people of that time he knew French, and in addition to that, he was also competent in German, Italian and a few other western languages. From 1767 onwards, Shcherbatov was in the public service and held responsible posts. He was a deputy in the Established Commission of Yaroslav nobility (1767), a member of a private commission of the middle-class people Kamer- Junker, a member of the Board of Trade (1770), a Courtier (1773), a president of the Chamber Council and a Senator (1779).

In 1768 he received the position of historiographer and was appointed a Chief Herald of the Senate. In his view the political ideal was to follow the British example of a constitutional monarchy with separation of powers. He found a certain analogy to this ideal in Pre-Petrian Russia when, in his opinion, autocracy was confined to the use of such aristocratic organ as the Council Boyars. Mikhail’s personal view and attitude of Peter I of Russia or Peter the Great (who ruled Russia from 7 May 1682 until his death in 1725) in his writings was quite ambiguous. In one of his drafts "An examination of defects and autocracy of Peter the Great" (1782), he openly criticized Peter, arguing that what he did for the prosperity of Russia can be done by more humane means, resulting in smaller losses even though it might take a longer period of time. In Shcherbatov’s opinion, without foreign borrowing and the autocracy of Peter the Great, significantly much more time would have been needed for the Russian Enlightenment and foreign policy opponents meanwhile could have captured the country. Yet, Shcherbatov was aware that, apart from the personal weaknesses, the roughness and cruelty of the autocrat were caused by the viciousness of the time. Peter was forced by the time to be a despot.

Scherbatov’s father was a governor-general of Moscow and a Rurikid prince. His belonging to the oldest of Russian families may explain Scherbatov’s lifelong interest in the national history. In a series of articles published in 1759-61 he defended serfdom and upheld ancient provileges of nobility which had been repealed by Peter the Great.

When elected by the nobility of Yaroslavl to represent their interests at the Legislative Assembly of 1767, Shcherbatov virulently slammed the existing institutions of the Russian Empire. He caught the attention of the Empress and was appointed imperial historian in 1768 and president of a ministry in 1778. He worked in the Senate from 1779 to 1786.

Scherbatov’s History of Russia from the Earliest Times, of which seven volumes appeared between 1771 and 1791, is imbued with rationalistic ideals of the Age of Reason. He thought that inequality was inherent to human nature and illustrated this tenet in the first Russian utopia, entitled Journey to the Land of Ophyr (1783). Scherbatov’s final and probably most lasting work was a scathing attack on the contemporary social customs in the treatise On the Corruption of Morals in Russia, published in 1797.

Shcherbatov as a historian and publicist

In one of his most famous works "On the corruption of morals in Russia" Shcherbatov criticized the mass abuses committed by the authorities, such as bribery, embezzlement of public funds, servility, etc. There was also criticism of the methods of Peter the Great by which he promoted "obscure people" and in turn led to a state crisis. Yet, Shcherbatov tried to be unbiased and to show both the positive and negative sides of Peter’s modernization. He wrote about changes made in Russia by Peter’s reforms, drawing his attention not only to changes in political and military areas, but also in the field of culture, specifying that due to Europeanization, "in the matter of personal and certain other matters, one can say we truly enjoyed remarkable success and moved forward with giant steps to correcting how we appear to others".