Michael Karpovich


Russian-born scholar of Soviet history in Cold War America

Michael Karpovich was a Russian émigré who taught Russian history at Harvard University. He left Russia for political reasons after the revolution and influenced not only the community of Russian emigrants in the United States, but also helped shape the academic field of Sovietology, i.e. Soviet area studies, in the early years of the Cold War. Karpovich began his career in the United States working as a secretary for the ambassador of the Provisional Government in Washington, D.C. from 1917 to 1922. After the closure of the embassy in 1922, Karpovich first became a freelance writer in New York, but ultimately went into academia as a lecturer in Russian history at Harvard University. Through his work at the embassy and at Harvard University, he became “one of the pillars of the Russian emigration in the United States” (Engerman 2009b, 155). He left his mark on the field by collecting emigration correspondences and setting up an archival collection, teaching and tutoring leading scholars of American Sovietology, and editing two of the most influential Russian émigré journals in the West.

Background and Political Career in Pre-Revolution Russia

Prior to his emigration, Michael Karpovich witnessed the great changes and ruptures of late Russian imperial society—an experience that fundamentally shaped his outlook on Russia. Born in Tiflis, Georgia in 1888, Karpovich was the son of a Russian intellectual family deeply rooted and well-connected in Georgian society. Though it occurred while he was in Geneva with his parents, the 1905 Russian revolution had a lasting impact on how Karpovich envisioned pre-1917 Russia and Russian society. After returning from Geneva, he became a member of the local party of socialist revolutionaries—a decision that not only drove him to political activism, but also landed him in jail for a month (Engerman 2009b). In 1907, Karpovich decided to study history. He first went to Paris where he took courses in the history of European culture at Sorbonne University and later turned to Russian history at Moscow University in 1908. At Moscow University, he met George Vernadsky who would become a good friend and a fellow academic émigré in the United States. During this time, Karpovich developed an understanding of Russian history and society as part of—not separate from—broader trends of liberal modernization in European history.

Exile in the United States and Impact on American History of Russia

In the context of World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917, Karpovich moved to the United States. In 1914, Karpovich had finished his studies with first class honors and started to work as an assistant to the secretary of the historical museum in Moscow. He worked there until in 1916 when the war-torn Russian government summoned him to coordinate industrial production at the Ministry of War. As the provisional government took over in 1917, Karpovich accompanied Boris A. Bakhmeteff—the new ambassador of the Provisional Government in the United States—to Washington, DC, to serve as a “confidential secretary” (Mosely et al. 1960, 57). In that position, he participated in numerous discussions among diplomats and leaders of the Provisional Government on how to represent Russian interests and the provisional government at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. With the Civil War raging at home, the expatriated politicians were increasingly isolated and the embassy in Washington was eventually closed in 1922. The dismissed staff members could hardly return to what was now Soviet Russia and, thus, Michael Karpovich went to New York where he worked as a freelance writer. In 1927, he was hired by Harvard University as a lecturer for Russian history (Mosely et al. 1960). From that time on, he exerted tremendous influence on the perception of Russia in the United States, as well as on the community of emigrated Russians.

Between 1940 and 1958, Karpovich supervised thirty PhD students in Russian history at Harvard—just ten shy of the combined number of Russian-history PhDs produced at Columbia, Yale, and Berkeley during the same period (Pereira 2009). His impact on the field of Russian studies in that era was profound—but what image of Russia did Karpovich impress upon his students, and how did he himself perceive both Imperial and Soviet Russia? Karpovich saw a liberal Russia on the rise before the revolution of 1917 damaged the connections it had built with Europe. In Karpovich’s view, Russia before 1917 had been an equal partner in Europe, part of its cultural, diplomatic, and economic networks (Engerman 2009b). Karpovich’s understanding of Russia did not position the country at the European periphery, but very much as a state and society within the Western tradition. Russia had been well on the way to realizing political and economic development associated with nineteenth century European modernity before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution tore Russia away from Europe. His ideas and images of Russia and Russian society pervaded his seminars and lectures, as many former students and subsequently influential historians, such as Philipp E. Mosely, Martin E. Malia, and Dimitri von Mohrenschildt, attested: having been part of Russian intelligentsia himself, Karpovich’s intellectual history of Russia reflected ideas of early twentieth century Russian liberalism and modernity (cf. Mosely, et al. 1960).

Such views naturally set Kaprovich in staunch opposition to Soviet rule, to “[…] a government which is known both for the efficiency of its propaganda and the strictness of its censorship” (Karpovich 1930, 258). In his contribution on the Soviet Five Year Plans in the 1937 edition of An Economic History of Europe Since 1750 (Bowden, Karpovich, and Usher 1937, 764-780), for example, Karpovich argues that tendencies toward a strong, capitalist Russian economy were evident after the 1905 revolution with the attempts of Stolypin and, in particular, Witte to industrialize the huge empire. These foundations, however, were squandered by Stalin’s forced industrialization and collectivization—returning Karpovich to the trope of a liberal Russian empire forcefully interrupted and destroyed by Soviet power. As a consequence, Karpovich argued in his seminars and lectures against the notion of continuity between an autocratic Tsarist regime and subsequent Soviet rule that was prominent among most Western scholars of the time (Mosely et al. 1960). Viewing the Bolshevik revolution as a disruption of Russian developments rather than its ultimate climax, Karpovich promoted a view of Russia as a society that, despite its current totalitarian regime, was generally able to open itself to liberal ideas.

Russia’s European Past: Understanding Soviet Totalitarianism

Like many emigres, Karpovich participated in the Cold War debate on the nature of totalitarianism. His notion of a Russian empire capable of opening itself to liberalism and Western modernity was reflected in Karpovich’s vocal opposition to German émigré Hannah Arendt’s theory on the Origins of Totalitarianism. Like other scholars of Russian history, Karpovich felt that the idea of totalitarianism as presented by Arendt did not apply to the emergence of Soviet totalitarianism. In Arendt’s view, totalitarianism emerged when the societal system of a nation state, its political parties and social classes, began to vanish, bringing forth a new “mass society” unable to govern itself and unable to overthrow totalitarian rule from within. Carl J. Friedrich, another German émigré and a Harvard lecturer on political theory, expanded Arendt’s concept of the emergence of totalitarianism and sought to make it suit the Soviet case better. In Friedrich’s opinion, a totalitarian society had distinct features, such as a state-sanctioned ideology, a people’s party, terror, and strict state regulation of media and every other aspect of life. Friedrich’s attempt to form more general categories in in analyzing totalitarianism was challenged by many scholars of Russian studies.

Along with other well-known Sovietologists, including Geroid T. Robinson, George Kennan, and George Denicke, Karpovich argued for a different understanding of Soviet totalitarianism. Russian society, in their views, had not witnessed a disappearance of a nation state, political parties, and a class system, but instead had experienced revolutionary leaders, such as Lenin and Zhdanov, who adapted ideas about political theories from nineteenth century Russian writers, favoring a strong political system over liberal, “Western” structures. Russian writers such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky advocated an independent Russia led by a tsar, who held Russian society together. A constitution, or any similar liberal element, would not be necessary if the tsar exerted strong leadership over the state vigorously. Karpovich argued that this early notion of “thought control,” as presented by Russian writers, had a great impact on the political agenda of Zhdanov and Lenin (Friedrich 1964). Furthermore, Karpovich and his colleagues asserted that Russian society might be able to alter the level of totalitarian rule from within, eventually leading to a change of government. In addition, it was impossible to speak of a single Soviet case of totalitarianism, rather than particular variations of totalitarianism in each Soviet country. Eventually, the possibility of theorizing the comparability between National-Socialist and Soviet totalitarianism was altogether called into question (cf. Engerman 2009b; Friedrich 1964).

Determined to dispel the myth of a Russian society destined to end up in Bolshevism and Soviet rule, Karpovich used numerous avenues to communicate his vision of a pre-1917 Russia. One way was through his teaching at Harvard, another was the Russian Review. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Karpovich edited the journal, and also contributed a number of articles. In this position, he reviewed scores of books by American and other Western scholars on Russian and Soviet history and politics. In these reviews, he consistently critiqued any image of a backward Russia, overly-simplified conclusion about the emergence of Soviet rule, and parallels between the last decade of Tsarist Russia and totalitarian Soviet Russia (Pereira 2009). In addition to the Russian Review, Karpovich edited Novhi Zhurnal—a journal in Russian, written by Russians, concerning topics of interest to the Russian émigré community in the United States. By editing these two journals from 1941 onwards, Karpovich had two different tools to communicate within the Russian emigrant world, and to communicate on behalf of the Russian-speaking émigré community to the English-speaking world. When he retired in 1957, he decided to write a ten volume edition on Russian history with his long-time friend Vernadsky, whom he had met at Moscow University, and who has become a professor at Yale. Karpovich also was the Executive Director of the Humanities Fund, an organization that had been founded by Bakhmeteff in order to support Russian scholars, writers, and artists in Cold War America. He furthermore worked actively in the Russian Student Fund which aspired to enable young Russian scholars and students to study at private US universities, another opportunity strengthening the ties of the Russian community in the United States. Reaching beyond academia, Karpovich reviewed books on Russia and the Soviet Union for the New York Times, catering to a growing public interest in scholarly work on the enemy nation, the Soviet Union, and allowing him to reach an even wider audience with his views on modern Russia (e.g. Karpovich 1945; Karpovich 1946; Karpovich 1950).

Sovietology: Area Studies in the Cold War

Karpovich’s impact on the politically-charged field of Cold War Sovietology was more indirect. Despite his influence in academia and the émigré community, he never worked—either directly or indirectly—for governmentally-sponsored institutions such as the Russian Research Center at Harvard University, which was supported by the government-funded Carnegie Corporation. His influence on Soviet area studies should not be underestimated, however, as he was a close acquaintance of Philipp E. Mosely who was one of the most influential scholars in the early development of that field. Instrumental in raising its status and establishing its institutions in the 1950s and 1960s, Mosely led Sovietology from its position on the fringes of academia to the central role it would play in Cold War policymaking and national security programs (Engerman 2009a). Soviet area studies boomed as Cold War policy needed specialists who researched their country’s opponent. The academic field of Russian history became an important component of the new field of Sovietology, which was designed as a conglomeration of academic fields, i.e. sociology, politics, history, and economics. Scholars from these fields started to actively shape U.S. foreign policy after World War II. In contrast to the 1930s, the political and ideological enemy had to be defined and understood now that the division of the world into East and West was more obvious and more dangerous than ever before.

The Cold War created a need for experts capable of advising U.S. policymakers on what to expect from the Kremlin, helping them to understand the world behind the “Iron Curtain” (cf. Engerman 2009b). Philipp Mosely, a former student of Karpovich, was one of those experts. Mosely had written his PhD on 1830s Russian diplomatic history, and had conducted research in the state archives in Moscow during the mid-1930s. At that point, he still believed in the Soviet Union as a state capable of creating peace, despite having witnessed forced industrialization and show trials in 1930s Soviet Russia. When he returned to the United States he started a university position as a lecturer for Russian history, but World War II make his knowledge valuable to the U.S. government. Mosely conducted programs that trained future Sovietologists, including Martin Malia and Richard Pipes, who were then tasked with understanding Soviet war policies and predicting their military behavior. After the war, Mosely contributed to diplomatic discussions on how to deal with the Soviet situation and with postwar Europe. In contrast to many of his colleagues, Mosely never “gave up” on Russia; he was more willing to co-operate with the Soviet Union on a diplomatic level, and he stressed the ability of the Russian people and Russian society to incorporate “Western” ideals—a view which he evidently shared with Karpovich. Their networks became more tightly intertwined as Mosely worked for the State Department, edited the journal Slavonic and East European Review, and consulted for the Rockefeller Foundation regarding who to award grants (Engerman 2009a). In addition to his governmental, scholarly, and diplomatic work, Mosely together with Karpovich and former ambassador Bakhmeteff started to collect the papers of Russian émigrés—a collection that became the Bakhmeteff Archive at Columbia University, which represents intellectual, cultural, and political life in Russia before 1917, and the life of émigrés in U.S. exile after 1917. Michael Karpovich’s ties to the Russian émigré community proved indispensable in this.

Over the course of his career, Karpovich strongly influenced academic and political debates, as well as public opinion and the émigré community. By training a generation of Russian historians who went on to work for the U.S. government from the 1940s onward, by reviewing books on Russian topics and editing one of the most important journals for Russian studies abroad, and by supporting the emigrant’s community with financial as well as moral aid, Karpovich circulated widely a view of Russian society that was much more nuanced than many Western observers were willing to admit.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Michael Karpovich
  • Coverage 1888–1959
  • Author
  • Keywords Sovietology, Area Studies, Russia, Harvard University, Karpovich
  • Website Name Transatlantic Perspectives
  • URL
  • Access Date May 30, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 29, 2018