Essays

A billboard with an image of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is surrounded by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flags as supporters gather to celebrate election results outside the BJP headquarters in Mumbai in 2019.

The fake history of civilisational states

So-called civilisational states, including Russia, China and India, invoke fake histories to justify and buttress their contemporary political settlements. But those who cannot let go of the past are always at risk of finding themselves imprisoned by it.

A member of staff removes a file from a depository at The National Archives, London.

The intelligent use of history – what is the past good for?

In times of global uncertainty and upheaval, many people look back to an imaginary golden age of simplicity and stability, or seek to blame a past individual or policy for current ills. Danger lies in both these coping strategies. We need to make intelligent use of history.

A protester attempts to cover the Hong Kong emblem with a British colonial flag after they broke into the government headquarters in Hong Kong in June 2019, the 22nd anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China.

The flag wars are here to stay

Flags have become synonymous with nationhood, character, spirit, and power. In an age of renewed nationalism, their power should not be underestimated.

Four Cambridge students ride a four seat tandem bike on campus.

Meritocracy v the people

The biggest division in modern society is between the meritocracy and the people, the cognitive elite and the masses, the exam-passers and the exam-flunkers.

Photograph of a flying saucer

It came from outer space

Far from being a throw-away genre trope, the unresolved puzzle of extra-terrestrial visitors gives us unique insights into the nature of thought, communication and memory.

Battle of Waterloo

The other side of the hill

In war, we are, like the Duke of Wellington, still trying to guess what is on the other side of the hill, we just have more tools to help us do so.

Victor Hugo’s ideal of Europe

The famed French chronicler of poverty and war saw hope in the prospect of the European ideal – over a century before the creation of the EU.

Russian athletes pose for the cameras.

The Soviet military was a hollow colossus

After the fall of the Soviet Union, some of its military conscripts from former republics ended up in NATO countries. Their personal stories are not only compelling accounts of recent history – they also offer valuable insights into the former superpower’s ‘five-million man’ martial might and even today’s Russian military.

An Iranian woman walks past an anti-US mural depicting the Statue of Liberty on the wall of the former American embassy in Tehran.

Islam and the contingency of politics

The Islamic relationship between religion and state has a deep history – but the modern politics of nationalism has re-cast Islam in a new political mould

A technician in the server hall of the Russian state telecommunications operator.

Information loss

The Internet is now home to modern culture. But like paper, it is at risk of decay unless we archive and store it properly.

Benin's anti piracy task force on patrol in the Gulf of Guinea.

Troubled waters

Military force will not be enough to fix the Gulf of Guinea’s piracy problem. The roots of the crime lie on-shore, deep in the politics of oil and statehood.

Scene from battle during haitian revolution

Haiti and the pathos of history

President Moïse’s assassination is a new spin on a familiar story for Haiti. And yet, despite the fact that the country’s politics has been plagued by destabilising political assassinations, the liberating promise of its revolutionary past lives on.

Mongol legend Genghis Khan in combat

Geopolitics and the Mongol Empire

Political and economic concerns were as critical as environmental and geographic factors in forging the unity of the Mongol Empire.

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