Dec 12 2017

Dr Daniel Beer, Department of History, was recently awarded the international Cundill History Prize for his book The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars.

We caught up with him to find out what it means to have been awarded such a prestigious prize, and more about his research interests.

1.      What is your role within the Department of History?

I’m a reader in the Department of History, which involves the normal range of research, teaching and administrative roles as well as teaching courses in Modern European History. I currently have two special subjects for final year students; one is on European Culture in the late 19th century, and the other is a course on Stalinism. I also teach courses for second and third year students on the history of the Russian empire, which overlaps a lot with my actual research expertise - in Russia. I also lecture and teach Modern European History survey courses, essentially from the Enlightenment through to the very very recent past.  

I’m also quite heavily involved in the admissions team, as I often give talks at Open Days. There’s quite a lot of interest in Russian history, which is bolstered with the centenary of the 1917 Revolutions. I think that this is one of the staples of the A Level syllabus, so I quite often carry out talks about the Russian Revolution or about Stalinism and so on. I’m also the Deputy Director of Research within the department, so I’m involved in preparing our ref submission.

2.      Congratulations on receiving the international Cundill History Prize for your book, The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars. What does it mean to you to have received such a prestigious award?

I’m hugely humbled. I know everyone says this, but I genuinely didn’t think that I would win, so I was very flattered to have made the shortlist. I’ve been on other various shortlists before, but I was always the bridesmaid rather than the bride! It’s really a huge honour, to be awarded such a prestigious international prize.

The jury were such a distinguished set of historians: Roy Foster, Margaret Macmillan, Rana Mitter and Amanda Foreman, so in a much more direct and personal way, it was quite humbling that they would choose my book as the winner. I think more broadly, this very generous prize is a great advert for the writing of serious history for a wider audience. On the one hand, I was always worried when I started writing the book that it wouldn’t be sufficiently scholarly to appeal to an academic audience, as it didn’t have an extensive discussion of the historiography of the topic, and that it would fail to meet the expectations of professional historians. On the other hand, I also worried that it would end up being too detailed, too complex, and not narrative enough to appeal to a broader audience. That’s probably a dilemma that a lot of people trying to write serious history for a trade press confront. However, it’s hugely relieving and gratifying that a prize such as the Cundill History Prize shows that it can be done. I suppose that if you look at the books that were long listed and then shortlisted for the prize, you can see that they’ve all managed to hit the spot of being both rigorous and scholarly, as well as accessible and engaging to read.     

3.      Can you tell us a bit more about your book and your motivation behind writing it?

I have no formal qualifications in history beyond a GCSE (which isn’t something that I should broadcast too loudly!), but I came to Russian history through literature. I did Modern Languages as an undergraduate, and my big literary loves have always been in 19th century Russian realist fiction: that includes the usual suspects, Chekov, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and so on. Siberia really reverberates through their prose, so it kind of looms in the background, it’s also a place of both punishment and exile, as well as spiritual regeneration and redemption. This has very much impressed me from being quite young when I first read and learnt about it. I suppose I’ve always had an intellectual curiosity, which grew from an unhealthy interest in Crime and Punishment. This then caused me to want to explore the reality behind the literary representation of Siberia and find out more about it.

My first book, which is an intellectual history of ideas on disorder, deviance, and subversion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, only really used published sources. I had done a bit of archival research for my PhD, but never anything systematic. I felt that I wanted to win my spurs as a serious historian with archival research under my belt, so I set out to do social and cultural history of the Siberian exile system in the long 19th century, really beginning with the reign of Alexander I in 1801, then taking the story all the way through to 1917 revolutions.

4.      Could you tell us about your research interests?

More generally, my research interests are in the cultural history of Russia in the 19th century. My next project is looking at what the contemporaries call the Emperor Hun, which is a sustained and ultimately successful campaign waged by revolutionaries in the 1870’s to assassinate Tsar Alexander II. It’s a moment in which I will argue was the birthplace of modern terrorism. Whereas individual assassins who take pot shots with greater or lesser degrees of accuracy at European statesmen in the 1860’s and 1870’s, my next project in comparison is about a coordinated campaign waged by a revolutionary party with a fairly sophisticated PR machine, using the assassination of the sovereign as a means of triggering a revolution.

5.      What are your main hobbies and interests?

Most of them are consumed by my one year old daughter at the moment, but I play a lot of sport, such as squash. I also really like skiing, eating, drinking, and travelling – all the normal kind of things!

6.     What do you enjoy most about working at Royal Holloway and within the Department of History?

I’d have to say my colleagues. I’ve got great colleagues in the History Department, some very smart and impressive, but also funny and quirky characters, with whom I really enjoy working. I also enjoy teaching and lecturing, as well as stepping into the classroom, challenging students and trying to get them excited about the material. I’m lucky that I teach an area where much of what we assume about our own world are as of yet unsettled. For example in the 19th Century, questions arose such as; what makes a citizen? What sort of government should we have? What’s the role of private property in a society? These big questions are very much still open, so I find it easy to take the class back in time to a place where many of the things that we now take for granted, were certainly not taken for granted back then. I enjoy that very much.

7.      Who inspires you inside of the organisation? Who inspires you outside of the organisation?

The university is a great place and I think it’s an enormous privilege to have the opportunity to really make a career out of my own personal interests, the things I would do, read and think about if I was just left to my own devices. Outside of the organization, there are endless numbers of people who are a combination of writers, intellectuals, politicians and journalists who all inspire me.  I think that the feeling of being at Royal Holloway means that you are engaged in a national, and even global endeavour which is to study the world, study societies, and debate ideas. There’s something quite inspiring about that.

8.     You may have seen our latest recruitment campaign, ‘Find your why’. We are interested to find out what Royal Holloway has helped you to discover about yourself…

I’ve discovered that I like teaching – before I got the job I’d only ever carried out research, so I’d never really done any teaching in a systematic way. I enjoy the performative parts of teaching, but there is also something incredibly rewarding about seeing when things click with students, both in the sense of when they can understand something, and when you can see that their interests are really fired. Even when they’ve sloped into class on a Tuesday morning, perhaps feeling that there are other places in the world they’d rather be, by the end of the hour, they are engaged and debating the material, and there’s a real buzz that comes from that.