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MPW tutor features in History documentary

17 March 2017

L History teacher in Russian documentary

In January 2014, I was approached by a film-maker who was working on a documentary on Anglo-Russian rivalry in Central Asia during the 19th Century, otherwise known as ‘the Great Game’. He wanted as a ‘talking head’ a British historian who could speak on the subject. My own research specialism is 20th Century decolonisation – I have published on the demise of Dutch colonial rule in South East Asia and am currently working on French North Africa – but I felt I had sufficient grounding in the subject to give my prospective interviewer what he wanted.

The interviewer and his technical team turned up one Friday afternoon and immediately set about creating a recording studio in my classroom. I had imagined that in this modern age setting up a camera would be relatively straightforward. How wrong I was! The team was busily engaged for quite some time, setting up their equipment and changing the layout of the room. Eventually, they announced that they had completed their preparations and that the interview could therefore begin.

Our discussion ranged over an array of topics – why European colonial powers went to Asia in the first place, the importance of sea power, the establishment of the East India Company, the disastrous first Afghan War, the Indian Mutiny-Rebellion, the importance for the British of maintaining the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, and so on. I was slightly suspicious that my interviewer might want to induce me to criticise British policy. I was of course happy to criticise British policy if I felt the facts warranted it – that is, after all, the job of the historian – but I absolutely did not want to make anachronistic value judgments about the morality of British imperial rule. In History, we achieve nothing if we impose our values on the past: only if we think ourselves into the mindset of historical actors can we understand their actions. I think I succeeded in maintaining a proper sense of objectivity, but perhaps that is for the viewer to decide!

The interview duly completed, my interviewer told me that I would be hearing from him at the appropriate time. Unfortunately, for reasons I am not clear about, I did not hear back. Out of curiosity, I recently went online to search for the documentary – most things, after all, seem to be on the internet nowadays! It was indeed broadcast on Russian television and is fairly long, at just under two hours. It adopts a standard documentary format: there is a commentary, plenty of archive footage, animated maps and a great many interviews. I appear alongside such illustrious figures as Hamid Karzai, Afghan Head of Government, Sir Roderic Braithwaite, the last British Ambassador to the Soviet Union, and Anatol Lieven, brother of Professor Dominic Lieven, who MPW students recently went to hear, not to mention a whole host of foreign academics. I am described in the caption as ‘Doctor of History and Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland’, all of which is true.

A notable theme of the documentary is the parallels it draws with modern-day events, in terms of rivalry between Russia and the West, and there is plenty of footage of the modern City of London to emphasise this point. That said, I certainly do not feel that my testimony was distorted in any way. Incidentally, I in common with all other non-Russian speakers am given a Russian voice-over! There are no subtitles, so this is very much for Russian-speakers only. The curious (and the Russian-speakers) can view the documentary here. I first I first feature at 6 minutes 39 seconds and at regular intervals thereafter.

Richard McMillan