Major General Aleksandr Vasil’evich Viskovatov, 1804-1858.

Military Historian.

(From Voennyi Entsiklopedicheskii Leksikon, 1859. Pages 715-18.)

Major General Aleksandr Vasil’evich Viskovatov, the well-known Russian historian, was born in St. Petersburg on 22 April 1804. He was descended from an old noble (princely) branch of the Meshcherskii princes. Many members of this family distinguished themselves in state service. Aleksandr Vasil’evich’s father, Vasilii Ivanovich, was a prominent Russian mathematician and an Academician Extra-Ordinary of the Imperial Academy of the Sciences. Being his parents’ only son, Aleksandr Vasil’evich had no playmates and was constantly among adults, and developed very early. At eight years of age he already loved reading, which was his prime pastime during his childhood. Aleksandr Vasil’evich’s father noted his precociousness and loved to study with him, teaching him fundamental algebra. To young Viskovatov’s sorrow, he lost his father when he was still a child of nine years of age, in 1813, and at that time entered the 1st Cadet Corps, where he spent eleven years. Always one of the best students, Viskovatov was graduated from the corps on 16 May 1824 as an ensign in the 2nd Grenadier Artillery Brigade, in Battery Company No. 1 located in Pskov Province. However, complications over the legacy of his deceased grandfather forced him to take leave and remain in St. Petersburg. Here, on 3 January 1825, he was transferred to the Corps of Engineers of the Ways of Communications in his current rank, with assignment to the corps’ institute to attend a technical course. The reason for this transfer was Viskovatov’s special enthusiasm for mathematics. That love for the mathematical sciences was his ruling passion until circumstances and a natural inclination turned him to the field of historical research, where he achieved so much. Through his uncle Stepan Ivanovich Viskovatov in St. Petersburg, known in his time as a talented dramatist, he entered the world of journalists and writers—a circumstance which that still further developed his inherent inclination for intellectual activities.

Viskovatov retired from service on 3 March 1827 in order to devote all his time to his own activities. Constrained circumstances at this time, however, more than once obliged him to resort to the pen in order to obtain a living.

In May 1829 he again entered service when a vacancy opened for the secretary of the First Section of the Navy Ministry’s Hydrographic Depot. In this position Viskovatov had access to the Navy Ministry’s rich archives, and it was here that he first began to collect the material for a history of the Russian navy, a work which he compiled in the last years of his life at the direction of Grand Duke Constantine Nicholaevich. (As evidence of his conscientious preparation for this important work, we can point out that he was able to name all the parts of a ship in exhaustive detail.) Soon Viskovatov’s thirst for information brought him into contact with the most prominent naval men of the time, among them the famous Admiral Senyavin. Later Viskovatov’s memories of this man were among his most treasured, and they were on the closest terms. Aleksandr Vasil’evich in general liked to meet elderly people active in the past. At the time there were still alive many contemporaries of Catherine and Paul. Their stories filled out the information that Viskovatov gathered about those times from foreign and domestic writings and uncovered in archives. Conversations with these living witnesses of glorious epochs in Russian history made Viskovatov intimately familiar with their character. An outstanding memory enabled Aleksandr Vasil’evich to retain everything he heard down to the most minute details. He remembered dates especially well. Also possessing the ability to tell stories well, and in conversations Viskovatov was always able to come up with a lively and interesting historical anecdote.

In 1829 A.V. Viskovatov was appointed mathematics teacher at the 1st Cadet Corps and on 13 November of the same year he married (to Miss Baggovut). Viskovatov’s historical research first received official notice on the occasion of the centennial of the 1st Cadet Corps. He wrote an account of this institution’s first hundred years and this brought him to the attention of Emperor Nicholas I. Viskovatov was then charged with gathering material for the work Khroniki voisk rossiiskoi imperatorskoi armiii istoricheskii opisanie ikh obmundirovaniya i vooruzheniya [Chronicles of the Units of the Russian Imperial Army and Historical Description of Their Clothing and Weapons].

The details of this assignment are as follows: In 1833 a special committee was established in the war ministry to compile these chronicles, while the historical description of clothing and weapons was entrusted to Colonel Bibikov. But in the following year, when the committee reported that due to lack of research material it was impossible to complete its part of the work, it was given to Viskovatov, who at this time was a lieutenant and aide to the inspector of classes in the 1st Cadet Corops. Subsequently he was additionally tasked to compile the historical description of the clothing and weapons of Russian forces. On 21 February 1835 Aleksandr Vasil’evich (now acting as inspector of classes in the 1st Cadet Corps) was appointed senior adjutant to the duty general of His Imperial Majesty’s Main Staff, and following this, on 7 April of that year, he was transferred in his current rank to the Life-Guards Grenadier Regiment while continuing his existing duties. Viskovatov held this position for more than thirteen years, passing through all ranks in turn up to and including colonel. This entire period was the most laborious of his life, being dedicated to official and academic activities in the field of historical research.

In 1837 A.V. Viskovatov’s chronicle of the units of the Russian army was published, and in 18 books it contained the historical lineages of every military unit beginning with the Preobrazhenskii Regiment down to the last étape command. In 1842 this work was reprinted with many additions. To this compilation were attached about 4000 drawings of flags and standards presented to units at various times. As this work contains short historical accounts on the founding of each unit, their internal organization at different times, and the awards and badges of distinction earned by them in different wars, it is a primary reference and invaluable for documenting the history of the Russian army. Along with these activities Viskovatov worked on compiling the historical description of clothing and weapons of Russian forces. In a very short time he produced the first volume of this work, which may be called monumental. The first volume contained descriptions of ancient Russian weapons from the beginnings of the Russian state up to the time of Peter and is a noteworthy historical and archaeological work, for which he was awarded half the Demidov prize of the Academy of Sciences. Then, going through all imperial reigns up to the present, this historical survey little by little had to lose that academic character which it first had, but nevertheless, since it was Aleksandr Vasil’evich’s official assignment, it required ever more labor and research. Viskovatov wrote 30 volumes of this work, of which 29 were published in his lifetime. It was magnificently produced with illustrated plates reproducing expository lithographic drawings. The expense of this production is why it was not widely distributed and thus little known to the public.

The two works mentioned were not the only products of Viskovatov’s researches. He was given various other assignments such as: arranging ancient cannons in the Moscow Kremlin along with ones captured in 1812; developing a standard arrangement for commissariat stores in the Moscow Arsenal; clarifying the status of all badges of distinction awarded to military units for their combat actions; drafting military-historical texts for the St.-George Hall in the Moscow Kremlin palace, and many other tasks that were for the most part above and beyond his official duties. Often it was not the task itself so much as the short time stipulated for completing the assignment that caused extraordinary effort on the part of Viskovatov. One must also take into account the requirement to spend whole days in cold archives, arsenals, and basements containing quartermaster stores. All this amounted to an adverse effect on his health.

Nevertheless, A.V. Viskovatov found time for literary and historical pursuits. The overall breadth of his interests was very wide, and he was as much an archaeologist and historian as a military author. In regard to archaeology we may point out Volume 1 of the Historical Description of the Clothing and Weapons of Russian Forces. In the field of history, his biographical works are noteworthy. He provided material for the military gallery of the Winter Palace, and after Mikhailovskii-Danilovskii’s death was the editor for this periodic production. Some of the biographies provided here by Viskovatov may be rated exemplary, and show the author’s talent for military history. In writing about some person, Viskovatov always touched on the general course of events, and thus in these biographies we sometimes encounter descriptions of entire campaigns from a particular person’s point of view. Such are the biographies of Barclay-de-Tolly, Zass, Berg, and others.

In conclusion we will say a few words about several works that come under the modest rubric of regimental histories. Viskovatov was always able to write a regimental history such that besides having a particular interest for the regiment (which the author always strove to satisfy in all details and aspects), it was also of broader historical interest. In these works, detailed descriptions of military events in which the regiment took part, unusual episodes, and biographical character sketches are encountered which are full of lively interest. Without being distracted by detail, the author was able to maintain that balance which is one of the main preconditions and value for any historical work. Such are the historical overviews of the Life-Guards Izmailovskii and Cavalier Guards regiments. A difficult task—combining general military history with particular military administrative regimental interests—was successfully completed by Viskovatov in a manner second to none. If we add to this the author’s skill at writing (at times truly magnificent prose) then it is easy to see to what degree Viskovatov’s execution far surpassed the modest titles under which his works appeared. We also note that all this was done in the shortest of time, sometimes in the course of a few weeks.

With all his official activities up to those of a general officer (Viskovatov was promoted to major general on 26 November 1852) consuming all his time, he definitely did not have the opportunity to organize and distill the materials which he had so carefully gathered, sometimes to the detriment of his health. Also, he always had doubts about his work and this kept him from publishing much of it. As a true practitioner in an academic field, it always seemed to Viskovatov that what he wrote was imperfect, unfinished, and in need of more new material in order to be completed, and so the results of many substantial and sustained efforts remained in his cabinet, so to speak, in a half-finished form (History of the Navy, Gallery of Notable People of Russia).

It may be said that almost no military-historical work appeared during Nicholas Pavlovich’s reign without Viskovatov having contributed to it. Thus, for example, our acquaintance the historian Major General Milyutin expressed to him his special gratitude for supplying materials for his own work on the 1799 campaign. Many of the most noteworthy articles in the Encyclopedic Lexicon and Military Encyclopedic Lexicon also come from Viskovatov’s pen.

Overall it may be said that he was a living chronicle of the details of Russian military history and shared his knowledge with anyone who came to him. In this regard his good nature and readiness to help were boundless. He filled pages, whole notebooks, sometimes with commentaries, sometimes with his own expositions, and selflessly gave these to anyone who asked for information.

In his few minutes of relaxation Aleksandr Vasil’evich also wrote a little for the theater. But in this case he still remained the historian, since he chose drama as a means of representing the Russian style of life in a certain historical era. Especially successful was his two-act piece Minin, which played in the theater.

Constant work and labor had a harmful effect on Viskovatov’s health. As early as a year before his death his strength began to fail him. On 27 February 1858, after a lengthy period of much sufferering, he passed away at the age of 54.

N. I. K

Translated by Mark Conrad, 2007.