Reviewed: The Undivided Past by David Cannadine

If only the Taliban were like us.

The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences
David Cannadine
Allen Lane, 352pp, £20

This is a strange book. David Cannadine, a distinguished historian of 19th-century Britain, has taken it upon himself to admonish the historical profession for setting up a series of unhelpful oppositions in its narratives of the past, emphasising division rather than collaboration, conflicting identities rather than a common humanity. He chides us for not writing about the boring bits in between, when people got on with each other; instead, he claims, we are always chasing after the newsworthy moments of the past, when people evidently did not.

To illustrate his point, Cannadine isolates six forms of identity in which historians have helped to cement unreal antagonisms: religion, nation, class, gender, race and civilisation. Instead of compartmentalising history by focusing on one form of identity at the expense of others, Cannadine insists – and who would question this? – that we have multiple and shifting identities. It is possible to be a woman, black, a worker, a Christian and British all at the same time. Yet this is so obvious that it scarcely needs to be stated. Cannadine’s fear is that historians impose on figures from the past – and, by implication, on those around us today – a single identity, seeing all workers, for example, as potentially class-conscious proletarians; or all Christians as bearers, through the ages, of anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic prejudices or hatreds; or all women as waiting to be liberated from a male-constructed universe.

The most problematic of these categories is civilisation. Here, too, Cannadine insists that historians have been responsible for taking an approach to the past (and the present) that has divided humanity into broad aggregations based on the idea of separate and identifiable civilisations, which, almost by definition, will be antagonistic and which, in the hands of generations of western writers, have been contrasted with the “barbarian”.

This last category, as Cannadine recognises, goes back as far, if not further, than the ancient Greeks, for whom the barbarian was other or alien. In the 19th century, historians contrasted the Greek and Roman heritage and its survival through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment with the “barbarous” societies of Africa and Asia and the peoples encountered in the New World.

In the 20th century, civilisation-counting became de rigueur, with Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler its leading exponents. Samuel P Huntington’s 1996 book, The Clash of Civilisations, is, for Cannadine, the end point of this damaging effort to divide the history of humanity into stories of “us” against “them”. This effort lies, he suggests, at the root of the current struggle between “western” values and ways of life and the invisible threat of international terrorism.

Cannadine writes about all these things as engagingly and fluently as ever. He is no doubt right that some historians over the past century or so, when historical writing in the west has become professionalised and widely practised, have helped to create conflicts of identity that are overdrawn and at times pernicious. It is tempting to project current concerns and prejudices back on to the past, turning every woman in 19thcentury Europe into a victim of universal misogyny or every black man into a victim of white supremacism. Historians have played their part in the creation of national identities that are more imagined than real, as well as in fomenting national rivalries, inadvertently or otherwise.

The history of war is habitually written by the winners, so that “good-war” narratives gloss over the awful reality of all human conflict, especially when the enemy can be defined as barbarous. Not for nothing was the word “Hun” used to describe the Germans in two world wars (and historians certainly helped by hunting for German atrocities in order, implicitly rather than explicitly, to confirm the barbarous sobriquet).

Cannadine reserves his most powerful indictment for those 20th-century historians who, from a Marxist or sub-Marxist point of view, peddled Karl Marx’s view that all history is the history of class struggle and should be written as such. The arch-villains here are, predictably, Eric Hobsbawm and E P Thompson, though the net can be spread widely from the 1920s up to the 1970s, when postmodernism is said to have challenged “hegemonic” narratives of nation, class and elite. Historians who subscribed to the Marxist model (though not necessarily Marxists themselves) not only defined the past in class terms, from the Spartacus revolt of 73 BC to the triumph of Hitler in 1933, but helped to shape the questions that other historians were supposed to ask about the past – hence endless histories of trade union movements, co-operatives, labour relations and class identities, not to mention Cannadine’s work on the declining aristocracy.

In the 1960s, Marxism seemed a solid reference point for understanding the varieties of the past. Now, Cannadine tells us, Marxism is dead and buried, overcome by how class identity is in some ways the weakest of the collectivities imposed on history, unable to explain or to undermine the appeal of religion, nation or gender.

There are some obvious objections to make to Cannadine’s thesis. He has clearly not been paying attention to the direction in which historical writing in Britain and the United States has been moving over the past few decades. The subjects that now interest historians are to be found in everyday life – sex, fashion, food, even noise or dirt – and in the gaps between the old narratives and their battles, murders and commotion. Historical methodology is now rooted in an obsession with “transnational” pasts – just the kind of fluid intercourse between social groups, national units or civilisations that Cannadine argues has been neglected. Contacts, networks and translations are all the rage.

It is hard to think of any historian who still subscribes to the older verities, so much so that the word “class” (which was a historical concept, invented by Hegel years before Marx) is now regarded as a relic from a bygone age. A great deal of history today is written about historians and the way in which “public history”, as it is called, has been distorted by the values of an earlier generation of writers. Much of this work, including Cannadine’s book, which is based on his 2007 Trevelyan lectures at the University of Cambridge, aims to refine the crude categories that have been imposed on past societies in order to understand them better and to overcome enduring prejudices and assumptions about “the other”. Schoolchildren are now taught in history lessons to sniff out “bias”.

A more simple objection is that historians have often supplied a critical and dissenting voice and have countered crude stereotyping and popular prejudice. Although the current obsession in English schools with the Nazis is perhaps excessive, it is nevertheless a powerful vehicle for exposing all forms of racial prejudice and state oppression. It is precisely because history is an awkward and critical discipline that its capacity to influence how people think or have thought is much more limited than historians like to claim. The small cabals of historians invited to meet, say, Margaret Thatcher or George W Bush were ornamental, not essential. For much of the time, historians have contested realities that they did little to shape.

In his introduction, Cannadine does concede that his six categories are sustained by “pundits, politicians and the public” but he adds that “many engaged academics” (whatever that means) want to define the world in terms of the eternal struggle between “good” and “evil”. This may be true of churches, whose hypocrisy is daily exposed in the press, and of simple-minded American presidents – but of historians? Cannadine has chosen to set up a row of straw men rather than engage with what most of his historical colleagues are really up to.

What is most worrying about Cannadine’s argument is the idea that somehow historians have helped to construct a false version of reality. It is simply not the case that for most of human history social groups, peoples, empires and genders have got on reasonably well. Historians reflect in what they write an inherited reality, however distorted or opaque their portrayal of it can sometimes be. It would be absurd to suggest that women have not been – and continue to be – the objects of discrimination, violent coercion and rape, especially where religious institutions or political structures dictate their absolute inferiority. That women’s voices were seldom heard in the distant past or that evidence seems to show they colluded in their own subjection does not diminish the historical reality of male power.

The same objections apply to Cannadine’s smug dismissal of Marxism. Although some workers felt that they were more Catholic than proletarian, or more patriotic than international, or more white than workingclass, industrial capitalism was responsible for the emergence in the 19th century of jerry-built, grimy cities, inhabited by impoverished populations with few amenities, chronic diseases and negligible welfare. Historians have not made up the antagonism between capital and labour, which is rooted in harsh social realities.

Boring though histories of trade unionism might be, they are monuments to the efforts made by ordinary people to better their bargaining power and challenge an industrial elite that realised only very late that treating workers better improved productivity and expanded demand. Political agitators, economists and philanthropists certainly contributed to the process of ameliorating poverty and social disadvantage; historians have only described that process. Rather than create artificial divisions, most historians are at pains to explain how they came about and what their consequences have been.

It is difficult to see what Cannadine wants his profession to do now. He calls on academic historians to abandon the artificial divisions of “identity” history and to celebrate a common humanity “that still binds us together today”. This is 1960s-style cant, a western delusion that bears no resemblance to the realities of either the recent or more distant past. Most of those who live outside the privileged and secure west think not about a common humanity but about the conditions of merely surviving in a world that more closely resembles Darwin’s than it does John Locke’s.

There remain profound differences in the world that have deep historical roots; indeed, it is precisely western hubris that has assumed that if only the Taliban were like us, we would not have to defend “our way of life” in Helmand Province. There is a common humanity only in the most banal sense that we all eat, sleep, have sex and die – as do rabbits and gorillas. The historian’s role is surely to be able to understand those differences and what they signify and to encourage politicians and generals to respect and comprehend difference. No doubt many historians hope that what they write about will also pose a moral challenge to the many surviving forms of discrimination and violence in the world. But ultimately, human life is, as Schopenhauer insisted, a story of “struggle”. Appeals to a common humanity are not going to change that.

Reading Cannadine’s book, I was reminded of John Lennon’s song “Imagine”, written more than 40 years ago: “You may say I’m a dreamer/But I’m not the only one./I hope some day you’ll join us/And the world will be as one.” Keep on imagining.

Richard Overy is professor of history at the University of Exeter. His next book, “The Bombing War: Europe 1939-45”, will be published later this year by Allen Lane

Fleeing an IED explosion in Afghanistan. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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Mind-reader, lover and crazed zealot – why the enigmatic power of Rasputin endures

As Douglas Smith wisely surmises in his new book, trying to separate the mythology of Rasputin from the man himself is nearly impossible.

The first would-be murderer to land a blow on Grigory Rasputin was a peasant woman named Khioniya Guseva, whose nose had been eaten away by a disease (not syphilis, she told her interrogators emphatically) and who had been a devotee of Rasputin’s rival Iliodor, the self-styled “Mad Monk”. In June 1914 Guseva pursued Rasputin through Pokrovskoye, the Siberian village that was his home, and stabbed him with a 15-inch dagger.

Rasputin recovered. From thenceforward, though, death dogged him. As confidant and adviser to the tsar and tsarina of Russia, he was detested by monarchists and revolutionaries alike. By the time he was killed, two and a half years later, myriad plots had been hatched against his life. The minister of the interior had tried sending him on a pilgrimage accompanied by a priest: the priest had instructions to throw Rasputin from a moving train. A colonel in the secret services planned to lure him into a car with promises to introduce him to a woman, then drive to an isolated spot and strangle him. His madeira (Raputin’s fav­ourite drink) was to be poisoned. Peasants were bribed to lead him into ambushes. A strange lady turned up at his flat (as strange ladies often did) and showed him a revolver: she had brought it to kill him with, she told him, but had changed her mind after gazing into his eyes. No wonder that by the time Prince Felix Yusupov invited him to come by night to the cellar beneath the Yusupov Palace Rasputin was suspicious and fearful, and had all but given up the noisy, night-long parties he used to enjoy.

His legend has been recounted many times. The peasant who became an all-­powerful figure at the Romanov court. His priapic sexuality and his rumoured affair with Tsarina Alexandra. His “burning” eyes. His ability to hypnotise and beguile. His gift for healing, which miraculously preserved the life of the haemophiliac heir, Tsarevich Alexei. His devilish influence over the imperial couple that led them into repeated mistakes, eventually precipitating the 1917 revolution. His debauchery. His supernatural power, which obliged his murderers to kill him not once, but thrice – with poisoned pink cakes, with gunshots at point-blank range and eventually by drowning him. All of this, everybody who knows anything about Russian history, and many who do not, have heard. Douglas Smith retells the story, pruning it of absurdities, greatly expanding it, and demonstrating how very much more complicated it is than the legend would have us believe.

Rasputin’s public career began in his thirties, when he arrived in St Petersburg in 1905. Smith’s account of his life before his debut in the city is the most fascinating part of this book. It describes a world of isolated peasant communities with few books (in 1900 only about 4 per cent of Siberia’s inhabitants could read) but many holy men. This is the world of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: violent, physically harsh, but spiritually ecstatic.

At the age of 28, Rasputin – married with children, still living with his father and helping to farm the family’s smallholding – left home to become a pilgrim. This was not an egregious decision. According to Smith, there were “about a million” pilgrims criss-crossing Russia at the time, walking barefoot, begging for food and lodging, trudging towards the holiest monasteries or seeking out revered starets, or church “elders”.

Rasputin would be away from home for years at a time. He would walk 30 miles a day. For three years he wore fetters, as many pilgrims did. After he laid them aside he went for six months without changing his clothes. He was often hungry, either because he could get no food, or because he was fasting. He was repeatedly robbed by bandits. But, for all his tribulations, on his return he would tell his children that he had seen marvels – cathedrals with golden cupolas and wild forests. He became part of a network of priests and visionaries which spanned the vast empire. He talked with everyone he met on the road, acquiring a knowledge of the narod, the Russian people, that its rulers never had. Smith’s account of his wandering years conjures up a richness of experience that makes the way the nobility later sneered at the “illiterate peasant”, the “nobody” who had got hold of their tsarina, seem indicative not of Rasputin’s shortcomings, but of their own.

In 1905 Rasputin was in the Tatar city of Kazan, drinking tea with a famed healer called Father Gavril. He told Gavril that he intended to walk on to St Petersburg, still hundreds of miles to the west. Gavril said nothing, but thought: “You’ll lose your way in Petersburg.” Rasputin, who already had a reputation as a mind-reader, responded as though he had heard, saying that God would protect him.

He was not the first holy man to be feted in the capital. Four years before he arrived in St Petersburg a French “sage” called Monsieur Philippe was holding séances in the city, and had soon “enraptured” the royal family. Nicholas and Alexandra prayed with Philippe and sat up until the small hours listening to him talk. They called him by the sobriquet they would soon give Rasputin, “Our Friend”, and they counted on him to guide the tsar in crucial talks with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Eventually Nicholas was prevailed upon to send him away, but other starets or “holy fools” succeeded Philippe at court (including Mitya “the Nasal Voice”, whose speech impediment made his words incomprehensible but who was nonetheless credited as a prophet). Rasputin may have been exceptionally charismatic – someone who met him soon after his arrival in the city described him as “a burning torch” – but, as one of his sponsors in high society said, “our Holy Russia abounds in saints” and the ruling class was just as enthralled by them as were the peasantry.

So, what was it about Rasputin? The eyes certainly – there are numerous references in contemporary descriptions to his “compelling”, “mesmeric”, “brilliant” eyes, their “strange phosphorescent light” and the way they stared, as though penetrating another’s mind. There were also his skills as a performer. He would talk eloquently and for hours. Smith quotes some striking accounts of Rasputin at prayer. For him, prayer was not a matter of closed eyes and folded hands and silent communion with God. It was a performance. He vibrated like a taut bow-string. He turned his face towards heaven and then, “with great speed, he would begin to cross himself and bow”.

He was all dynamic energy. He was unpredictable and frightening. His conversation could be bantering and light but then he would turn on someone standing on the fringe of a party and, as though he had read her mind, begin to scold her for having sinful thoughts. Then there was the erotic charge. In this compendious and exhaustively researched book, Smith debunks dozens of untrue stories about his subject, yet there is no denying Rasputin’s propensity for stroking and kissing women he barely knew and (once he was sufficiently celebrated for this to become easy for him) leading them into his bedroom and making love to them while people in the next room continued to drink their tea, pretending not to hear the thumps and moans. He was “so full of love”, he said, that he could not help caressing all those around him. Alternatively, he claimed (and many of his devotees accepted) that his sexual activity was designed to help his female followers overcome their carnal passions: he used sex to free them from sex. Smith treats this belief as being probably sincerely held – if almost comically self-justifying.

By the end of his life pretty well everyone in Russia believed that Rasputin was having an affair with the empress Alexandra. Everyone, that is, except for Alexandra and her husband. She wrote to Rasputin that it was only when she was leaning on his shoulder that she felt at peace; still, she could see nothing improper in their relationship. Tsar Nicholas, coming home late at night, as he frequently did, to find his wife closeted alone with Rasputin, reacted only with delight that “Our Friend” had blessed them with a visit. Rasputin was accused of “magnetism” – of using a form of hypnotism to dominate others. Whether or not he deliberately did so, he certainly had a magnetic personality.

Yet all these attributes are those of an individual. One of the important themes of Smith’s book is that, remarkable though Rasputin may have been, he could not on his own have brought down the tsarist autocracy, as his murderers thought he had, or saved it, as the tsarina believed he could. He was seen as the heretic who was shaking the foundations of the Orthodox Church, as the corrupter who had rendered the monarchy untenable, as the Satanic sower of discord who broke the ancient and sacred ties that bound the narod to the tsar. He was seen as a peace lover who, as one of his many biographers wrote in 1964, was the “only man in Russia capable of averting” the First World War. Rasputin himself said that it was only his continued existence that kept the tsar on the throne.

When Rasputin’s assassins dumped his body in the Neva, his mourning devotees took pailfuls of water from the icy river, as though his corpse had made it holy, while all over Russia his enemies rejoiced. His murderers – Prince Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitry and the rest – were hailed as the heroes who had saved the Romanov regime and redeemed Holy Russia. But nothing changed. Two months after Rasputin’s mauled and frozen body was dragged from beneath the ice, the revolution began. The tsar abdicated, and the joke went around that now the royal flag was no longer flying over the imperial palace, but only a pair of Rasputin’s trousers.

Early on in the process of planning his book, Smith writes, he wisely decided that to confine himself to the facts would be absurdly self-limiting. “To separate Rasputin from his mythology, I came to realise, was to completely misunderstand him.” In 1916 an astute observer of Russian politics noted in his diary that: “What really matters is not what sort of influence Grishka [Rasputin] has on the emperor, but what sort of influence the people think he has” (my italics). It’s true, and Smith agrees. “The most important truth about Rasputin,” he writes, “was the one Russians carried around in their heads.”

Smith, accordingly, gives us a plethora of rumours and canards. Over and over again in this book he tells a sensational story, full of salacious or politically complex detail and drawn from an authoritative-sounding contemporary source, only to show in the next paragraph that the story cannot possibly be true. As a result, we get an admirably encyclopaedic account of the fantasy life of early-20th-century Russians, as well as a multifaceted image of the Rasputin of their imagination. We do sometimes, though, get bogged down in the mass of material – factual or fictional – being offered us. This book will be invaluable to all subsequent writers on the subject, but general readers may wish, as I did, that Smith had at times allowed himself a clarifying generalisation rather than piling case history upon unreliable memoir upon clutch of mutually contradictory reports. This is a richly illuminating book, but it is not a lucid one.

At its centre is Rasputin, and for all the multiplicity of contemporary descriptions, and for all Smith’s laudable scholarship, he remains an area of darkness. By the time he came to fame he was no longer illiterate, but his own writings are opaque and incoherent. It is hard to read the man between the lines. Photographs (there are some haunting examples in here) seem to tell us more, but they are enigmatic.

Just occasionally, in this great, rambling edifice of a book, we glimpse him, as though far off down an endless corridor: a young seeker, vibrating with energy and self-mortifying religious fervour; a charismatic celebrity, already talking as he strides into a salon in the shirt an empress has embroidered for him; a hunted man walking home, tailed by a posse of secret agents, and drinking himself into a stupor as he awaits the attack he knew was bound to come.

And yet, for the most part, despite Douglas Smith’s herculean efforts, the man remains inscrutable. “What is Rasputin?” asked the Russian journal the Astrakhan Leaflet in 1914. “Rasputin is a nothing. Rasputin is an empty place. A hole!”

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War” (Fourth Estate)

Rasputin by Douglas Smith is published by Macmillan (817pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage