Anatol Lieven Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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Anatol, welcome to Berkeley.
Thank you so much.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in London, England, but my parents came respectively from what's now Latvia and from Ireland. They met in the British army in the Second World War.
Looking back, how do you think they shaped your perspective on the world?
They were both people who were very much affected by what happened in the 1930s. My father, although he was politically liberal, was also of German origin, and many of his relatives, in fact, joined the Nazis, whereas he opposed them. That's why he eventually joined the British army. That very much strengthened his allegiance to liberal democracy.
My mother was Irish, but she traveled very widely in Europe in the 1930s, in Germany and Italy and France, and was very much aware of the threat of fascism. Being Irish, she initially joined the French army as an ambulance driver, because she didn't want to serve the British. The French army ceased to exist in 1940, and so she had no choice. If she wanted to go on fighting she had to join the British.
But that, I think, has given me a greater awareness of threats to democracy. And before that, my father's family had to flee from the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, and several members of my family fought against the communists. So with that background, I suppose I don't take democracy quite as much for granted as many people do in the West. I see both the external threats to it, but also some of the internal threats.
Where were you educated?
And you majored in?
How has history served you as you have undertaken your career in journalism?
History was of absolutely critical importance to me, because it helps you to escape, if you will, from the tyranny of the present. It helps you to understand where politicians, political forces, movements are coming from. It also, frankly, allows you to see through a lot of what they say.
We're in a situation at the moment, and have been for quite a time, in which Western ideas are so dominant in the world, or so apparently dominant, that lots and lots of people adjust themselves to those ideas rhetorically. All over the world you get people describing themselves as democrats, describing themselves as liberals and so forth and so on. If you know something of their history, you often realize that they are absolutely nothing of the kind. They assumed the clothes of democracy, as in some cases some of them had previously assumed the clothes of communism. You see these regimes which have switched from one to another, and frankly could switch again. In the Muslim world you see people in some cases who have been left-wingers, who then pretended to be democrats, and are now posing as Islamists. So to a certain extent it allows you to see under the surface.
Why did you turn to journalism instead of staying in the university?
Well, I was bored, frankly.
That sounds like a good reason!
But also, that was in the mid-1980s when Gorbachev had just taken power, when the Soviets seemed to be being defeated in Afghanistan, when all sorts of interesting things were happening in the world, and it seemed to me increasingly foolish to be sitting in a library reading about political crises of a century ago when all of this was unfolding in front of your eyes, and when as a journalist you have the chance to witness this.
I had studied the British campaign in Afghanistan in the nineteenth century, and then I was actually able to witness from the side of the Afghans the campaign against the Soviets and their allies in Afghanistan. I had read about revolutions in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and I was actually able to witness the revolutions in Eastern Europe, and then in the Soviet Union, from 1989 through to 1991. So I was very, very fortunate in the years when I was a journalist. I did actually see history in the making.
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