HistFest 2023: historians remind us that our past is more important than ever

HistFest 2023: historians remind us that our past is more important than ever

by Suswati Basu

HistFest 2023 returned to discuss topical issues including the war in Ukraine and the Mughal Empire amid controversy over whitewashing history in India. This dynamic festival celebrates the brightest and the best in the world of history and takes place every year at the British Library in London. The festival featured a wide range of events, including talks, discussions, performances, and music. World leading experts including Russia historian Antony Beevor, Professor Nandini Das, as well as renowned bestselling author Simon Sebag Montefiore were all keynote speakers.

The topics covered everything from the Russian Revolution, the life of Oscar Wilde, to the origins of the British Empire and patriarchal assumptions. Speaking to veteran BBC journalist Clive Myrie, who recently reported whilst stationed in Ukraine, Beevor said that the level of sadism seen in the current war was reminiscent of Russia’s past battles.

Antony Beevor on the role of Russia’s history in Ukraine

Beevor is known for writing the definitive account of the Battle of Stalingrad 25 years ago, a formative moment in the forging of modern Russian identity. The book won multiple international awards and soon became a million-copy bestseller. Now, the military historian turns his attention to the birth of the Soviet Union itself, with an in-depth look at the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the five years of conflict that followed it.

“In Russia, there was an element, really, of, as I say, sadism.”

Antony beevor

He described that his book Russia: Revolution and Civil War, 1917—1921 relayed some of the graphic violence in detail, in order to present the facts to the public. Beevor said: “I would follow Vasily Grossman’s reaction when he wrote about Treblinka. He said, it’s the duty of the writer to write it in. It is the civilian duty of the reader to read it. Now, whether I’m not suggesting that people are obliged to read it by any means, but, um, I think that you really do have to present it.”

Beevor said: “In Russia, there was an element, really, of, as I say, sadism. One needs, in a way, to understand where all this comes from, because obviously, it is not just a question of the Russian Civil War, but we saw it in 1945, or in the revenge of the Red Army as it advanced into Germany. And of course, we are seeing it in Ukraine as well.”

Simon Sebag Montefiore on the vital position of historians

The idea that history repeats itself and is cyclical was echoed by British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, who joined V&A East director Gus Casely-Hayford, in discussing his new 1,000-page epic The World: A Family History. In writing his book, Montefiore said that all despots eventually fall.

Montefiore is known for his bestselling narrative histories that have transported readers to Tsarist Russia and Ancient Jerusalem. In his latest book, he offers a gripping account of human civilization told through the families that have shaped our collective past. He spoke about the importance of knowing our past more than ever, saying: “historians have a special role, a sacred role, I think, to write the truth, especially since I write a lot about Russia.

“Historians have a special role, a sacred role, I think, to write the truth.”

Simon Sebag Montefiore

“And in the last couple of weeks, I’ve had messages from Moscow about the people who helped me write my Stalin books, saying, I’ve just been raided. I’ve been up all night. The secret police raided the FSB. Raided my house last night. So it’s the idea that we’re trying to do something sacred and right.”

Professor Nandini Das on our multicultural past

Similarly, acclaimed historian Nandini Das talked about the British arrival in India in the early 17th century through the story of Thomas Roe, James I’s first ambassador to the Mughal Empire – a contentious issue in India at the moment. During his four years in India, he witnessed the birth of global trade, taking a ringside seat for a tale of palace intrigue, scandal, gambling and more.

In this event, Professor Das shines a light on one of the most important encounters in the history of colonialism and empire and the convergence of our societies early in our history, despite the current migrant debate. According to the Courting India: England, Mughal India and the Origins of Empire author, in 1615 in England, at one point in time, a West African man, a woman from Mughal India and the renowned Native American woman Pocahontas all lived within walking distance of each other.

To this end, she said: “I think it’s important to acknowledge this and bring that into this story of cultural encounters, of the emergence of imperial and colonial ambition, but also in the stories of engagement with the wider world that England was going through in this period.”

Professor Pragya Agarwal and systemic unequal attitudes

On the second day of HistFest 2023, this theme of understanding the past to contextualise the present was reiterated by Professor Pragya Agarwal. Following her acclaimed books like (M)otherhood, Professor Agarwal considered the history of gendering emotions, from the Wandering Wombs of Ancient Greece to Sigmund Freud’s ‘hysterical’ female patients – and beyond. She shared her findings about her book Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions with Dr Elinor Cleghorn, author of Unwell Women: A Journey Through Medicine and Myth in a Man-Made World.

When showcasing how this affects the world now, she said: “In talking in terms of womb, we know that there was this kind of whole misconception because female bodies were seen as kind of inferior to men. We have to understand that those were mostly men writing about these about bodies and about medical science. And we see that even now, that female anatomy is seen as a subset of the male anatomy.”

The importance of HistFest 2023

HistFest 2023 truly highlights the significance of history as it helps us to understand the past, learn from it, shape the future, preserve our culture and heritage, as well as foster empathy and understanding.

Enjoyed this event? Check out the London Book Fair 2023: Colson Whitehead, class and community.

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