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Regular version of the site

Anthony John Heywood on the Weather and Tsarist Russia’s War Effort

Anthony John Heywood, Chair in History at the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy, (University of Aberdeen), recently took part in the international conference ‘Russia in the First World War’, which was organized by the HSE’s International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and its Consequences and took place on June 3-5, 2014. He spoke with the HSE news service about his interests in weather, Russia’s railways, the study of history in today’s society, as well as his impressions of collaborating with Russian colleagues.

Anthony John Heywood, Chair in History at the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy, (University of Aberdeen), recently took part in the international conference ‘Russia in the First World War’, which was organized by the HSE’s International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and its Consequences and took place on June 3-5, 2014. He spoke with the HSE news service about his interests in weather, Russia’s railways, the study of history in today’s society, as well as his impressions of collaborating with Russian colleagues.

— What do you see as the main goal of the conference and how could you evaluate the discussions?

— The main academic goal of the conference, as I see it, was to provide an opportunity to discuss the latest research being done on Russia’s experience of the First World War. Of course, there’s also the important opportunity to raise the public profile of our work that is offered by the centenary of the outbreak of the war.

I thought that the discussions were really good.  The format allowed about 25-30 minutes for discussion if the papers were presented within 20 minutes each. Most people respected the time limit – the organizers’ yellow and red card system was inspired — and so we did get some time for questions.

— Your report is titled ‘Friend or Foe? “General Winter” and Tsarist Russia’s War Effort, 1914-1917’. Why are you interested in this period? What are the major findings in your research? 

— I have been interested in both World Wars since I was about 10 years old, particularly because my paternal grandfather fought at Gallipoli in 1915 and on the Western Front in 1916-18, and because my parents both lived through WW2 as children in the county of Kent, which was in the front line of the German air raids against Britain in 1940-41. I have been interested in railways, and especially steam locomotives, since the age of about 3.  I became interested in Russian history and especially the 1917 revolutions after I started learning the Russian language at school as a teenager. Eventually I merged my interests in history, railways, WW1 and Russia to specialize in the history of the Russian railways in the early twentieth century. I’m currently writing a book on the history of the Russian railways in WW1.

My research interest in the weather arose out of the importance for the railways of dealing effectively with severe winter weather. It struck me that, in contrast to 1812 and 1941/42 in particular where the impact of the winter weather on invading forces seems well known, we don’t know much about the winter weather and its impact during WW1. My initial aim, and the focus of this paper, is to clarify the nature of that weather in European Russia during 1914-17; then I will try to assess the impact. My initial findings are that the first two winters were relatively mild, whereas the third winter was exceptionally severe. So we now have the question of how far that bad weather should be seen as a cause of the February revolution.

— Why is it so important to remember the history lessons and attract the public’s attention to national and world history?

— I am wary about saying that there are specific lessons to be learnt from the past: circumstances change, the people are different – there are so many variables. On the other hand, I believe that every society does need a corpus of professional historians who engage with the society’s past and indeed the histories of other countries and continents in a truly critical manner. It seems to me that, in particular, the lack of that kind of dispassionate critical analysis within the USSR prior to the mid-1980s was a serious problem for Soviet society.

— You have been working in Russia for your research on the importance of Russia's railways in 1917. What are your impressions of working and living in Russia?

— I first visited the USSR as student in 1982 and as a postgraduate researcher in 1988. The country has obviously changed in many ways since that time. What’s made the most difference to me personally is that I have been able to get access to the archives and meet and collaborate with Russian colleagues. The international centennial project ’Russia’s Great War and Revolution, 1914-1922‘, which I help to run, would have been inconceivable 25 years ago. And the fact that we can have the active involvement of Professors Budnitskii, Novikova and other Russian colleagues has made the project qualitatively far better than would otherwise have been the case.

— What is next on your research plate? 

— I need to finish my book about the Russian railways in WW1. I’ve worked a lot in Petersburg, and now I need to spend time in the Moscow archives. After that, I’d like to pursue the weather question further, maybe do a book about that.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for the HSE news service

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