Reflection on historical scholarship … Simon Sebag Montifiore on Stalin

In this blogpost we responded to requests for book reviews linked to a teacher subject knowledge reading list. It’s a resource that we can keep expanding as #obhd. Please send additions when you find them.

We are also keen to share colleagues’ thoughts about useful books they have read. How has a book changed your thinking? How has a book given you new ideas for future practice?

In this series of daily blogposts, teacher trainees reflect on a book that they read and discussed with their mentors. The purpose of this reading was not necessarily for use directly in teaching, rather to emphasise to trainees the importance of continuing to update their subject knowledge and the value of discussion with colleagues. Sometimes the reading has led directly to specific teaching ideas for a particular class or to a change in practice, but the posts also illustrate the different ways in which reading and discussing historical scholarship can support continuing professional development – for experienced teachers as much as for trainees.

Today’s reflection on Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar is written by Lena Al-Mukhtar

Examining different A-level specifications, I noted that Russian history seems to be a popular topic chosen by schools for their students. As an individual who has not engaged with such history in recent years, I thought focusing on Stalin would be an appropriate choice for developing my subject knowledge.

This magisterial biography gives a detailed account of Stalin’s life from 1878 to 1953 in ten parts. Tackling the book is no easy feat, given its 657 pages and 100 main characters, which meant that it was somewhat difficult to follow at times. However, rather than being seen as a critique, this depth can also be seen as a testament to Montefiore’s exhaustive research. Within its contents, the book contains previously unseen archival material, photographs, as well as first-hand accounts of Stalin’s inner circle. Formative and chronological, the text begins with an account of Stalin’s upbringing in a remote village in Georgia and progresses through a series of accounts and stories covering such periods and developments as: collectivisation, the purges, the show trials, the second World War and the start of the Cold War. Offering a detailed historical account, the book also succeeds in gripping the reader through narratives of murderous cruelty, betrayal, paranoia and sexual debauchery.

As a recommendation for future use, the book can be seen as a great resource of ‘golden nuggets’ of information that would help to elevate A-level students’ written work.  What’s more, these ‘golden nuggets’ could play an equally important role for teachers in enticing students into the topic of Stalinism. Alternatively, Montefiore’s use of compelling language to articulate his thoughts and arguments may provide wider applications in the classroom. For example, examples of his academic writing offer excellent models to inspire and motivate students to find their own writing style.

In conclusion, this is a great text for helping teachers and A-level students move away from generalised accounts of the period (1878-1953), providing them with greater agency when it comes to writing about and understanding history.

Please do share more examples of reading, thinking and discussing historical scholarship as blogposts by sending them to enquiries@history.org.uk.

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