Illustration by Michael Rea

Antony Beevor: “No country is as much a prisoner of its past as Russia”

The historian on whether Russia can ever be a stable democracy and which of his ancestors he's most proud of
June 16, 2022

What is the first news event you can recall?

The British airborne landings at Suez on the canal zone, in 1956. I was not quite 10 years old. We discussed it at school in nervously excited terms, wondering whether it would lead to another world war.  

What is the biggest problem?

Mass migration due to war, famine and global warming will soon overwhelm borders, nation states and their infrastructure, and lead to civil conflict. I first glimpsed a vision of this in 1990 when crowds of mainland Chinese swamped Hong Kong’s borders in a last attempt to get through.

If you could spend a day in one city or place at one moment in history, what would that be?

Ever since visiting the field of Waterloo with Belgian friends at the age of nine, I would love to have been present there on 18th June, 1815, but in a central position overlooking the lower ground with La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont. It would have been no good being like Stendhal’s Fabrice del Dongo in a skirmish on the edge of the battle.

What is your favourite quote?  

“Intellectual honesty is the first casualty of moral outrage.”

If you were given £1m to spend on other people, what would you spend it on and why? 

Secure accommodation for the homeless to give them the chance to break out of the vicious circle they are trapped in.

Which of your ancestors or relatives are you most proud of?

General William Gordon, the subject of the Pompeo Batoni portrait in the Forum at Rome. In 1780, he drew his sword in the House of Commons and threatened to run through his mad cousin, Lord George Gordon, because he was trying to bring his mob of anti-Catholics into parliament.

Is war between Russia and Nato now inevitable?

The golden rule for all historians is that nothing is inevitable. But in this case I think it unlikely since it would either have to be a nuclear war, in which everyone would lose, or a conventional war in which Russia would certainly be the loser, as Nato has a huge advantage. 

Will Russia ever be a stable democracy?  

I pray that that will happen one day, but no country is as much a prisoner of its past as Russia. The country has never had the opportunity to develop democracy. I was deeply struck by Konstantin Paustovsky’s observation. “The idyllic aspect of the first days of the revolution was disappearing,” he wrote in his memoir. “Whole worlds were shaking and falling to the ground. Most of the intelligentsia lost its head, that great humanist Russian intelligentsia which had been the child of Pushkin and Herzen, of Tolstoy and Chekhov. It had known how to create high spiritual values, but with only a few exceptions it proved helpless at creating the organisation of a state.”

A great friend of mine who is Russian once told me why she and other women found it so hard to find the right Russian man. Half-joking, she argued that either they are poetic dreamers and hopeless with the practicalities of life, or else they are successful shits who treat women badly.

What have you changed your mind about?

Sometimes I judge people too instinctively, but then find that someone I considered a bore is in fact very interesting. What I also know is that if I start a work of history with fairly clear ideas, my assumptions are soon disabused by the material that I find in archives. But that is encouraging in another way. It means you are finding something new.  

What is the last piece of music, play, novel or film that brought you to tears?

At Glyndebourne last summer, listening to Cavaradossi’s lament before his execution, E lucevan le stelle, in Puccini’s Tosca

What do you most regret? 

I do not regret missed opportunities very much, because they have been more than compensated by the chance of seizing other openings. In fact, I am almost embarrassed at how much good fortune I have had, especially with timing.