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Regular version of the site

‪‘When We Study History, We Must Be Introspective’

Nathan Marcus, Assistant Professor of History, recently joined the HSE campus in St. Petersburg. A scholar of Modern European History, he has a book that will soon be published by Harvard University Press. Recently, he spoke with the HSE news service about his research and teaching interests, as well as on the important role that studying history plays in today’s society.

— Several local surveys have shown that young people don't know much about Russian and Soviet history, which is a shame and a sad commentary on school and family education. What justification would you offer for studying history in general?

— Studying history and gaining a good knowledge of the past is absolutely essential for making informed decisions. As individuals, we learn through experience, and this holds true for societies, too. Of course, circumstances change and we cannot simply extrapolate from the past to the present. But look at the recent global financial crisis. Economists around the world were not sufficiently trained in financial history. They ignored the likelihood of a systemic crisis, of a ‘black-swan event’. Hopefully, this is about to change.  

— ‪What do you find attractive in your subject of Modern European history? How is your course structured?

— When teaching and studying the history of modern Europe my focus is on financial history. First, because I am strong believer in interdisciplinary approaches. Financial history brings together the quantitative approach of economists with the qualitative analysis of historians. And second, because money makes the world go round. We cannot understand the history of modern Europe without a good understanding of how its financial markets, economic structures and monetary policies have evolved since the French Revolution.

— ‪You came to HSE in 2014. What were your first impressions of living and working in St. Petersburg?

— I had never been to St. Petersburg before arriving here in September last year. I am absolutely thrilled to be living and teaching in this city. It’s a very friendly and welcoming place, easy to navigate and visually stunning. Moving here from Israel I was also happy to find a thriving Jewish community in place.

I am very impressed with their comprehensive language skills, which I think compare very favourably with those of other students I have taught abroad.

— ‪What are your teaching and research goals for 2014—2015?

— I am currently putting the final changes to my book  ‘Credibility, Confidence and Capital: Austrian reconstruction and the collapse of global finance, 1921-1931’,  which will come out with Harvard University Press. At HSE, I continue to teach courses in economic and financial history to undergraduates and as of next year to graduate students as well.

— ‪St. Petersburg is a very special historical place not only for Russia but also for the entire world. What are your favourite places there?

— Nevsky Prospect of course! It has certainly changed since Gogol’s famous ‘Nevsky Prospkt’ was published in 1835, which told the stories of Piskaryov and Pirogov. Still, it is the one place where the city’s inhabitants, young and old, poor and rich come together each day.   

— ‪You speak English, German, French and Hebrew, which definitely makes your research of the modern world easier. Are you studying Russian? How is your communication with students going?

— I started picking up Russian and I hope to be fluent soon. It’s a difficult language to learn, but the large amount of foreign words helps. With my students, I communicate in English and I am very impressed with their comprehensive language skills, which I think compare very favourably with those of other students I have taught abroad.

— ‪What have you personally learned from studying history? Does it help you understand life and life processes better?

— History is one of academia’s oldest disciplines and its origins stretch back to antiquity. Some situate it in the social sciences, others in the humanities. That tells you something. One reason for history’s popularity is that past events are so often used to justify present-day ideologies or policies. That is why it is so important that history is also introspective. When we study history, we not only study the past, but we also think about how to study the past. Through studying history, we discover the varied processes, ideologies, fallacies and mechanisms that shaped and informed human behaviour in the past, and which continue to do so in the present.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service

See also:

Scarcity Trauma: Why Russia in the 1990s Was not Nostalgic about Soviet Life

In 2001, ten years after the launch of reforms in Russia, 54% of Russians  believed  the main achievement of the reforms was the availability of consumer goods, rather than freedom of speech or the possibility of travelling  abroad. A decade later, public attitudes had not changed, and the availability of goods on store shelves was still perceived as the number one priority. The massive trauma caused by scarcity was particularly strong. How it was addressed and in what way it influenced public attitudes after the USSR collapse is examined in a study  by HSE professor Oleg Khlevnyuk.

Underground Capitalist in Soviet Russia

Nikolai Pavlenko, a shadow entrepreneur and creator of a successful business in Stalin’s USSR, was executed by firing squad in 1955. Running a successful commercial enterprise right under the dictator’s nose in a strictly planned economy was a striking but not so uncommon case in the Soviet Union at the time, according to HSE professor Oleg Khlevniuk who made a number of unexpected findings having studied newly accessible archival documents. Below, IQ.HSE offers a summary of what his study reveals.

From Chains to Art Therapy: The Evolution of Mental Health Care

Mental health disorders are among the leading worldwide causes of disease and long-term disability. This issue has a long and painful history of gradual de-stigmatization of patients, coinciding with humanization of therapeutic approaches. What are the current trends in Russia regarding this issue and in what ways is it similar to and different from Western countries? IQ.HSE provides an overview of this problem based on research carried out by Svetlana Kolpakova.

Introduction to Daurian Gothic: What It Is and How It Has Emerged in Transbaikalia

Medieval horror, vampires, sorcerers, mysterious monks and the rising dead, alongside real historical figures and stories about the Russian Civil War wrapped in the aura of mysticism – this is perhaps the shortest formula for Daurian Gothic. Alexei Mikhalev, Doctor of Political Science, discusses this phenomenon and its evolution.

Russian and French Scholars Present Research on Soviet History at Graduate Seminar

The International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and its Consequences at HSE University held a Graduate Student Seminar in Soviet History together with Sciences Po (France) on June 17 – 18, 2019. HSE News Service spoke with participants and instructors of the seminar, which examinedthe impact of WWII on the Soviet Union and surrounding regions, as well as aspects of the Soviet system from Stalin up to the 1980s.

In Search of Truth in the Pravda Newspaper

On June 24-25, HSE University held the international academic conference, ‘The 1990s: A Social History of Russia’ organized by International Center for the History and Sociology of World World War II and its Consequences, the Boris Yeltsin Center, the Egor Gaider Foundation, and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. HSE News Service spoke with Roberto Rabbia, one of the international participants, about how he became interested in Soviet history, why he reads Soviet newspapers, and what he has learned from his research.

HSE History Professor Feels at Home in Moscow’s Multicultural Environment

Martin Beisswenger has been a professor in HSE’s School of History since 2013. Recently, HSE News Service sat down with him to learn about his impressions of Moscow, his research projects, the course he is currently teaching and more.

Library Night at HSE: Shakespeare, Museums and Quests

Almost 40 teams took part in the ‘Through the pages of Basmania’ quest, organized by the Higher School of Economics as part of an annual citywide event, Library Night. Event participants also staged passages from Romeo and Juliet and attended lectures about theatre at HSE library.

Exploring Global Politics, Culture, Art and Propaganda in the Social Media Age

Today, we have moved from the political concept of panem et circenses (bread and circuses) to keep the masses happy to the dangers of culture driven by spectacle and politics driven by algorithms. Post-war theoreticians of the crowd had personal experience of fascism, and today contemporary artists are attempting to address similar problems. During the XX April International Academic Conference on Economic and Social Development, scheduled this year for April 9-12 at the Higher School of Economics, Sarah Wilson, Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, will explore some of these issues in her presentation 'Culture and Emigration, Crowds and Power.'

How Equality Started in Research

Legally, the 1917 revolution solved the gender issue in the Russian academic community. The doors to the profession opened for women, but a ‘glass ceiling’ remained. Ekaterina Streltsova and Evgenia Dolgova studied who it affected and why. This study is the first to present a socio-demographic analysis of the female academic community in Moscow and Leningrad during the early Soviet era.