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Campus inSaint Petersburg

Recent Lecture Addresses Reflections on Empire, Russia and Historical Comparison

On October 11, Professor Dominic Lieven of the University of Cambridge, where he serves as Senior Research Fellow, Trinity College, gave a public lecture at HSE St Petersburg entitled ‘Reflections on empire, Russia and historical comparison’. The event was organized by the Center for Historical Research.

Professor Lieven, who is also a Fellow of the British Academy and whose book Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia was shortlisted for the 2016 Pushkin House Prize, began his lecture by focusing on the 1970s. This was a time when Western historians could be divided into those who assumed that the revolution in Russia was inevitable (the so-called ‘pessimists’) and those who opposed them (the ‘optimists’) who believed that without World War I the Russian Empire could possibly have evolved into a normal version of political modernity, i.e., Western liberal democracy. In his view, this way of looking at Russian history likely says more about the Cold War context rather than about historical realities.

In his lecture, Professor Lieven also addressed what might have happened had the Russian monarchy collapsed in the winter of 1905-06 and the ‘left’ had come to power. This would have likely led to the genuine full-scale European intervention spearheaded by the German army.

‘It is absolute fantasy to imagine that in peace time the European great powers would allow Russia to secede from the international system and to set itself as a headquarters of international socialist revolution and to expropriate or devalue huge foreign debts’, he said.

Before moving on to a period of discussion, Professor Lieven finished his lecture with a reference to the present day. While admitting that one must be careful with predictions, he spoke about supposedly incoming threats such as the disintegration of the Islamic world and the environmental crisis in Africa and the rest of the world. He also noted that just like it was in 1914, in the future the fate everyone would be in hands of a rather few number of people. In his opinion, those who made decisions in 1914 had a very pessimistic view of where the world was going.

‘History spans the whole, you cannot leave the individual side’, he concluded.