Historians of Russia: John Lawrence

There weren’t all that many books I bought when a student, but one that made of great impression on me was John Lawrence’s A History of Russia, the first edition of which appreared in 1957; I must have read one of the revised versions, which continued to appear until 1993. Lawrence, an old Etonian and an Oxford graduate whose second given name, rarely used, was Waldemar, worked in the Soviet Union for the BBC World Service and the British Embassy during World War II. He had some remarkable experiences, one of which, his receiving the Metropolitan of Kiev, is told in this book, and he founded what has been said to have been the only uncensored periodical to appear in the USSR, the British Ally (Britansky Soyuznik). He fell in love with the Russian people. When a group of German prisoners were made to march through Moscow, ‘I mixed with the dense crowds who had come to watch and I heard hardly a word of reproach but many words of pity such as “Poor men, how hard for them to be so far from home” and “How they must miss their mothers.”‘ He continued to visit Russia after the war.

His History is not the work of a trained scholar who studied in archives, and is obviously the product of someone of a certain class writing at a certain time. The introductory passage from David Jones and the passage of five lines he quotes in Latin from Vergil that is followed by the translation of it by Dryden (!) set a tone, and some of what he writes reflects outmoded understandings; I doubt whether anyone would see Vergil’s words as providing an unproblematic description of life in a Russian dug-out. The History doesn’t tell us as much about Russian literature or art as I would like. But Lawrence was extraordinarily capable of seeing the big picture. For people writing during the Cold War, it was difficult to determine just how much weight to place on the events of 1917 and the period after them. In the edition of the book that takes the story as far as the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Revolution occurs about two thirds of the way along, which strikes me as a judicious balance for someone writing then, although as time passes the significance accorded the Revolution and its aftermath will probably diminish. Lawrence states that he was led to study the Russian past in order to understand the Soviet present, and he was very interested in phenomena which continued across the dividing line of 1917, among them ‘resentment against foreigners …accompanied by intense curiosity and by the wish to impress.’ The different attitudes of Slavophiles and Westerners towards the village commune (mir), which Lawrence was pleased to see possesses great vitality, are nicely brought out, and lead into Stalin’s agricultural policies. And there are touches of prophecy, such as ‘Stalinism will probably be remembered in Solzhenitsyn’s picture of it.’ This may or may not be true, but writing of the situation of the Church after 1927, Lawrence observes that it ‘needed no more elaborate organization for its task of survival than the early Church needed before the conversion of Constantine.’ The words are not only those of someone capable of seeing the big picture. They make a quiet prophecy, one which would be fulfilled in the following years.

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