Daniel Snowman meets the historian of Russia and its peoples.
When I first met Geoffrey Hosking in the 1970s, he was a lecturer in History at the University of Essex but his current enthusiasm was Russian literature. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky? No, he said: recent and present-day Russian literature. Dissident literature, then – all that samizdat stuff? Again, no. He was interested in novelists published in the USSR of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, some of whom, he said, were really rather good. Here, evidently, was a man who sidestepped the stereotypes.
He always had. At Cambridge, Hosking read Modern Languages but his PhD was in Russian history (with a thesis on the Duma of 1907-14). In mid-doctorate, he took a year off to go to St Antony’s, Oxford, for a crash course on Western European history, which he didn’t feel he knew enough about. Then, with all those years of languages and variegated history under his belt (and a still-to-be completed PhD), he was offered a lectureship in yet another subject: Government. The new University of Essex did not yet have a History or Russian Studies Department so Hosking, now in his mid-twenties, found himself having to teach (and therefore learn about) Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, comparative political cultures, input-output theory and the structures and functions of the state. With so many topics floating seductively past his purview (not to mention a year lecturing on Revolutions to huge assemblages of students in Madison, Wisconsin), a less disciplined person might easily have become lost to serious scholarship. But if others pursued the path to dilettantism, Hosking used his intellectual versatility to help fuel his guiding light, the flame of Russian history.