What I’m Reading: An Interview with Catherine Merridale

tags: Russia, interview, Catherine Merridale

Erik Moshe is a freelance writer and an HNN Features Intern.

Catherine Merridale is a writer and historian with a special interest in Russian history. She is the author of Lenin on the Train, Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945 and Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History, which won the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize and the Wolfson History Prize in 2014. Her work has been translated into twenty languages, and previous books have been shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and have also won the Royal Society of Literature’s Heinemann Prize. She is a Fellow of the British Academy, and she has a First Class degree in history from King's College, Cambridge and a PhD from the University of Birmingham. Visit her website.

What books are you reading now?

I am reviewing Svetlana Alexievich's 1985 book, The Unwomanly Face of War, which I first read thirty years ago. It is about to be reissued in a new translation - a good one - but what strikes me is how distant the voices feel today. The Soviet Union has gone, of course, but the more troubling thing is that we now face different kinds of war, no less terrifying than the one she and her respondents describe.

What is your favorite history book?

I have too many favorites to pick just one! Perhaps my favorite is the one I'm about to read - whichever that is.

Why did you choose history as your career?

Because it is endless. Historians can write about anything. It is a dialogue with the past, too, and not just at the collective level. You can't do it if it doesn't engage you personally and if you aren't prepared to change your mind as you work. The rewards are worth every effort. Writing history is a way of embracing the diversity of life.

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

Stamina! A willingness to sit for hours in libraries and archives - no other subject that I know calls for so much reading. You need a good memory, too, no matter how brilliant your note-taking techniques. And then you need imagination, humility and curiosity - you need to let your subject come alive in your own mind.

Which historical time period do you find to be the most fascinating?

Sorry. I don't have a favorite. It's always interesting to engage with times of rapid change, I suppose. But I also like to track the origins of things, small developments whose significance may have been imperceptible at the time. That's part of what I mean by history being endless.

Who was your favorite history teacher?

I'd rather tell you about my un-favorite. When I was at school, we were taught by a man who lectured us as he paced up and down the aisles between our desks. He wasn't merely boring, nor was he merely stupid. He was vindictive. He used to hit me over the head with our hardback textbook as a punishment for asking questions. “Insolent puppy,” he would snarl. I often think of him and wonder how on earth I managed not to hit him back.

What are your hopes for world and social history?

You mean as a discipline? The biggest problem I can see is parochialism. We are getting too interested in ourselves, in our emotions and families and the origins of our current thoughts, not least because we lack the language skills to look beyond such bounded worlds. The fragmentation of history reflects a deeper crisis in our public culture, and I would hope that in the future we'll be able to address that. We need more foreign language-teaching, more international exchanges and more cross-cultural discussion. We also need to write books that take readers outside the worlds they already know.

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

No. My parents ran an antique shop, so I'm immune to collecting as a hobby. We had clutter everywhere. I still do, but there's nothing particularly valuable under all that dust!

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

The most rewarding moment is when I start to see something clearly (and usually differently from what I expected). But I've also enjoyed meeting the many people who have contributed to my work or helped with it. It's been a continuing privilege. The most frustrating thing arises from the current pretense that universities are businesses where intellectual inquiry can be managed, and managed by people who neither understand nor value it.

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

There is still a huge amount of great work being done, but a good deal of the most popular stuff is not being written in universities. This change has largely come about because of the constraints our academics face. History used to be written by professors working alone and on their own initiative in the time they had when their teaching duties were all done. They worked very hard, they were astonishingly creative, and their books were challenging and original as well as popular. Such people still exist, but the pressure on them now is to work in teams and churn out papers rather than writing big books. One obvious result is that we lack an intellectual awkward squad. Given the political and social problems that we all face, this is the greatest pity.

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

We are no smarter than the dead.

What are you doing next?

Making a cup of tea and getting on with my job.

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