Are historians really losers?

Soviet history presents us with some of the most extraordinary events, places and people in all of the twentieth century. And yet in the classes I teach, we spend hours discussing not just these terrible and amazing things, but what historians have subsequently written about them.

Is it just self-indulgence, even solipsism, for historians to put themselves so close to the centre of the stage? Some people have no doubt that is the case.

Occasionally historians and their ideas transcend their works and become historically interesting in their own right. But this is very seldom the case. In the field of Russian history, Richard Pipes was one of the few to fall into this category. Brilliant but wilfully controversial, he was both a Harvard professor and a White House official, perhaps the greatest scholar of his generation and yet the constructor of the most dangerous Cold-War-era demonization of the Russian past. (For a sympathetic portrait, see — behind a paywall — Jonathan Daly’s very fine recent article about Pipes and his colleagues.)

A young Richard Pipes (Wikimedia Commons)

Or take the example of Sheila Fiztpatrick. One of the greatest of historians of the USSR, she wrote remarkable books that were ignored by Richard Pipes. She has described how she was shut out of important scholarly discussions and publications. Yet this tells us much more about America’s Cold War than it does about Russian history. In a recent article about Robert Conquest, the author of the first major work on Stalin’s Great Terror, Fitzpatrick writes with surprising affection about the way that he came to different conclusions from hers, ones which combined insight with exaggeration. Her bigger point is that a division exists between historians who want to explain the past and those who want to make a moral judgement about it, and through it, about the present. This division has outlived the Cold War, as have the feuds that it causes.

Perhaps it is the limits of historical judgement that make historiography really useful for future generations. Donald Ostrowski has argued over many years that the Mongols left a powerful imprint on Muscovy’s civil and military institutions that made possible its later prosperity, development and expansion. The Mongols did not transmit one form of barbarism to another group of barbarians, nor did their influence evaporate as soon as they left. He points out that even hypothesizing such a thing was impossible for many historians for many years. It suggested, be argued, ‘premature cognitive closure’.

By understanding how and why historians make mistakes, and how they fail to notice what is lying in plain sight, we learn about the times in which they wrote. But retelling personal and scholarly disputes between historians must seem futile to people who want to know about what happened in the past. If we are to treat those who came before us appropriately, it is their own written, visual and material traces that show us most directly how they lived. It is by reconstructing past life that historians most obviously expand our horizons and sympathies.

But enough of the platitudes. The reviews of Richard Evans’s new biography of Eric Hobsbawm are just in. Have you seen what Simon Heffer wrote?

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