- The End of an EraRemembering Sigurd Ottovich Shmidt (1922–2013)
Sigurd Ottovich Shmidt, who died at age 91 on 22 May 2013, was one of the last of an important generation of Russian historians and arguably the most influential of them. His breadth, energy, and colossal productivity have left their mark across the entire landscape of the study of Russian history, from medieval to contemporary. He liked to cite the famous French historian Marc Bloch about how important it was to understand the study of any historical topic with reference to the times in which it was being studied. Following Shmidt’s lead, our best tribute to Sigurd Ottovich would be to look at the circumstances that shaped his career and try to understand the outpouring of warm tributes to him which marked his last decades and his passing. To review merely the published record of his books, articles, interviews, and reviews does not suffice, even if it were humanly possible—his bibliography is said to number more than 2,000 items, of which more than 500 are counted as scholarly publications.
Shmidt was a “child of the Arbat,” if slightly younger than that spoiled generation enshrined in Anatolii Rybakov’s novel.1 He was born in and, but for the war years, lived all his life in the same apartment in the old Arbat neighborhood of Moscow. This “malaia Rodina,” as he termed it, a home to intelligentsia and artists, would inspire some of his most important work in his last decades, when he assumed a leading role in organizing efforts at historical preservation, the recording of its memories, and the writing of its history. When asked in an interview several years ago whether it was difficult growing up as the son of one of the most famous Russian scholars, the geophysicist and mathematician Otto Iul′evich Shmidt (1891–1956), Sigurd Ottovich indicated that for a long time he tried to distance himself from that heritage, [End Page 910] wanting instead to be valued for his own work. The elder Shmidt made his name as an explorer of the Arctic and then for years was the responsible editor of the first edition of the Bol′shaia sovetskaia entsiklopedia (Great Soviet Encyclopedia). Shmidt’s mother, Margarita Emmanuilovna, was also an academic. As a boy, Sigurd Ottovich on occasion accompanied his father to receptions in the Kremlin, where he remembers standing at only arm’s length from Stalin while applauding him. Even as Otto Iul′evich’s colleagues then began to disappear in the Purges, he merely fell out of favor but was never sent to the Gulag. After 1937, Otto Iul′evich would not mention Stalin at home or breathe a word about the Purges, perhaps in an attempt to protect his family from the possible consequences of being overheard discussing forbidden topics.
The young Sigurd Ottovich must have had about him something of the air of privilege, as one of his female classmates at the university remembered first seeing him dressed, she thought, rather formally, in a gray outfit—suit jacket and knickers. On my first meeting with him decades ago, I was put off by what I would now term a kind of “patrician” air. Those who became his students, though, all emphasize his accessibility and the warm interest he displayed in their work. He and several of his admirers have noted that one of the two most important women in his life (the other being his mother) was his nanny, Frantsiska Aleksandrovna Teterskaia, whose death in 1989 left Sigurd Ottovich (then 67!) with no one to remind him to put on his warmest boots before going out into Moscow’s winter weather. Of course, the important thing we should emphasize here is his roots in the traditions of the old intelligentsia, where encyclopedic curiosity was encouraged along with a sense of openness to alternative viewpoints even as one might be willing to argue against them. Those traits carried over into his teaching.
Sigurd Ottovich began his historical training at Moscow State University (MGU) in 1939 just as the war began. He remained in Moscow as one of the few men in a history...