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‘Sometimes in an archive you realise you’ve hit gold and want to run about in excitement’

Dominic Lieven on researching pre-1914 Russia and winning the Pushkin House Prize

It nearly ruined his eyesight but Professor Dominic Lieven was determined to complete his research in Moscow’s crumbling archives. His efforts were rewarded with the 2016 Pushkin House Russian Book Prize for Towards the Flame. Empire, War and the end of Tsarist Russia (Penguin).

Professor Lieven © Pushkin House/Hasan Matar
Professor Lieven © Pushkin House/Hasan Matar

Professor Lieven, Senior Research Fellow at Trinity and a Fellow of the British Academy, remembers struggling to access materials about Russia’s pre-Revolutionary elite as a PhD student living in Leningrad and Moscow in the 1970s.

Several decades later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow’s diplomatic and military archives were opened up. This was the ‘last frontier’ for a historian of the First World War’s origins, says Professor Lieven.

But challenges remain: archives housed in elegant, dilapidated buildings close with little warning, fetching services are slow, photocopying is expensive and computers are banned.

My main archive, the diplomatic one, was subsiding rapidly into the Moscow metro and actually closed one week after I finished my research so I was forced to work in a very urgent and concentrated manner. My second most important archive was the military archive, situated in an eighteenth-century palace that could fall down tomorrow, and was periodically closed because bits of roof collapsed or the ventilation system broke.

Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia by Dominic Lieven.
Towards the Flame Cover

Professor Lieven encountered another, unexpected, obstacle. In the military archive, handwritten documents prior to the 1917 Revolution had been recorded on microfilm.

I have problems with my eyes (glaucoma etc) and also deep ear/ balance problems and this almost finished me off. I began having fits but the heroic doctor who looked after me in hospital wrote a 10-page denunciation to the archive saying I would die if not allowed to see the original documents which the military archive then kindly provided me with.

He could not read for a month after returning to Britain and won’t be able to do archival research on manuscripts again. But Professor Lieven is unfazed:

It was worth it. I worked in all in six Russian archives and amassed fantastic materials. Sometimes when working in an archive you realise you’ve hit gold and want to run about in excitement. But on occasion I felt I was not just finding gold, this was pure platinum.

Access to important archives was only one of the reasons Professor Lieven wrote Towards the Flame. He wanted to underline the significance of the First World War for Russia and to reassert German and Austrian responsibility for the outbreak of war in 1914. He explains:

This was above all an East European war: it stemmed from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and Austrian fear that their empire was going the same way. But more broadly a key cause of the war was the crisis of empire as a type of polity.

Indeed, a key message of the book is to place the First World War in a broader context – the struggles of empires and nationalisms that dominate much of twentieth-century global history, the consequences of which we are living with today, he says.

I tried to inject my previous study of empire into this discussion of the origins of the First World War. Certainly the outbreak of war in 1914 was not inevitable but nor was it some accidental, freak event.

Russian Cavalry © Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Russian Cavalry © Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Professor Lieven also sought to balance the ‘very skewed’ view of the war in Britain today.

The war is generally seen from a narrowly British angle and as regards the broad public in ways designed to illustrate the experience of ordinary soldiers. This is fine but gives a very partial and distorted idea of why the war happened and what it was about.

Professor Lieven’s 2009 book, Russia against Napoleon. The Struggle for Europe, 1807-1814 (Penguin) won the Wolfson Prize for History and the Fondation Napoleon award for the best foreign work on the Napoleonic era.

Currently, he is distilling his knowledge about empire into a book about what it meant to be an emperor – across civilisations and millennia.

I’m currently deep in Chinese history. Every book I read excites me, and makes me think differently. This week I’m reading poetry written by a seventh century Chinese emperor about how he understood his role and justified his power. Last month I was deep in the Abbasid caliphate. It’s like being turned on my head and shaken.

Before Trinity, Professor Lieven was Head of the Government Department at the London School of Economics and Political Science and subsequently Head of the History Department. Today he divides his time between Cambridge, London and Tokyo, with trips to Russia. Asked how life at Trinity compared to running a large department at LSE, he said:

Bliss: being a Senior Research Fellow at Trinity is the closest a British academic gets to heaven without actually dying.

Listen to Professor Lieven discussing Towards the Flame. Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia.

Read reviews in The Economist and The Financial Times

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