Historian Daniel Beer on Russian history, the joys of archival research and his Non-Fiction Crown shortlisted book, The House of the Dead.
The HWA Non-fiction Crown celebrates the best in historical non-fiction writing. Have you always been interested in history?
Yes, I have, but I came to Russian history in particular through my interest in Russian literature (my first degree was in Modern Languages).
How did the initial idea for The House of the Dead come about?
The very idea of Siberia as a place of punishment runs like a dark skein through nineteenth-century Russian literature, from Tolstoy to Dostoevsky and Chekhov. I was intrigued to find out more about this system of punishment that loomed so large in the imagination of nineteenth-century Russians.
What attracted you to this period and subject particularly?
Nineteenth-century Russia is an astonishing place. So much of what we take for granted in the modern world – private property as the foundation of the social order, the inevitability of the rise of capitalism and urbanisation, representative forms of government – are all still up for grabs. Dostoevsky, who himself spent four years in a penal fort in Western Siberia, wrote that you can gauge the civilisation of society when you step through the doors of its prisons. The exile system struck me as a novel way to examine the Russian Empire’s violent collision with the political and social forces of the modern world.
How do you approach research and how do you know when you’ve done enough?
This was the first major archival study I’ve undertaken – I spent about a year and a half in archives in St. Petersburg, Moscow and in Siberian towns and cities. It takes a long time to figure out how the archival holdings are structured and even then, the catalogues are very often unhelpfully enigmatic, bearing file names such as “correspondence about exiles”. It’s a little like panning for gold. Days can pass without encountering much of interest and then suddenly I’d stumble across a fantastic file that contained detailed stories of individual exiles, tales of murder, betrayal, endurance and survival. There was always, though, a nagging sense of anxiety upon leaving an archive after a couple of months of research in, for example, Irkutsk, because I knew that I had no realistic prospect of being able to pop back any time soon if I realised there was something really important that I’d missed. Fortunately, by the time actually I sat down to write, my problem was a surfeit rather than a shortage of material!
Did your research for this book turn up anything unexpected?
Yes, certainly it did. I think that what really stood out for me was the endemic chaos and lack of administrative control that characterised the exile system across the nineteenth century. What should have been a formidable demonstration of state power – the power to banish criminal or insurgent populations to the furthest reaches of a vast continental empire – actually proved to be an indictment of the weakness and highly improvised nature of tsarist power. The other major discovery for me was quite how important Siberia was in the development of the Russian revolutionary movement. Generations of rebels – republicans, nationalists and socialists – were condemned to oblivion thousands of kilometres from European Russia. But over the nineteenth century these political exiles transformed Siberia’s mines, prisons and remote settlements into a vast workshop of revolution. By the outbreak of WWI Siberian exile had become a rite of passage for the men and women who would soon rule Russia.
Clare Mulley, Chair of Judges, said of the shortlisted books, ‘Each of these six exceptional books engages with the past in a way that resonates powerfully today.’ Were you conscious of any modern day parallels when writing the book?
Yes, inevitably, a tsarist state crushing even the mildest forms of dissent at home and sending forth armies to suppress rebellious populations on its borders has striking parallels with the conduct of the Russian state today. Some of the testimony of revolutionaries exiled to Siberia in the 1830s sounds as though it could have been uttered by opponents of Putin’s regime today! I steered clear, however, of actually spelling out these parallels in the book: I leave it to the reader to draw them.
Which history books would be on your personal shortlist?
I regret that I don’t find the time to read as much as I would like outside of my own relatively narrow bit of European history. Stephen Smith’s Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890-1928 (OUP 2017) is an excellent and fresh take on the Revolution in this centenary year. Robert Gerwarth’s The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923 (Allen Lane, 2016) is a superb examination of how the violence of WWI incubated the brutal regimes that dominated Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. I also really enjoyed reading the Wolfson Prize winner Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (Allen Lane, 2016) which is an imaginative and exhilarating way of examining not only about the past but also the historian’s craft.
Do you think the historical novelist can add to the study of history?
Oh, absolutely! I think that works by writers like Hilary Mantel and James Meek can bring the past to life in ways that are brilliantly researched and utterly compelling. I’m slightly envious of the liberties that novelists can take in fleshing out their characters and events whereas the historian cannot embellish the often frustratingly fragmentary historical record.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
So, my next project is provisionally entitled “The Emperor Hunt” and is a study of the terrorist campaign to assassinate Alexander II waged between 1878 and 1881 by a small radical group known as “The People’s Will”. Spoiler alert: the terrorists finally get their man on 1 March 1881 and the assassination is akin to the Empire’s own 9/11. It shapes the politics of tsarist Russia right through until 1917.
And finally, just for fun, can you describe your book in five words?
Siberia: Laboratory of the Revolution
Daniel Beer is Reader in Modern European History at Royal Holloway, University of London. The House of the Dead was shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize, the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize and the Longman History today prize. It is up for the HWA Non-Fiction Crown which will be awarded on 7 November 2017.