On the Spot: Archie Brown

History has taught me that even ‘unreformable’ systems can be reformed or dismantled from within.

Interior of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Michael D Beckwith/Wiki Commons.

Why are you a historian of the Soviet Union?

Because Leonard Schapiro put the idea in my head.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?

That even ‘unreformable’ systems can be reformed or dismantled from within. 

Which history book has had the greatest influence on you?

John Millar’s The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks (1779).

What book in your field should everyone read?

Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan’s Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation (1996).

Which moment would you most like to go back to?

1988-89, when there was still a chance that a transformed Soviet state would become part of a unified Europe.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?

R.H. Tawney, Leonard Schapiro and Alec Nove.

Which person in history would you most like to have met?

Adam Smith, in his years as a Glasgow University professor.

How many languages do you have?

The only foreign language I use regularly in research is Russian. 

What’s the most exciting field in history today?

Intellectual history, but I see no need to be be prescriptive.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?

I viewed all communist countries as, by definition, totalitarian until a study visit to Czechoslovakia in 1965.  

Which genre of history do you like least?

The nationalist and triumphalist.

Is there an important historical text you have not read?


What’s your favourite archive? 

The Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow and the Reagan Presidential Library Archives in Simi Valley, California.

What’s the best museum? 

Personal favourites are the Kelvingrove in Glasgow and the Ashmolean in Oxford.

Normans or Anglo-Saxons? 

Normans – for their architecture. 

Rome or Athens? 


Braudel or Gibbon? 


Michelangelo or Frida Kahlo?


What is the most common misconception about your field?

The belief that Soviet leaders had no alternative but to yield to American military might and Western economic superiority. 

What will future generations judge us most harshly for?

If we fail to address climate change, we will not have an endless succession of future generations capable of passing judgement.


Archie Brown’s latest book isThe Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher, and the End of the Cold War (Oxford, 2020).