Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
The Russia Anxiety is my new book, and my name for our historic tendency to overestimate, underestimate, or wilfully misunderstand Russia, sometimes with dangerous consequences. It’s not that Russia has been the innocent party in international affairs. But we’ve often got it out of proportion, forgetting about alliances in the past and taking for granted today’s indispensable connections. Worst of all, we sometimes assume that Russians are just a different sort of person with a different sort of culture from ourselves.
In my book, I make these points historically, but when I touch on the present day, reviewers have hit back. Some of their comments are fair, but some are distortions.
Above all, at the start of The Russia Anxiety, I make clear that the Novichok attacks in Salisbury were a moment of international peril in which British people were entitled to be gravely concerned. I do not dispute the settled consensus on the role of Russia in the attack or seek to undermine the investigations of the UK authorities.
What’s more, I make clear that it is western countries, not Russia’s neighbours, that express the Russia Anxiety. Countries such as Poland and Ukraine have felt the sharp end of Russian policy and aggression: as such, they are immune to the irrational cycles of the Russia Anxiety. They deserve wider support in finding their own way to live peacefully and successfully alongside Russia — though Russia also needs international support in order to achieve peaceful relations and proper integration into Europe’s institutions.
The Russia Anxiety is a history book, but it stretches to today. I am a professional historian and a university teacher, not a commentator on contemporary events or a political activist (some of my colleagues successfully combine all four roles, but that’s not for me). As such, my book ranges widely across the recorded past. It draws historical conclusions about the period from early times to 1991 and goes on to make some preliminary and inevitably subjective points about the 1990s. Its views onto the present day, meanwhile, are only suggestive and far from conclusive.
I don’t make a case for any version of Russian politics, for any political personality or political group. Despite the swirl of events — this week, armed policemen beating up peaceful protestors in central Moscow — I stand by the book’s optimistic argument that the past is varied and complex, that Russia’s historical development has many ‘normal’ features, and that recognizing this might be useful in the present. I am optimistic myself because I see in the current young generation of Russians an engaging, capable, cultured, unpredictable and sometimes brilliant group of people, as European and independent-minded as anyone I teach in my English classroom. They draw their sense of the world from Russia’s vibrant but sometimes invisible civil society, much of it located online. But as a historian, my optimism is not time-specific. Who knows how long a better future might take to emerge?