Andres O'Hara-Plotnik


The Amazing Adventures of Müller and Mazour

Thomas Jefferys: The Russian Discoveries, from the Map Published by the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg (Wikipedia)

A few years ago, when I worked as a research assistant at Cornell, I was told to dig up whatever I could on Russian historiography. I burrowed myself in the library, reading and summarizing a dozen books and articles, and came across the story of Gerhard Friedrich Müller.

Gerard Freidrich Müller, born in 1705, was

a phenomenally prodigious worker, in opening up to students of Russian history forgotten or unsuspected archival wealth…When he was only twenty, he arrived in the Russian capital from Leipzig; and, having no definite occupation, he decided to join Behring’s expedition to Siberia.*

This expedition, one of the largest in history, resulted in the mapping of most of the Arctic Coast of Siberia and some parts of the North American coastline. The leader, Vitus Bering was the first European to discover Alaska. The Bering Strait, Bering Sea, Bering Island, Bering Glacier, and Bering Land Bridge are all named after him.

With typical German diligence and persistence, he [Müller] set out to copy voluminous collections of government records in the distant towns of Siberia. Ten years of fruitful works (1733-43) resulted in his being able to hand over a bulk of material to the Archeographical Society, which the latter continued to publish for the next century and a half. Though begun incidentally, Müller’s work in the Siberian archives, known as “Müller’s Portfolio’s,” opened a mine from which students of Russian history…draw material to this day.*

Yet his work did not bring any immediate impact. Other prominent historians were ignorant of Müller’s Portfolios, which were “practically untouched…The national archives were still a terra incognita to nearly all historians.”

That story stuck with. Unlike all of the other academic articles I had read, this one seemed personal. The author seemed to have personally admired Müller. His admiration for Müller’s painstaking work, and regret that this work was ignored, created a vivid character in this paper: the intrepid, overlooked, archivist. The author was Anatole Gregory Mazour, who published this article in 1937, as an assistant professor at the University of Miami, Ohio.

Anatole Mazour was born in a small village near Kiev on May 24, 1900. When he was four, over 80,000 workers in Saint Petersburg led a march to deliver a petition to the Tzar at the Winter Palace. Guards opened fire and hundreds were killed. Months later, two million workers went on strike, shutting down nearly all active railways throughout Russia.

Mazour did well in school, and after graduating at sixteen, served in the Tsar’s army until it collapsed in 1917. He was exposed to poison gas, and suffered with asthma and emphysema throughout his life. His father, fearing reprisal, insisted that Mazour emigrate, giving him the gold watch that his own father had passed down to him. At 23, Anatole had made it to New York and sold the watch to Tiffany’s for $800.

Three years after studying at Columbia University, he was advised by a history professor to move away from the local Russian émigré colony in New York, to learn English more quickly and adjust to the American ways. Anatole took his advice and traveled thirteen hundred miles west, enrolling in the University of Nebraska, where he earned his A.B. at 29.

He earned advanced degrees at Yale and Berkeley, taught at Berkeley, and was awarded professorship first at the University of Miami, Ohio, then the University of Nevada, and eventually Stanford, devoting his life to the study of Russian history.

Mazour was compelled not just by Russia’s history, but by its historians. I wonder if he ever considered writing about his own history, especially that first decade in the United States. Mazour, like Müller, was also twenty years old when he set out on his journey. They both spent a decade of their lives traveling and studying in foreign lands, Müller in Siberia, Mazour in Nebraska.

Mazour writes:

Müller was not a scholar but a first-rank compiler, a fact for which we can be grateful, for no ambitious writer could ever have performed the valuable work which he did….Müller’s service to Russian historiography can hardly be overestimated. His work of collecting did not permit him to do any writing of history, as he hoped….With his appointment as an archivist he had to abandon editorial work completely, devoting all his attention to the tedious work of investigating the hitherto unexplored national archives for later students in his field.*

Mazour believed that he owed a great deal to Müller, that Müller sacrificed his ambitions in the service of historical knowledge, for others to write about in the future. But all those years in small Siberian towns, tediously copying out government documents: did Müller believe that he would be recognized for his efforts, or worry that his documents would be vaulted up for years before anyone discovered them?

While Müller devoted his time ensuring that future generations might understand the history of Russia, Mazour wrote to ensure that we would not forget the people who devoted themselves to this task, for which they were never properly recognized in their own lifetimes.


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This entry was posted on March 11, 2012 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .
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