History, subverted by Putin, could help free Russia from its flawed mindset | Simon Sebag Montefiore

If ever there was a moment that revealed that you can have too much history, it is this one. When Vladimir Putin wrote his 2021 essay on the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, based on his distorted version of history, and then deployed it to justify his invasion of sovereign Ukraine, it demonstrated how often history is used to control the present.


Putin’s “history” was soon backed up by bombing, bullets and barbarism. But what is more important is how people wish to live now. And the Ukrainians have demonstrated their own wishes with incredible courage.

That is one lesson for history-lovers this year. Another is that history is powerful, but it has to be accurate: the historian’s mission must be to fight for that. Putin’s version is so selective and narrow as to be meaningless – but that mistake can also apply to other histories. History must always be a quest for truth without the diktats of ideology. Without perspective, it can be futile. We rightly study the imperialism of European empires, yet few scholars of imperialism were studying a ferocious dictator about to launch an imperialist war in Europe today.

The 2022 invasion shows how the Russians themselves are prisoners of their history and of their imperial self-image and armed mission. The Russian empire was created by Peter the Great and, whether ruled by tsars, general-secretaries or presidents, it has yet to find another identity and narrative. The study of Russian history can help set Russians free, too. Historians have risked their lives in their quest to record true accounts of the past that often clashed with the political orders of the present. In Putin’s Russia, historians have been denounced – or accused of false crimes, or gone silent, or been forced into exile. Many of the historians who helped me write my Stalin biographies are no longer working in Russia.

A real account of the country’s history is a prerequisite for any development of Russian democracy. This is just one example of why history matters: we in the democracies are lucky to be able to write and read it freely and argue about it. But whether here or in the cruel dictatorships of, say, Russia or Iran, free history is a characteristic of a free nation. Writing it is a noble mission.

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More than that, the Russian invasion marks the end of the exceptional and unique 77 years of relative peace that followed the Second World War. Democracy is being challenged by a different vision of values and geopolitics. The values hard won in 1945, consolidated in the great liberal reformation of the 1960s, are no longer taken for granted: they have to be fought for all over again. Normal disorder has been resumed – but this time with the new perils of climate change and nuclear war.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s latest book is The World: A Family History (W&N, 2022)

Last year’s political chaos in Britain isn’t unprecedented – remember the 1920s | Richard Toye

The rise and rapid fall of Liz Truss as prime minister made it feel as though the rollercoaster of British politics was out of control. But although the political instability of the past year may seem unprecedented, history provides a useful (though inexact) parallel. A century ago, the decision of Conservative MPs to withdraw support from the governing coalition led by a Liberal, David Lloyd George, led to the installation of a new Tory premier in Downing Street. He was Andrew Bonar Law, who quickly won a big general election victory. Within months, though, he was forced to retire by the cancer that would quickly kill him. His surprise replacement was the little-known Stanley Baldwin, whose relative inexperience contributed to the mistake that put an end to his first spell in Downing Street.

In late 1923, having decided that unemployment could be cured only by protectionist tariffs (which Bonar Law had pledged would not be introduced in the current parliament), Baldwin called a snap election to gain the mandate he needed – but instead lost his majority. This set the stage for the first (minority) Labour government, which took office under Ramsay MacDonald in January 1924. In the autumn, Baldwin returned to power on the back of an electoral landslide. He then served virtually a full term; some form of calm seemed to have settled (though 1926 brought the turbulence of the General Strike). These events show that rapid changes of government and prime minister are not unprecedented. Arguably, in the aftermath of the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution, the stakes were higher even than they are today. And in fact, with the rise of Labour to become a party of government, and the ongoing decline of the Liberals, the 1922–24 period saw a more profound reorientation of the political system than seems to be occurring now. But the final lesson of historical crisis may be that the consequences of defining events are not always foreseeable at the moment they happen.

Richard Toye is professor of history at the University of Exeter

National debt can be better managed – we can learn from the South Sea Bubble | Anne Murphy

The events of 2022 have provided a stark reminder of the extent to which “the markets” affect public finances. As we saw in the autumn – particularly following the then-chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget, proposing large-scale and unfunded tax cuts – losing the confidence of the City raises the cost of borrowing for governments, and higher interest rates have a negative effect on other aspects of the economy. This tension between the financial needs of the state and the nature of the market has been played out before. The modern national debt is rooted in the 1690s when, following the Glorious Revolution that brought him to power, William III had taken his newly acquired nation to war against France.

One of the first 50p coins to feature the head of Charles III in October 2022
One of the first 50p coins to feature the head of Charles III
in October 2022. (Image by Getty Images)

From that time until the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Britain regularly needed to raise funds to fight wars that became global and increasingly expensive. In the battle to manage costs and build a reputation for probity, there were inevitable errors – with the South Sea Bubble of 1720 the one that springs most often to mind. To reduce the costs of public finance, the South Sea Company proposed an innovative scheme to convert government debt into company stock. But inducements to convert created a bubble that collapsed as quickly as it had inflated, leaving many investors out of pocket. Thus a bold attempt to reorganise public finance misfired because of overreaching ambition and poor management. The result was a collapse in share prices and a consequent public outcry. It took nearly 30 years of rebuilding trust to bring down interest rates after the Bubble burst.

Governments were then able to establish a better reputation for accountability in the management of the nation’s finances – a process assisted by the Bank of England, established in 1694. It was the Bank that managed the nation’s debt, and stood as the mediator between the state and its creditors. It did the mundane but essential work of providing a secure, regular service for the issuance and exchange of debt and the collection of dividends – and, it was generally accepted, did that work better than the exchequer. In doing so, it established its own reputation as the guardian of public credit, and created the foundations of trust between the government and the City. Some might say that a knowledge of early modern finance has not served us well so far this year. Yet, by the later 19th century, Britain had a financial system that was the envy of its European neighbours. Those seeking to understand how prolonged and deep national indebtedness can be managed could do worse than revisit that period.

Anne Murphy is professor of history at the University of Portsmouth

The accession of a new monarch sparks uncertainty – for crown and state alike | Tracy Borman

For some time, it was predicted that 2022 would be a significant year for the British monarchy. Having already beaten Queen Victoria’s record to become Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, Elizabeth II would mark an extraordinary 70 years on the throne. The platinum jubilee celebrations took place over a four-day bank holiday weekend in June, with a series of spectacular events staged in central London. But, just two months later, it was completely overshadowed by something far more profound. In the early evening of 8 September, the flag at Buckingham Palace was raised to half-mast and a framed notice was attached to the front gates by the household staff. The brief announcement read: “The Queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon. The King and the Queen Consort will remain at Balmoral this evening and will return to London tomorrow.”

The future Queen Elizabeth II in 1950
The future Queen Elizabeth II in 1950. (Image by Getty Images)

Even though Elizabeth II was 96 years old at the time of her passing, there was an overwhelming sense of shock. In the days and weeks that followed, her former subjects grappled with the novelty of hearing “God Save the King”, of seeing King Charles III’s face on newly minted coins, bank notes and stamps, and the initials “CR” on official uniforms, and of anticipating the King’s Christmas speech. So often in the long history of the British monarchy, the lack of heirs has proved problematic. Not so for the House of Windsor. Ironically, given that the late queen initiated the Succession to the Crown Act of 2013, ending centuries of male primogeniture, there are at least two kings in prospect after Charles III. Yet though the House of Windsor looks to be set fair for the future – at least in terms of its progeny and the succession – Elizabeth II’s death still felt like the end of an era. Not for the first time in the crown’s history, the culmination of such a long reign was a destabilising time.

The same was true when the first Elizabeth died in 1603 – particularly because she was not only the longest-reigning Tudor but also the last monarch of that dynasty. Centuries of often hard-won experience have, though, equipped the institution of the monarchy for the uncertainty that inevitably follows the death of a sovereign. The extraordinary pomp and ceremony of the Queen’s lying in state and funeral was a testament to the deep affection and respect in which she was held across the world. But there was another purpose to the centuries-old pageantry that accompanied her final journey: it symbolised the continuity that lies at the heart of the British monarchy. As Lord Lyndhurst, who served as Lord High Chancellor during the reigns of three 19th-century monarchs, observed: “The sovereign always exists. The person only is changed.”

Tracy Borman is the author of Crown & Sceptre: A New History of the British Monarchy from William the Conqueror to Charles III (Hodder, 2022)

Why China views Taiwan as the last unfinished business of the Cold War | Rana Mitter

In August 2022 Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, visited the island of Taiwan, prompting Chinese commentators to condemn her visit as provocation by the US. This heated 21st-century spat, though, has its origins in the history of the mid-20th. In 1949, the Chinese communists led by Mao Zedong won a civil war and quickly conquered the mainland. But their opponents, the Nationalists (or Kuomintang), under the former Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek, retreated in their millions to an island off the coast of China. Taiwan had only recently returned to a unified China; in 1895 it had become a Japanese colony, before being liberated in 1945. Now it became the last redoubt of the Nationalists. In early 1950, it seemed likely that the communists would take the island, too.

Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai- shek
Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-
shek (right) in 1949, when he retreated to Taiwan. (image by Getty Images)

Then, that same year, China joined North Korea and the USSR to attack South Korea. Anti-communism in Asia became a US priority, and Taiwan was thrown a lifeline as a Cold War stronghold for Washington. After US recognition of the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1979, the US no longer recognised Taiwan as the rightful seat of Chinese government – but it did continue to provide the island with arms. This angered Beijing, and still does. The PRC regards Taiwan as the last unfinished business of the Cold War. Xi Jinping, now in his third term as Chinese leader, says that the incorporation of Taiwan into the PRC is a task that “cannot be left to future generations”. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has stimulated comparisons in China and the west. Beijing would argue that – unlike Ukraine – Taiwan is not a recognised state, so action against it would not violate international norms. But China has seen – and perhaps been surprised by – the strong western defence of Ukraine’s democracy. It will bear that in mind as it decides what to do about a unification that it regards as Mao’s last uncompleted task.

Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China at the University of Oxford


This article first appeared in the January 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine


Matt EltonDeputy Editor, BBC History Magazine

Matt Elton is BBC History Magazine’s Deputy Editor. He has worked at the magazine since 2012 and has more than a decade’s experience working across a range of history brands.