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European Values: From the Discovery of America to the First World War

European Values: From the Discovery of America to the First World War

Léon Cogniet. Scene of July 1830 (sketch of the July 1830 Revolution in France)

The English-language course ‘Europe and the World, ca. 1500 to 1914’ has launched on Coursera. Its author, Andrey Iserov, Deputy Dean for International Affairs at the HSE Faculty of Humanities, examines a historical span of four centuries during which European states reached the peak of their economic, military, and political power. Students of the course will learn how the independence of Hispanic America by the mid-1820s influenced China, what caused the religious schism in Western Christianity in the 16th century, and how European colonial policy developed.

Andrey Iserov

Mr. Iserov, your course covers the period from the turn of the 15th–16th centuries to the beginning of the 20th century. Which historical periods interested you most when you were a student?

I enrolled in the Department of Modern and Contemporary History of European and American Countries in the spring of my second year in the Faculty of History at Moscow State University. At the time, I was inspired by what is traditionally called ‘modernity’: the second half of the 20th century. As you know, the period was largely characterized by the rivalry between the two superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. As for antiquity? I decided that it would take too long for my knowledge of classical languages to reach the level of a pre-revolutionary high-school student. Pretty soon, I decided that I wanted to study earlier centuries. But we are all a product of modern times.

Why did you decide to record your own course? 

I was asked to record the course by the HSE Faculty of World Economy and World Politics. For that, I am deeply grateful to my colleagues—first and foremost to Andrey Skriba, and that’s not just common courtesy. As I was working on the course, I remembered that as a graduate student of Moscow State University, I thought there was no greater honor than delivering a course in modern history at a university. That’s how it turned out in the end, but there’s even more to it: as bold as it sounds, I’m delivering it to the whole world. I was surprised that Coursera had almost no courses that attempt such a broad generalization.

You begin your course with the European discovery of the New World. In his painting ‘The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus’, Salvador Dali compares the significance of this historical event to the dawn of space exploration. Do you agree with this metaphor?

Dali was a quite the profiteer, by the way. But of course, that’s commonplace. Those explorers saw a new world, isolated from the rest of the earth for thousands of years. The animals and plants were also different. So yes, it really was like space.

The European discovery of America led to the centuries-long global ascendancy of European states—and not only Spain and Portugal. In the words of Fernand Braudel (1902–1985), we can say that it bound various ‘world-economies’ into one world market. Incidentally, the case of Japan, which had no flow of precious metals from the New World and had to rely on its own forces, is even more interesting. Akira Hayami (1929–2019) called it an ‘Industrious Revolution’. 

It would, of course, be very interesting to construct a course of new history from the perspective of China and, more broadly, East Asia or the Indo-Iranian world. But I am exploring a time period when Eurocentrism, often wrongful in essence, can be excused.

What historical works are recommended for the course? 

I compiled a short reading list for the course. It turned out to be quite long. I have now reviewed it: it contains 143 monographs and summaries, some of which are multi-volume works. And those are only books written in English or translated into it. I tried to select the best works, usually those with a masterful combination of political and economic analysis, an understanding of sociopolitical structure and international relations, and the ability to see the bigger and smaller picture.

What is the narrative logic of the course? What topics are addressed?

Obviously, it is a matter of selection, of judging what’s important and what’s not. I try to explain the logic behind that in my lectures. I pay particular attention to the key recurring themes: the formation of the modern state, political systems, and the global capitalist market.

I begin with a brief overview of what the world was like by the time the Americas were discovered, and conclude with a brief overview of the situation before World War I. Topics include the religious schism in Western Christianity in the 16th century, China during the Manchurian Qing Dynasty, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the position of the working class, and international relations—including colonialism. The answers to some of the questions posed in the course are more or less clear; many others have no definitive answers, but the range of possible answers is also quite different in each case. Who could explain why the Chinese prosperity of the eighteenth century—the golden age of Emperor Qianlong—was replaced by the deep crisis of the nineteenth century?

What interesting historical correlations and progressions are presented in the course?

There are a few examples. The independence of Hispanic America, achieved by the mid-1820s after devastating wars, affected China by reducing the flow of precious metals into its economy. Since the time of Max Weber, it has been common to attribute the economic success of Northwest Europe and the United States to the spirit of Calvinism, while in the 1930s it was used to explain the poverty and lack of enterprise among the Boers in South Africa. But what is certain is that the religious schism—the Reformation and Counter-Reformation—has predetermined much of the debate about the nature of state power and, ultimately, the concept of the social contract.

The course demonstrates the intense growth of Europe’s economic, military, and political power between the 16th and 20th centuries. What is Europe’s position on the global stage today?

I suppose readers know the answer as well as I do. Even if we limit ourselves to the strictly legal framework of the European Union, it makes up 6% of the world’s population. If we add the UK, Australia, New Zealand, North and South America, the former Soviet Union, and, say, Turkey, it will make up a quarter. Clearly, the question is what counts as ‘Europe’ and how do we determine how important these borders are. Let’s put it this way: the Americas were settled by Europeans, although indigenous populations remained everywhere, especially in South America. But the languages there are European: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch. The populations of Australia and New Zealand are from Great Britain. As for Russia, in general, it turns out that the argument ‘Europe or not Europe’ has become important in public thought, and all kind of nonsense has been written on the subject. But China is definitely not Europe—not even Alexander the Great got that far. And the Chinese didn’t go west either. In the past, it would have been called Christian civilization, although Christians remained after the advent of Islam in the Middle East and they were always present in India. But they didn’t define life there.

If we turn to the EU, it makes up 15–16% of the global economy—on par with China and the United States. To many in the world, the EU is still an example of a fair state and society. English is the global lingua franca, but the center of the global economy and science is clearly shifting to the planet’s demographic heartland: East Asia and partly South Asia.

What does the course offer students in addition to historical context? 

One of the assignments is to write an essay on a controversial issue based on the lecture material: students must clearly state the arguments for and against and come to their own conclusions. I flatter myself with the hope that the course teaches one to think, and to think historically, keeping in mind a huge volume of diverse information, and seeing, to use Bakhtin’s term, both ‘the great time’ and the immediate situation filled with various (but not all) opportunities, including those that appear by chance.

Text prepared by Ekaterina Zinkovskaya

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