Vasili Tatishchev of General History and Russian History

[excerpted from Anthology of Russian Literature From the Earliest Period to the Present Time, Leo Wiener, ed. and Tr. Pt. 1 (New York, 1902), pp. 219-223]


One ought not to discuss the usefulness of history, for everybody can see and feel it; but as some are not accustomed to see things clearly and discuss them in detail, and often through their perverted understanding make the useful to appear as harmful and the harmful as useful, and consequently transgress in their acts and deeds (as indeed I have heard such people, to my disgust, talk loud of the uselessness of history), I deemed it proper to give a short review of it.

To begin with, history is nothing else than the recounting of past acts and occurrences, good and bad; for all that we have experienced in recent or long-passed days through our senses of hearing, seeing and feeling, or that we reproduce by our memory, is really history, and it teaches us, whether through our acts or those of others, to emulate the good and beware of the evil. For example, when I recollect that I saw yesterday a fisherman who had been catching fish and had had a certain success in it, I naturally receive in my mind an impulse to do likewise; or if I saw yesterday a thief or some other criminal, who had been sentenced to a severe punishment or death, terror will naturally keep me from committing such an act as would cause my utter ruin. All the histories we read act upon us in the same manner: the deeds of ancient days are represented to us so vividly that we seem to have seen and felt them ourselves.

For this reason we may say that no man, no condition of life, no profession, science, nor government, much less a single individual, can be perfect, wise and useful without a knowledge of the same. For example, let us take the sciences. The first and greatest of them all is theology, that is, the science of God, His all-wisdom, almightiness, which alone leads us to future bliss, and so forth. Now, no theologian can be called wise who does not know the ancient divine acts which have been revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures, and when, with whom and why there have been disputes about certain dogmas and articles of faith, or when and why this has been established and that discarded; why certain statutes and orders of the ancient Church have been changed, discontinued, and new ones introduced; consequently he must know divine and church history, as well as civil history, as Huet, the famous French theologian, has sufficiently pointed out.

The second science is jurisprudence, which teaches proper conduct and our duties to God, ourselves and our neighbours, in order to acquire peace of body and soul. No jurist can be called wise who does not know former interpretations and discussions of natural and civil laws. And how can a judge pass right judgment if he does not know the origin and application of old and new laws? Indeed, he must know the history of the laws.

The third is medicine, or leechcraft, which science consists in the art of preserving health, and bringing back the lost health, or in preventing the disease from spreading. All this depends on history, for the physician must gain his knowledge from the ancients, must know what is the cause of diseases, what medicine and treatment to give, what the property and strength of each medicine is, all of which no man could find out in a hundred years through his own experience and investigation. But to experiment on the sick is a dangerous matter, from which they could easily be ruined, though this is not infrequently the case with certain ignoramuses. I shall not mention many other parts of philosophy, but I may summarise by saying that all philosophy is based on history and supported by it, for all the right and wrong and faulty opinions which we find with the ancients are history as regards our knowledge, and form the basis for our corrections.

Statesmanship is composed of three different parts: of the internal government, or economy, external relations, and military affairs. All three demand not less history than the other sciences, and without it cannot be perfect. Thus, in political economy it is necessary to know what has caused ruin in former days: how it has been warded off or minimised; what have been the favourable influences; how obtained and preserved, so that the present and future may be wisely judged in the light of that knowledge. On account of this wisdom, the ancient Romans represented their god Janus with two faces, for he knew perfectly the past, and from its examples wisely judged the future.

For the administration of foreign affairs it is necessary to know not only one's own country, but also other governments: what conditions they have formerly been in; what has brought about changes in them; what states they are in now; with whom they have had disputes and wars, and for what; what treaties have been made and confirmed with them, in order to proceed intelligently in the acts at hand.

For military leaders it is very important to know by what device and cunning great forces of the enemy have been vanquished, or kept from victory, and so forth, as we see Alexander the Great having held Homer's books on the Trojan war in great respect, and having been instructed by them. For this reason many great generals have described their own acts and those of others. Of these the most illustrious example is Julius Caesar, who has described his wars, that future generals might after him use his acts for their own examples, and many famous generals on laud and on the sea have followed in his footsteps by writing of their exploits. Many great rulers have either themselves written of their acts, or have ordered expert people to write of them, not only that their memory should live in glory, but that their descendants should have examples to follow.

As regards the usefulness of Russian history it must be remarked, that, as is the case with all other histories, the knowledge of one's own history and geography is more important for any nation or region than that of foreign histories; at the same time it must be kept in mind that without the knowledge of foreign histories, one's own is not clear and sufficient: 1. That the writer of contemporary history cannot know all the external influences for good and bad; 2. That the writers are frequently compelled, out of fear, to suppress, or change, or modify some very important circumstances of contemporary history; 3. That from passion, love, or hatred, they describe quite differently from what were the actual occurrences, and that the facts are frequently related more correctly and in detail by outsiders. Thus, in my present work, the first part, dealing with the Russian antiquity, has mainly been drawn from foreign sources for lack of native writers, and in the other parts many errors and lacunae have been corrected and filled out from foreign sources. European historians accuse us of having no old history, and of knowing nothing of our antiquity, simply because they do not know what historians we possess, and though some have made a few extracts, or have translated from them a passage here and there, others, thinking that we have no better ones than those quoted, despise them. Some of our own ignorant writers agree with them, while those who do not wish to trouble themselves by looking into the ancient sources or who do not understand the text have, ostensibly to give a better explanation, but in reality to hide the truth, invented fables of their own and thus have obscured the real facts as told by the ancients, as, for example, in the case of the foundation of Kiev, and that of Novgorod by Slaven, and so forth.

I wish to say here emphatically that all the famous European historians will not be able to know or tell anything correctly of many of our antiquities, no matter what their efforts in Russian history may be, if they do not read our sources, -for example, of the many nations who have existed here in ancient days, as the Amazons, Alans, Huns, Avars, Cimbrians and Cimmerians; nor do they know anything of the Scythians, Sarmatians and Slavs, their tribes, origin, habitations and migrations, or of the anciently famous large cities of the Essedonians, Archipeans, Cumanians, etc., where they have lived, and what their present names are; but all this they could find out through a study of Russian history. This history is not only of use to us Russians, but also to the whole learned world, in order that by it the fables and lies invented by our enemies, the Poles and others, for the sake of disparaging our ancestors, may be laid bare and contradicted.

Such is the usefulness of history. But everybody ought to know, and this is easily perceived, that history describes not only customs, deeds and occurrences, but also the consequences resulting from them, namely, that the wise, just, kind, brave, constant and faithful are rewarded with honour, glory and well- being, while the vicious, foolish, evildoers, avaricious, cowardly, perverse and faithless will gain eternal evildoers, avaricious, cowardly, perverse and faithless will gain eternal dishonour, shame and insult: from which all may learn how desirable it is to obtain the first and avoid the second.