Historians In Conversation: Historical Objects or a Mini-Pushkin Case-study

On this chilly Sunday day a little figurine on a bookshelf looked at us. We looked back at the figurine. And we thought- we should really talk about how various objects can be useful for historians to understand past societies as well as some modern issues. In this post of Historians In Conversations we’ll be discussing how historians tend to treat physical evidence, specifically statues and figurines, and propose some ideas of our own about the process. Our ‘example’ object will be a mass-produced Soviet statuette of Imperial poet A.S. Pushkin, which stands on one of our library shelves.

Here’s our little inspiration: a mass-produced Soviet figurine of young Pushkin.

Think like a Historian:

What can statues tell us about a society? Why do you think so?

‘Objects’ and the ‘historical’

Technically, any object which is able to tell us about the past society can be considered ‘historical’. This is because historians can use an object to reconstruct some parts of a society and therefore understand it better. For instance, a historian can look at a statue and consider the way the contemporary industries functioned. For example, in the case of mini-Pushkin, the statuette can help us to potentially understand the way the ceramic and glass industries functioned in the Soviet Union. This specific form was mass- produced, which allows us to conclude that the Soviet Union had a large ceramic industry as there would be no point in mass-producing so many little statuettes if there was no demand for it from contemporary population. Furthermore, a historian can decipher more abstract attitudes, such as power relations. Indeed, it would be ineffective for a State to waste resources on mass-production of little statutes had there not been a valuable enough reason to do so. As a result, it is possible to suggest that there was a wider reason for why such statuettes were produced. We think that the production was probably linked to some form of social instability, in order to make a society focus on its positive aspects rather than the negative ones. Consequently, any object from the past which helps a historian to understand the contemporary society better can be considered ‘historical’.

Our evidence for why we think this statue was mass-produced. As you can see from the photo the bottom of the statue has the official blue stamps (some specialist websites say that these are ‘LFZ’ marks associated with the Leningrad Lomonosov Porcelain Factory). Furthermore, the hollow section together with the round sections could point to the statue being mass-produced. This is because such a structure is usually created from a mould and it’s unlikely that a small mould would’ve been created for a one-off event.

Images and Icons

However, there is another layer in how historians use objects when interpreting the past societies. Statues, in their celebration of an individual, are used to understand what the contemporary society found valuable, rather than actions of an individual. For example, in the case of the mini-Pushkin, historians could theorise that one of the social values of Soviet Russia was the overall neat presentability in an education setting. Indeed, judging by the overall appearance and comparing it to another statuette we’d concluded that our statuette presents Pushkin in a possible education setting. The socio-cultural value of ‘neatness’ in such settings could be seen in Pushkin’s well-ironed clothes and it being tucked in as well as seemingly readable handwriting. As a result, this depiction of Pushkin probably point to the values of USSR rather than to the ones that had existed in the Russian Empire.

Historical objects and collective history

This brings us to yet another layer in how historians use objects when interpreting the past societies. This layer is much more abstract and is related to the way how the contemporary society related to its collective history. Our mini-Pushkin is an interesting example. The ‘real’ A.S. Pushkin was a controversial figure in his lifetime. The man got bad press for general debauchery behaviour, like participating in illegal duels, being constantly in debt, and undermining the power of the Crown by having links with the Decembrists. However, any hint of such behaviour doesn’t emerge from our statuette. In fact, our mini-Pushkin, seems more of a diligent, perhaps slightly dreamy, youngster; rather than a controversial figure. As a result, it is possible to suggest that following the Revolution of 1917, the interpretation of Pushkin’s place in history got a ‘rebranding’ from an elite aristocratic poet to a dreamy man of the people. This is evident in our statuette (see photo below). Statues, therefore, help historians to understand how a society related to its past. Consequently, for a statue to be ‘historical’ it has to be made in the past and point to an idea of how society saw an individual which the statue portrayed.

Close up of Pushkin’s face.

Think like a Historian:

Do you think that statues show a ‘true’ version of an individual? Why do you think so? Can you give any examples from today?

By means of a conclusion

As mentioned above, such ‘rebrandings’ of influential individuals happen all the time in every society one way or another. Pushkin is definitely not an individual case in this process. These ‘rebrandings’ don’t take away much from our understanding of history and they most certainly don’t “erase” history. In fact, the various interpretations that arise as a result of the discussions around the statues and the individuals they depict aids everyone, historians included, to understand the collective memory of the society we live in.

To explore this topic further…

  • If you’re interested in reading about the ongoing debate about the place of statues in cultural memory, a good place to start is David Olusoga’s Guardian article that was written in response to this year’s toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol.
  • If you’re interested in how culture, history and various objects interlink with each other, may we suggest you take a listen to BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects podcast.
  • If you’re interested in the historical figure of Pushkin, a good place to start is T.J. Binyon’s Pushkin:A Biography. Be aware that the book is fairly weighty and is not a bedside-read type book.
  • As a way to wrap up this Sunday post, we recommend for you to give a listen to BBC’s In Our Time podcast discussion of Eugene Onegin.
Enjoy and have a restful Sunday! ☺️

Historians In Conversation: Historiography (2/2)

In our previous post we’d mentioned what Historiography is and tried to outline various Historiographical schools of it that were popular from the Ancient Classical period to the first half of the 20th century. In this post we’re focusing on more current developments in Historiography and what such developments may mean for future historians.

Think like a Historian:

Are there any strict definitions a historian has to follow when choosing a Historiographical approach?

Feminist Historiography

This school emerged most predominantly in 1960s-70s with the rise of the second wave feminist movement in Europe and the US. The scholars related to this school argue that perspective on various historical events provided by women were neglected by traditional historians. As a result, such perspectives need to be uncovered. Usually, feminist historians focus on issues of class and gender-based power relations to create an argument in their works; therefore intersecting with the Marxist school.

Suggested reading list:

A quick PSA both Dr Worseley and Ms Lipscomb are on Twitter so give them a follow!
We also strongly recommend for you to have a listen to this amazing podcast! It focuses on discussing stories of women throughout history.

LGBTQ+, or Queer, Historiography

This school emerged fully at approximately the same time as its Feminist and Critical Race counterparts. This approach attempts to understand history through the perspective of LGBTQ+ individuals. Usually works from this school focus on uncovering socio-cultural histories of LGBTQ+ communities. This means that scholars tend to discuss the cultural and social traditions and how LGBTQ+ individuals responded to those.

Suggested Reading List

Queer As Fact is a very awesome podcast that discusses LGBTQ+ individuals. We strongly recommend it.

World, or Macro-, Historiography

This school emerged predominantly in the increasingly globalised world from about early 1990s-2000s. Historians associated with such an approach usually focus on contextualising a geographical region within a wider world via economics and/or cultural links.

Suggested reading list:

As you can see there’s a certain beauty to the study of history today as you can easily reach out to historians, such as Peter Frankopan, via social media!
The History Extra Podcast is really interesting and focuses sometimes on both micro and macro histories.

Think like a Historian:

Can two conflicting Historiographical traditions coexist? Why do you think so?

Local, or Micro-, Historiography

This approach emerged at approximately the same time as its Macro- counterpart. However, this approach focuses more on very local histories and attempts to contextualise them within a bigger picture of a country or even a socio-cultural trend.

Suggested reading list:

Critical Race Historiography

Critical Race Historiography is probably one of the newest approaches. Although there was a growing interest in racial issues from the 1960s, following the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, this school has gained a lot of momentum in the last few years. As its name suggests, the historians who use this approach focus on history from a racial angle. That is not to say that they neglect issues related to class, economics and power-relations.

Suggested reading list:

And you thought that we’re done with recommending you various academics on Twitter….

What does future hold for historians?

Having seen some Historiographical trends die out and others emerge it is not entirely clear what will happen with Historiography in the near future. Some possible contributing factors that may dictate the course of Historiography may be Covid and the rising tensions within society that we’ve seen emerging. Probably future historians will be researching various epidemics, or even natural disasters and how people have responded to those.

Think like a Historian:

Where do you think Historiographical approaches will go in 5 years time? In 20 years time? May be even, if you’re feeling ambitious, in 100 years time?

Historians In Conversation: Historiography (1/2)

Given that our project is based on educating and sparking curiosity about history we decided to address a gap that exists between the academic study of history and its study at either schools or colleges here in the UK. Our new series, Historians In Conversation, will have its own separate section on the website and will be dedicated to discussions about the way how to bridge this knowledge and skills gap between university and GCSE or even A-level.

As means of introduction

Everyone disagrees. Sometimes people disagree on various daily topics- what take out to order or what movie to watch during a family-bonding evening. Historians disagree on such topics as well. But they also disagree on the interpretation of past events- historiography. This post is dedicated to some of our thoughts on what historiography is and how to handle it.

What is Historiography?

Broadly speaking, Historiography is the way how historians chose to interpret the past events, based on the evidence they are able to find. Let’s take our own project as an example of Historiography. As you can see from the layout of our website, we’ve chosen to arrange our “histories” section in accordance with geographical areas and historical periods. We did this because we didn’t want to limit ourselves, or any potential future writers, to a specific interpretation of what history is. Indeed, we want to incorporate as many angles as possible. That’s why you can find our posts about US politics in 20th century in the same virtual space as the Mediaeval Islamic palaces, or even the Russian Romantics. Historiography, therefore, involves historians choosing an approach that they think will work best for their analysis of the past events.

Think like a Historian:

What approaches do you think historians use when trying to analyse a lot of sources and to derive sound conclusions from those?

Different Schools of Historiography

As mentioned above Historiography involves historians choosing a way or ways to interpret and to analyse the body of evidence which they’re writing about. Indeed, Historiography doesn’t have one singular approach. There are many ways, or schools, in Historiography that historians chose to use when analysing the evidence that they’d found. We’ve decided to give a brief overview of major Historiographical schools in the West and to provide reading lists for them. This post is dedicated to Historiography that emerged in the Classical Antiquity to the twentieth century. In our second post we’ll be discussing more modern approaches to Historiography.

A quick PSA, please be aware that the categories we’d chosen are very very broad and by no means reflect the nuances of the works we’d mentioned. As a result, we strongly recommend to read those.

Ancient Historiography

People from the very beginnings of humanity have always talked about their collective past. However, one of the first individuals in the West who had directly dealt with writing and interpreting the causes and effects of past events was an ancient Greek scholar, Herodotus. In his Histories Herodotus predominantly discusses the origin of conflict between Greek city states and the barbarians. Both Ancient Roman and Greek historians when writing their interpretation of the past events focused predominantly on the end outcome of the action, therefore making it appear that most rulers were destined to either win or lose a battle or a political debate.

Suggested reading list:

  • Herodotus, Histories
  • Hesiod, Five Ages of Man

Think like a Historian:

Can different Historiographical traditions influence each other? Why do you think so?
If you’ve heard Herodotus’ name before, especially if you’d played Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, here is a quick video about him.

Mediaeval Christian Historiography

As the traditional pigeon-holing of historical periods goes, after the Classical period came the Mediaeval period. With a new period came new emphasis on history writing. Speaking broadly, Historiography in the Middle Ages focused on attributing various successes in battles and politics to fate that was controlled by God. Just as Ancient Historiography, the Historiography in the Mediaeval Europe focused on the end result, or a telos. However, several the differences were present. For example, Mediaeval Historiography introduced the idea of punishment for one’s sins rather than for being on the ‘wrong side’ as Classical Historiography did.

Suggested reading list:

  • Bede, Ecclesiastical History of England (the file we’d attached has a very lovely introduction to history writing in the Middle Ages)
Originally a podcast, but now a YouTube video that only has an audio, give a listen to this podcast about Bede that was produced by the wonderful team of BBC’s in Our Time.

Enlightenment Historiography

After several hundred years, a new trend in Historiographical writing emerged. The historians of the Enlightenment were predominantly preoccupied with discussing what the terms ‘societal progress’ and ‘manners’ were. That is not to say that the only preoccupation of historians in this period was to address the philosophical questions as the ones above. Indeed, the discussions of ‘progress’ were rooted in a debate about breaking away economically from feudalism of the Middle Ages.

Suggested reading lisT:

  • David Hume, History of England (the work overall has 6 volumes, so to save up space we’re attaching only the first volume)
  • Voltaire, Essay upon the Civil Wars in France and other writings on history (we suggest that you use this collection of essays)
  • Nikolay Karamzin, Memoirs (although not a work of historiography per se the writer does talk about his experience and motivations behind writing his most famous work ,The History of the Russian State, which is sadly not available in English translation)
Although this video doesn’t discuss the Historiographical trends that arose in the Enlightenment, it does encapsulate what the Enlightenment was quite well.

Think like a Historian:

Can different schools of thought conflict with each other? Can you think of any examples? They don’t necessarily have to be connected to Historiography.

The Whig Historiography

This Historiographical tradition emerged towards the end of the Enlightenment period in the first half of the 20th century as a somewhat counter-culture to the Enlightenment history-writing tradition. Whig historians, most notably Herbert Butterfield, argued that the discussion about ‘progress’ has misinterpreted what the word ‘progress’ actually meant. Butterfield objected to the idea that ‘progress’ meant ‘better over a period of time’ and suggested to lose any moral connotations that the word may have. Whilst proving and remaining highly controversial, this view point highlighted many issues historians face today- that of having hindsight and projecting present moral judgements onto the past.

Suggested reading list:

Marxist Historiography

This Historiographical trend was influenced by the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marxist historians highlight the importance of class struggle as well as the inequalities that stem from economic factors. Although proven controversial amongst more Conservative historians, such an approach gained increasing popularity in Europe from 1920s onwards.


  • Matt Perry, Marxism and History
  • Karl Marx, Preface to A Critique of Political Economy
  • Eric Hobsbawm, On History (Hobsbawn is a Marxist historian so the book should give you a neat overview of popular Marxist views about history)
  • Sir Richard J. Evans, Eric Hobsbawm: A Life, is an extremely well-written biography of Hobsbawn, which will be useful for those who don’t want to dwell in Marxist interpretations for too long.

Annales Historiography

This school of Historiography is a relatively young one. Originating with the creation of the French Annales journal in the 1930s, the approach gained significant popularity in the mainland Europe. Historians who use this approach emphasise the view that it was contemporary cultural trends that dictated most of the historical events. They also emphasise the surrounding environment in shaping history.

Here is a video that discusses the Annales school in slightly more details.

Think like a Historian:

What approaches to Historiography do you think are popular today? Can you give any examples?