On the Spot: Daniel Beer

The historian of Russia on Dostoevsky, Foucault and sympathy for the Bolsheviks. 

Why are you a historian of Russia?
I read Dostoevsky when I was 16 and became hooked on Russian culture and history.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?
It exposes the limits of our imagination in the present.

Which book has had the greatest influence on you?
Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.

What book in your field should everyone read?
Stephen Kotkin’s Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilisation.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?
Slightly macabre, I know, but I’d like to witness the mock execution of Dostoevsky in St Petersburg in 1848.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?
Laura Engelstein’s writings on 19th-century Russian cultural history.

Which person in history would you most like to have met?
Jarosław Dąbrowski, Polish rebel and republican. Exiled to Siberia in 1864, he escaped by posing as a Russian officer and walking out of the gates before rescuing his wife. He went on to become commander of the Paris Commune and died defending its barricades.

What foreign languages do you speak?
My first degree was in modern languages so I now speak fluent French, German and Russian. I also have basic Hungarian.

What’s the point of counterfactualism?
It invites lots of vague speculation, but it can tease out important elements in a historical narrative.

What’s the most exciting field in history today?
None really; interdisciplinarity is where it’s at.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?
The October Revolution. As a student, I used to be far more sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, but I now see them as misanthropic, violent fanatics.

Which genre of history do you like least?
Biography.

Is there a major historical text you have not read?
Leon Trotsky’s A History of the Russian Revolution.

What’s your favourite archive?
The Tobolsk city archive in Western Siberia, which is just over the wall from the central penal labour prison.

What’s the best museum?
The Metropolitan, New York.

Tudors or Stuarts?
Tudors.

Normans or Anglo-Saxons?
Anglo-Saxons.

Rome or Athens?
Rome.

Cromwell or Charles I?
Cromwell.

Braudel or Gibbon?
Gibbon.

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