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Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture: Russia’s revolution and the destruction of the past

Professor Catherine Merridale said that Russia shows us how history matters and called on historians to be witnesses to a past that is vanishing from public consciousness

On Monday 22 May, Professor Catherine Merridale delivered the Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture 2017 on ‘Russia’s revolution and the destruction of the past’.

Catherine Merridale is the author of several books on Russian history, the latest of which is ‘Lenin on the Train’, which tells the story of Lenin’s famous journey to Russian in April 2017. She has spent many years travelling to, living in and studying the Soviet Union and Russia.

Observing that, thanks to social media and 24 hours news coverage, we live in a permanent present and lack organic links to a public past, Merridale painted our screens not as windows onto the world, but mirrors that reflect back our own values, social groupings and chosen identities, but don’t force us to confront uncomfortable issues. In contrast, she promised to use her lecture as a mirror – to reveal the scale of some of the illusions that both British and Russian society have lived under in recent decades.

Merridale took the audience on a fascinating journey through the red and brown streets and corridors of Soviet Russia, which she first visited in 1982; the rapid change and burst of both capitalism and crime following Gorbachev’s perestroika; and the latest changes to Russian society under Putin. As well as vividly conjuring the sights, sounds and sensations of a changing Russia, Merridale encouraged the audience to hold up the mirror to our own society, and consider how a ‘naïve, well-intentioned visitor’ would view us, pointing out that outsiders are ‘the first to notice the absurd’.

Concluding her lecture, Merridale discussed the ‘confusion’ in Russia over how best to mark the centenary of their revolution this year, once again highlighting that the desire for a ‘one-click’ version of history is not unique to Russia. She called on historians to act as witnesses to a past that is vanishing from public consciousness, saying “Russia shows how history matters: politicians vie for it, national identity is built on it.” She reminded the audience how the destruction of the past is linked to the creation of fake news and that twisting language is a way of neutralising negative ideas. She highlighted the need for historians to resist becoming ‘battery historians’, by allowing the redefinition of their jobs and setting of their agendas by government bodies, and the need for them to continue to be ‘troublesome’ and to deploy the passion, energy, excitement and engagement that pervaded the work of great historians such as Eric Hobsbawm himself.

Read Hobsbawm Scholar Jack Watling's feature on the lecture: 'Merridale proposes historian as outsider in Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture 2017'

Eric Hobsbawm, 1917 – 2012

A lecturer at Birkbeck from 1947, Professor Hobsbawm taught at the College all of his professional life, and became its President in 2002. He died at the age of 95 on 1 October 2012.

In his memory, Birkbeck has set up the Hobsbawm Scholarship Fund to support the next generation of talented historians in their pursuit of original, high-quality research. To make a donation to the fund, please contact Chris Murphy (c.murphy@bbk.ac.uk), Director of Development and Alumni.

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