‘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
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Dr Anna Whittington is currently a Research Fellow at The International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences through the end of August 2019. She recently spoke with the HSE News Service about her work on changes in Soviet-era language policy, her thoughts on life in Moscow and how the city has changed, and much more.