Olga Yeliseyeva, historian

Historian Olga Yeliseyeva, 34, represents a new breed of Russian historians: young scientists who have cast off the ideological constraints of their predecessors.

“In just five to six years after the Soviet Union collapsed,” Yeliseyeva said, “we started getting a new picture of a historical epoch thanks to the introduction of numerous new sources into our historical science.” Of course, she notes, there are those who “try to replace the [Marxist] historical materialism with some other Western methodology. But to replace one sacred cow with another one will not give you any more freedom in thinking. Thus, 30- to 35-year-old historians working in this country have a very skeptical attitude toward any methodology. It doesn’t mean we dismiss all methodological approaches, just that, at the end of the day we should remember that any methodology is just a mind game.”

Yeliseyeva prefers stubborn historical facts. And nothing gets her goat more than some historians’ selective use of historical sources. This was the subject of her recent book, Russian History in Bits and Pieces. She is particularly scathing in her criticism of Edvard Radzinsky (bestselling author of The Last Tsar and Stalin, among others).

“There are two ways of leading the reader astray,” Yeliseyeva explains. “There is what I call bona fide deception, when the author himself is mistaken. But Edvard Radzinsky, unlike many writers, had a brilliant historical education — he graduated from the Historical Archives Institute. So he knows perfectly well how to work with sources. And yet such a professional allows himself to sip from the source in tiny portions ... ” Yeliseyeva cites two cases from the era of her expertise—the 18th century—and shows how Radzinsky got some important facts wrong about Catherine the Great in his book Princess Tarakanova from his series Gallant Century. “He has a certain political concept as a writer,” Yeliseyeva says, “and documents are digested to fit into this. It could be forgiven if the man were not familiar with the material, but when he is citing one document and not quoting a document lying next to him, that’s funny. I can catch him redhanded ...”

It was the visit of King Tut’s treasures to Moscow that first got Yeliseyeva dreaming of being a historian 30 years ago. She was mesmerized by the tales of Ancient Egypt and became hooked on a study of the past.

A pensive child, Yeliseyeva was not popular in school. But when she enrolled in the Moscow Institute of History and Archives, she surprised herself by becoming the apex of a big, jovial and noisy company of friends. Those years—traveling to the Crimea for archaeological work, writing, being with friends—she remembers as the happiest time in her life. She and her institute friends, now spread to the four corners of the earth, still keep in close touch.

Yeliseyeva graduated from the institute in 1991 with special honors and began taking postgraduate courses at the prestigious Institute of Russian History of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In 1994 she defended her dissertation and gave birth to her son Grigory (in her fourth year at the institute, she married Gleb Yeliseev, a renowned expert on the history of religion). All manner of freelance research work followed, and in 1997 she was hired as an editor at a private publishing house, Avanta+. She also accepted a position as a staff research fellow at the Institute of Russian History. The formula is a familiar one for professional academics here today: the work at Avanta+ feeds her family, the work at the Academy feeds her mind.

Yeliseyeva’s research on Catherine the Great and Potemkin is intellectually distinguished and penetrates deep into the psychology and culture of that historic era. Most interesting, however, is that her use of language and humor is so adept and in such stark contrast to the stodginess of most Soviet and post-Soviet history books. Self-effacing, she is quick to attribute her gift for language to her mother, who began reading aloud to her at an early age. Her sense of humor she calls a gift from her father, “one of the most joyful persons on earth.”

In 1999, Yeliseyeva teamed up with historian and writer Dmitry Volodikhin, science-fiction author Eduard Gevorkyan and journalist Alexander Royfe to create the philosophical group “Bastion.” The group serves as a sounding board for young writers. “We promote both young authors with their first manuscripts and well-established professionals who need a qualified focus group to ‘break in’ their works,” Yeliseyeva explains. In a little over a year, Bastion has been visited by 140 science-fiction writers, journalists and scientists.

While many of her institute mates have left Russia for opportunities abroad, Yeliseyeva said she could never conceive of leaving her homeland. In no other country in the world, she said, would she have the opportunity to work on top of a volcano. “If a woman is daring enough to stay in Russia, she should be ready to see the sky fall on her head or see a golden mountain grow from under her feet,” she said. “So here we are waiting for the golden mountain, yet regularly defending ourselves against the falling sky.” Clearly a battle Yeliseyeva is both well-equipped for and one that she relishes.

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