Category Archives: History

How not to write history

Timothy Snyder is at it again. In a long article published this week in The New York Review of Books, Snyder expands on the thesis he propagated in a much shorter piece for the New York Times a while ago, namely that the way to understand the policies of the Russian state is through the works of the philosopher Ivan Ilyin, and that this is super scary because Ilyin was a fascist. Some of Snyder’s ideas are decidedly odd (e.g. that Ilyin’s influence explains the war in Ukraine!), but I don’t want to get into a huge argument with him on the details of his essay, because I’m sure that interpretations of what exactly Ilyin did or didn’t write, or did or didn’t mean, aren’t of vast interest to the general public. Suffice it to say that Snyder and I seem to be reading a completely different Ilyin, and my previous complaints on this subject (made here and here) still stand.

Instead, what I want to address is a broader issue – how should one write history? And to answer this question, I’ll use the example of Russian conservatism, both because Ilyin was a Russian conservative and because I’ve just finished writing a book on the subject.

It seems to me that when writing about a subject like Russian conservatism (as with just about anything), there are two approaches one can take. The first seeks the approval of a large audience, for which it requires a simple overarching and almost certainly exaggerated thesis. For this reason, it seeks to avoid contradictions and paradoxes, and tries to fit the past into the straightjacket of some pre-conceived narrative or ideological precept. It sees the past not as something to be studied in its own right for its own sake but as a tool for contemporary political, economic, or social struggles, and therefore imposes interpretations designed to further a specific contemporary agenda. The second approach, which as a professional historian I consider the correct way, isn’t particularly interested in attracting a mass audience. Instead, it seeks accuracy, balance, nuance; it accepts that things are complicated and that there’s no simple narrative one can transplant onto the past; it seeks truth and tries to understand the past on its own terms; while it can never achieve absolute objectivity, it tries to avoid using the past as a tool for the present.

One might consider these approaches, broadly speaking, as being ‘popular history’ and ‘academic history’. These are, of course, extremely simplified models, but as long as one takes them as types rather than as rigid descriptions of reality, they serve a useful analytical purpose. So, let us see how they might work in a given case – the history of Russian conservatism.

Imagine that you want to write a book on Russian conservatism which is going to attract attention, hopefully sell rather more copies than the average history of political philosophy, and if you’re lucky perhaps make your name by getting you space in popular, but highbrow, journals such as The New York Review of Books. How would you go about it?

First, develop a clear overall thesis which fits with the current zeitgeist. In the case of Russian conservatism, that’s easy. Tell everybody how scary it is and shape your whole book accordingly. And let’s be frank, a subject like Russian conservatism gives you lots of good material. In the first place, you have a cast of characters who can easily be manipulated to look decidedly odd. So cherry-pick the eccentricities and play them up. It will enable you to make the book entertaining as well as informative, with readers agasp at these crazy people you describe. The likes of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Konstantin Leontyev will give you plenty to play with. Next, focus on their more extreme and reactionary ideas – throw in some anti-Semitic comments, for instance. Play up all the really kooky stuff – there’s lots there (Lev Gumilev’s weird beliefs about cosmic rays as the source of passionarnost’, for instance). And skip over everything which complicates the simple story you are spinning. Make Russian conservatives out to be foaming in the mouth nationalists and haters of the West. Ignore all their statements about their admiration of the West. Make them out to be authoritarian and anti-liberal. Ignore all they say about the limits of authority and their repeated stress of the dignity of the person and the need for freedom. Talk about Russian messianism and imperialism. Ignore the isolationist strand in Russian conservatism entirely. You’ll be able to find lots of juicy quotes to justify your thesis. Then link it all to modern Russia and Vladimir Putin; argue that the latter has inherited all the worst attributes of Russia’s conservative heritage. And bam! You’ve got a best seller. People will love it. It will be lively, contentious, hard hitting, and allow readers to feel that they’ve found the key to understanding Russia.

It will also be total rubbish. The past isn’t that simple. This approach cherry picks the past to suit a personal and political purpose. The second approach is different. Imagine that you want to write a history of Russian conservatism which is as accurate as possible. What do you do? You look at all sides of conservative thought. You study its nuances and complexities, its contradictions and paradoxes. And in the process, you discover that there isn’t a simple narrative which encompasses it all. If there are two things in Timothy Snyder’s article with which I agree they are when he says that in Ilyin’s work, “it is easy to find tensions and contradictions,” and that, “Ilyin’s vast body of work admits multiple interpretations.” That’s true of Russian conservatism as a whole. So, a thorough study of the subject would require one to examine all the tensions and contradictions, all the multiple interpretations. That’s going to make the result somewhat complex, and perhaps rather hard to follow. It’s also going to require the historian to ditch most of the salacious material which makes the first kind of history so fun to read. The result is going to be something which is perhaps rather dry. Many might even find it boring. Academics might pick it up, but it’s unlikely to inspire a mass audience and certainly won’t get you published in The New York Review of Books.

I’m not at all averse to political polemics. Nor am I averse to writing in an entertaining way. I’ve done my fair bit of both. But there’s a difference between writing an article for the Spectator, which must be both polemical and entertaining, and writing a piece of serious academic research, which must be accurate and sober. Approach one is fine for an op-ed; it’s not for a work of scholarship. And this is why I object to Snyder. He admits that Ilyin’s work is full of tensions and contradictions and subject to multiple interpretations, but he then just ignores all of those, and instead takes a single interpretation and runs with it. Moreover, it’s a very extreme interpretation. To make it work, he picks only those bits of evidence which suit his purpose and fills out his analysis with salacious allegations (Ilyin was a fan of psychoanalysis, had peculiar ideas about sexual perversion, was rabidly anti-Semitic, etc.) Balance and complexity are entirely absent. He has a thesis, and he’s going to fit everything into it regardless. Moreover, this thesis has an overtly political purpose. Snyder isn’t writing in order to understand the past; he’s writing about the past in order to shape people’s understanding of the present (specifically, to accentuate readers’ fears and dislike of Russia). To do that he has to distort the past to make it fit his purpose. This is an abuse of history. Or more accurately, it isn’t history; it’s propaganda.


Autocracy and the media

Thinking a bit more about the recent report on the Kremlin’s alleged weaponizing of comedy, as well as other claims concerning ‘Russian propaganda’, what has struck me is how many people seem to assume that everything which happens in Russia is directed by the Kremlin. As it happens, in the past few weeks I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Russian conservatives in the last 50 years of the Russian Empire. One might imagine that in an autocratic country such as late Imperial Russia, the press was under the firm control of the state, that there was no independent ‘civil society’, and that conservative and patriotic groups took their orders from the central authorities. Yet this is not exactly how things were.

Take, for instance, the most prominent Russian journalist of the 1860s, 70s, and 80s, Mikhail Katkov. He was a fervent supporter of the autocracy and was given free rein to write what he pleased. But it would be a huge mistake to believe that the products of Katkov’s pen reflected the opinions of the Tsar and his bureaucracy. On the contrary, much of his work consisted of severe criticisms of Russia’s rulers for what Katkov considered their weak-willed policies and insufficiently aggressive defence of Russian interests. These writings sometimes infuriated Tsars Alexander II and III, but they permitted it in part because Katkov also railed against the Tsars’ revolutionary enemies, and in part because they knew that Katkov’s views were shared by a large portion of educated public opinion. On one occasion Alexander III was so angered by a Katkov article that he threatened to issue a public denunciation. But he was persuaded not to on the grounds, among other things, that the negative public reaction might cause a crash in the stock exchange.

Mikhail Katkov

Whether the labels ‘autocratic’ or ‘authoritarian’ really apply to modern Russia is a matter of debate, but those who believe that they do also appear to think that this means that the Russian media is entirely under the state’s direct control, and so everything that it prints or broadcasts represents the government’s wishes. Arkady Ostrovsky has pointed out in his study of the post-Soviet Russian media that its shift to patriotic themes from the late 1990s onwards responded to a clear public demand. Too many commentators choose to ignore this inconvenient fact. Some historians consider Mikhail Katkov an opportunist. He said what he said because it sold newspapers; but it sold newspapers because people supported it and wanted to read it. Much the same dynamic is probably true today.

The popular Romanov

Today is the 100th anniversary of the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Given the subsequent triumph of the Bolsheviks it is easy to see the February/March revolution which overthrew the Tsar as founded on the Russian people’s desire for ‘peace, land, and bread’. But this is to confuse one revolution with another. It is not even clear that in February/March 1917 Russians were rejecting the Romanov dynasty. Certainly, this was the demand of the more extreme elements who led the way in the capital Petrograd, but elsewhere in the country the situation was not the same. To understand this, it is worth looking at what happened to another Romanov in this period – Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich.

The Grand Duke had been Supreme Commander of the Russian Army until August 1915, when he was dismissed and sent packing to the Caucasus to be Viceroy. In one of his very last acts as Tsar, Nicholas II reappointed Nikolai Nikolaevich as Supreme Commander. In Petrograd, the appointment caused outrage among the more radical socialists who dominated the revolutionary mob. Elsewhere, though, the reaction was very different.

NN hermitage 1910s
Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich.

Continue reading The popular Romanov

A dire warning

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of a warning ignored.

In autumn 1916, as the political situation in the Russian Empire worsened, the Chief of Staff of the Russian Army, General M.V. Alekseev, penned a letter to Tsar Nicholas II, in which he wrote:

Your Imperial Majesty, I consider the minute has come when I am obliged to report the true state of affairs to You. The whole rear of the army … is in a state of ferment. … All this is leading slowly, but steadily, toward an inevitable outburst of stormy emotions among the people.

Next to alert Nicholas of impending danger was his cousin, Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich, who sent the Tsar a pair of letters containing inflammatory accusations against the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. Word of the letters reached the empress, who declared herself ‘utterly disgusted’ and denounced the Grand Duke as one of her ‘greatest enemies’.

Finally, exactly one hundred years ago today, on 20 November 1916, the Viceroy of the Caucasus, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, turned up at the Supreme Headquarters in the town of Mogilev. On arrival, he invited the Head Chaplain of the Russian Army, Georgii Shavelskii, to speak to him. Shavelskii revealed that he too had issued a warning to the Tsar. ‘You did well’, said the Grand Duke, ‘But the problem is … her, only her [the Empress]. Take her away, put her in a monastery, and the Emperor will be a completely different person.’

Nicholas II and Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich

After talking with Shavelskii, Nikolai Nikolaevich went to visit the Tsar. Most of their conversation was businesslike, but shortly before leaving and returning to the Caucasus, the Grand Duke broached the subject of possible revolution and urged the Tsar to appoint a government enjoying the support of Russia’s parliament, the Duma. Later he described the scene as follows:

I spoke with Nicky in a very sharp manner. … He just said nothing and shrugged his shoulders. I told him straight: ‘It would be more pleasant if you swore at me, struck me, chased me out of here, rather than say nothing. Don’t you see that you will lose your crown? Come to your senses before it’s too late. Install a responsible ministry.’

According to Shavelskii, the Grand Duke pointed to the room occupied by the Tsar’s son and heir, and told him: ‘If you won’t take pity on yourself, take pity on him.’ But the Tsar refused to heed his advice.

On his way back to the Caucasus, Nikolai Nikolaevich stopped in Kiev, where he met the Tsar’s mother, the Dowager Empress Mariia Fedorovna. On 22 November 1916, she recorded in her diary: ‘We are on the threshold of revolution. … Let us hope that Nicky’s conversations with four different people will open his eyes. Alekseev, Shavelskii, Nikolai [Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich],and finally Nikolasha [Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich], whom it was evidently hardest and most unpleasant to listen to, have all told him the truth.’

When revolution broke out in Russia two months later, the Tsar could not say that he had not been warned.

Double standards again

One of the interesting aspects of the research I am conducting into the history of Russian conservatism is the contemporary resonance of texts written 100, 150, or even 200 years ago. My point here is not to express approval or support of what was written, merely to say that, if you change a few names, much of it could be written today. As a means of understanding contemporary Russian thinking, some of these older texts are quite insightful.

Take for instance Nikolai Danilevskii’s 1869 book Russia and Europe, the 2013 translation of which by Stephen Woodburn I have just started reading. As early as page one I could not but notice the contemporary relevance. Danilevskii complains of Europe’s double standards. Why, he asks, did Prussia’s and Austria’s flagrant aggression against Denmark in 1864 fail to arouse any sense of indignation among Europeans, whereas Russia’s earlier war against Turkey (notionally in defence of Christians) generated immense moral outrage and the creation of the coalition which defeated Russia in the Crimean War. Substitute the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq (or any other example of American or British aggression) for the Prussia/Austrian invasion of Denmark, and substitute Russia’s current war in Syria for its earlier war against Turkey, and you can see that, in Russian eyes at least, not much has changed in the past 150 years. For some reason, a double standard applies when moral judgements are made about Russia and the West.

To illustrate the point, here are some key excerpts from Chapter 1 of Russia and Europe, starting on page one.

[P.S. I am thinking of starting a regular feature which would involve the weekly publication of extracts from other Russian conservative texts chosen for their contemporary relevance (and, I stress, not as a mark of approval). I think this could be educationally useful as well as providing a good springboard for political discussion and getting feedback on my research. My previous translation and publication of Ivan Ilyin’s ‘Against Russia’ got a lot of readers, so maybe these would too. It would be good to know if there is any interest.]

  Continue reading Double standards again


The announcement that the Russian air force has begun to use the Hamadan airfield in Iran to bomb targets in Syria makes me wonder if somebody in the Russian Ministry of Defence has a sense of history. It is 100 years to the week since the Russian Army abandoned Hamadan to Ottoman forces during the First World War.

The Russian Expeditionary Corps under General N. N. Baratov occupied Hamadan in December 1915 as part of a campaign to prevent pro-German forces from seizing control of Persia. In spring 1916, Baratov advanced into Iraq in an effort to relieve British forces surrounded by the Ottomans at Kut. After the British surrendered in April 1916, Baratov retreated back into Persia and concentrated his forces at Hamadan. On 3 August 1916, the Ottoman 13th Corps under Ali Ihsan Bey commenced offensive operations in Persia, and on the night of 9-10 August, Baratov abandoned Hamadan, never to return.

cossacks in persia
Cossacks in Persia, First World War