The Invention of Mikhail Lomonosov: A Russian National Myth

The Invention of Mikhail Lomonosov: A Russian National Myth

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Steven Usitalo

Series: Imperial Encounters in Russian History
ISBN: 9781618111739 (hardcover), 9781618118066 (paperback)
Pages: 298 pp.
Publication Date: August 2013

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This study explores the evolution of Lomonosov’s imposing stature in Russian thought from the middle of the eighteenth century to the closing years of the Soviet period. It reveals much about the intersection in Russian culture of attitudes towards the meaning and significance of science, as well as about the rise of a Russian national identity, of which Lomonosov became an outstanding symbol. Idealized depictions of Lomonosov were employed by Russian scientists, historians, and poets, among others, in efforts to affirm to their countrymen and to the state the pragmatic advantages of science to a modernizing nation. In setting forth this assumption, Usitalo notes that no sharply drawn division can be upheld between the utilization of the myth of Lomonosov during the Soviet period of Russian history and that which characterized earlier views. The main elements that formed the mythology were laid down in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; Soviet scholars simply added more exaggerated layers to existing representations.

Steven Usitalo (PhD McGill University) is an associate professor at the Department of History, Northern State University. He is the co-editor with William Benton Whisenhunt of Russian and Soviet History: From the Time of Troubles to the Collapse of the Soviet Union (2008).

The substance and merit of Usitalo’s study is his richly documented and copiously footnoted critical reconstruction of the myth of Lomonosov the scientist and its growth and reconfigurations over time, set within the broader context of the pan-European perception of scientific biography.
— Marcus C. Levitt, University of Southern California, in the Slavic and East European Journal, 58.2 (Summer 2014)
The Invention of Mikhail Lomonosov has potential appeal to a number of audiences. For historians of science, this study provides insight into the particularities of the Russian case and how it differs from, and is similar to, the veneration and self-fashioning of non-Russian scientists such as Galileo in early modern Europe or Benjamin Franklin in the United States. Historians of Russia and the Soviet Union will also profit from this book’s intriguing ideas about the ‘mythogenic’ qualities of Russian culture, where cults of personality— beginning with political figures and extending to the pantheon of literary, engineering, and cosmonaut heroes—play such a prominent role in politics and in the propagation of ideas about what it means to be a Russian.
— Andrew Jenks, Isis, Vol. 105, No. 3 (September 2014)
Steven A. Usitalo’s The Invention of Mikhail Lomonosov: A Russian National Myth is a pioneering study of Mikhail Lomonosov’s scholarly reputation in the Russian cultural imagination. As every Russian has been learning in school beginning in the mid-nineteenth century until the present, Lomonosov was a polymath, a genius to whom Russian culture is indebted for the creation of not only poetry but also of virtually every other scientific and social discipline, including chemistry, physics, geography, history, and linguistics. The author convincingly demonstrates the mythological nature of this reputation and traces its emergence from the eighteenth-century biographies of Lomonosov to the work of the most enthusiastic twentieth-century historian of Lomonosov’s life and work, Boris Menshutkin, whose many articles and books have solidified and perpetuated the myth of Lomonosov as the greatest national genius. Erudite and skillfully argued, the book is bound to become obligatory reading for every Lomonosov scholar, science and literary historians alike.
— Irina Reyfman, Columbia University
Usitalo’s most welcome monograph tracks the ever expanding myth of Lomonosov from its eighteenth-century origins down to its Soviet implosion, clarifying along the way the role the myth played in the modernization of Russian national culture. The product of years of study in Lomonosov’s native land, Usitalo’s unprecedented work provides a well-researched, subtly argued corrective to the longstanding view of Lomonosov as the unrivaled ‘father of Russian science.’
— James Cracraft, University of Illinois at Chicago (emeritus)
Steven Usitalo’s pioneering book allows us to see the Russian myth of Lomonosov, the great son of the people, in a new light. The author’s aim is not to be an iconoclast: he doesn’t work to debunk this story of an figure of Russian culture, but rather to open a critical perspective on it, stimulating a sense of complexity and ambivalence.
— Joachim Klein, University of Leiden (emeritus)
[Usitalo’s] book masterfully demonstrates the power of national narrative and tradition in constructing history.
— Fillip Velgach, New Books in History
With his book, Usitalo has proven that it is possible to write in an original way about an old topic and make it exciting and relevant. The author not only deconstructs and obliterates the old myth, but retraces the true story of Lomonosov, the scientist. . . . With this book Usitalo advances not just our understanding of Lomonosov, but opens the window to a larger study of the role of myth-making in the development of national consciousness.
— Marina Swoboda, McGill University

Table of Contents


Chapter 1
Honor and Status in Lomonosov’s “Autobiography”
Chapter 2
Russia’s “Own Platos and Quick-Witted Newtons”: Inventing the Scientist
Chapter 3
Lomonosov in the Age of Pushkin
Chapter 4
Commemorating Russia’s “First Scientist”
Chapter 5
Boris Menshutkin and the “Rediscovery” of Lomonosov

Afterlife of the Myth