Neil Wynn – More Reasons to Read the Quality Press … Or Not!
24th October 2012
Following my urging people to read the review sections of newspapers such as The Guardian, Independent, Times, etc. I received re-enforcement of sorts in a review in last week’s Sunday Times (I know, it’s the Murdoch press … but the review section always has a lot in it, and the horoscopes are … well, horoscopes!) The review in question is Max Hastings’ piece on Douglas Smith’s study Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy. The book is a eulogy to the Russian nobility, who Hastings says were eliminated “with a thoroughness Pol Pot would have respected,” and “much of Smith’s book is a chronicle of suffering, persecution and murder.” Hastings’ summary offers quite a few examples of this grim tale and it does make you think about what revolution and its aftermath involved. However, I was quite shocked by this comment: “Reading Smith’s appalling anecdotage, I found myself recalling with disbelief the recent eulogies heaped on the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm [see earlier blog!], one of the useful idiots who went to his grave still defending the system that created this orchestrated inhumanity, sustained over decades.” Firstly, this seems unfair on Hobsbawm who certainly did shift his position considerably in later life, and who was unlikely to defend the wanton savagery and cultural destruction that Smith describes. But perhaps Hastings needs to think also about why the Russian aristocracy was treated in such a way – as he says, “the sybaritic lifestyle of the old tsarist aristocracy invited nemesis,” and hundreds of years of exploitation and brutality perhaps had something to do with what followed 1917? Hastings is a fine military historian, and perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised by this side swipe at Hobsbawm from a former editor of the Telegraph and London Evening Standard – and a reviewer in the Sunday Times – but nonetheless this seemed an uncalled for remark about a historian who can no longer answer back.