On the Spot: Rodric Braithwaite

‘Great leaders are much less in control of events than people imagine.’

The Dorset Museum
The Dorset County Museum, photographed in 2017. Wiki Commons/Geni.

Why are you a historian of Russia?

My family had Russian associations: writing its history helps me understand the place.

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

Great leaders are much less in control of events than people imagine.

Which history book has had the greatest influence on you?

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

What book in your field should everyone read?

E.H. Carr’s What is History?

Which moment would you most like to go back to?

Elizabeth I’s great speech at Tilbury. I’d like to know what she actually said.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?

Gibbon is the one I most admire.

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

Catherine the Great, provided I was an observer – the British ambassador, perhaps – and not a member of her court.

How many languages do you have?

Russian, German, French, Italian, remains of Polish. My patchy Indonesian is gone.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?

I greatly overestimated the influence of the Mongols on modern Russian history.

What is the most common misconception about your field?

That historians can predict the future.

Which genre of history do you like least?

Impenetrable peer-reviewed history.

What’s the most exciting field in history today?

All are exciting if they’re properly done.

Is there an important historical text you have not read?

I’ve only read one volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, the best guide to US politics I know.

What’s your favourite archive?

The National Archives.

What’s the best museum?

The Dorset Museum.

What technology has changed the world the most?

The wheel (still).

The Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean?

The Mediterranean.

Historical drama or documentary?

If they’re accurate, both.

The Parthenon or Machu Picchu?

The Parthenon.

What will future generations judge us most harshly for?

What all generations judge their predecessors for: our inability to stop killing one another.


Rodric Braithwaite was British Ambassador in Moscow during the fall of the Soviet Union. His latest book is Russia: Myths and Realities (Profile, 2022).