Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914-2003), whose centenary this is, was the ultimate grandee among British historians. Regius Professor at Oxford, Master of Peterhouse at Cambridge, friend of the clever or connected, scourge of the dull, he joined AJP Taylor as the most famous British historian of his day. He never wrote a universally admired long work of scholarly maturity, such as Taylor’s English History 1914-1945. But his first book, a biography of Archbishop Laud, revealed his brilliance; The Last Days of Hitler won him global celebrity; and his interventions in the field of early-modern history were always deeply learned, drawing on a wide knowledge of languages and cultures.
His was a conservative voice, though he was a true scholarly cosmopolitan. So what did the great man think of the Soviet Union?
The essence of his view was clear and scarcely controversial. This was how he defined the crushing of the Prague Spring in a letter to his stepson: ‘I see all those dreadful old Stalinists in eastern Europe — Brezhnev, Ulbricht, Gomulka, Kadar — banded together in an attempt to put out the fire in their neighbour’s house, lest it spread to their own; and I see it, thanks to their clumsy intervention, actually spreading the faster. How delightful to have the flames suddenly crackling under them in Moscow and Berlin, Warsaw and Budapest!’
Published posthumously, Trevor-Roper’s letters have turned out to be one of his greatest literary achievements. They are full of ancient gossip, amusing asides and vicious demolitions of his colleagues. No less entertaining are his opinions on historical and contemporary problems. As he travelled widely, many of his most interesting comments were written in the places that he visited. In July 1957, he went to the Soviet Union.
In a letter from Leningrad to the famous art historian, Bernard Berenson, Trevor-Roper contrasted the evident housing shortage with the opulence of his room in the Astoria Hotel. But while people might have lived badly in material terms, they enjoyed other advantages. ‘Everywhere around us the thing which most impresses the visitor is the immense respect paid to “culture”. All the old palaces and churches have been restored, repainted, re-gilded, quite regardless of cost: never, since they were first built, can they have looked so splendid.’
Could this explain something deeper about the USSR? Writing from Moscow to Wallace Notestein, Professor of History at Yale, Trevor-Roper extended his point. ‘In spite of all one reads about the vast economic growth and new efficiency of Russia, the overwhelming impression is of ancient squalor only temporarily beaten back by spasmodic pretentious construction. Of course there is undoubted efficiency in certain directions: but it is in directions leading to state power only.’ Was this a realistic interpretation of Soviet life? Or was it the unremittingly English gaze from Charterhouse, Christ Church, and the country houses to which he gained entry through his favourable marriage? Trevor-Roper went on, keen to amuse: ‘As far as the ordinary daily life of the citizen is concerned, this is still the seedy, oriental country of Gogol or Turgenev — without any of that douceur de vivre which depends on an aristocratic society.’
How should one read this? The scope of Trevor-Roper’s intellect, and the sparkle and scepticism of his judgements, were never likely to create an uncomplicated view of the USSR. He had been, as well, an intelligence officer during the Second World War. ‘I have always regarded the CIA and SIS as more dangerous to us than the KGB,’ he wrote to a friend shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and long before our current age of mass surveillance.