The History Society was fortunate to be addressed by the great Churchill scholar Richard Toye this week. Professor Toye has written most recently about ‘Churchill’s Empire’ and spoke to a Zoom audience of Etonians and Holyport students about ‘Churchill and Communism.’
Using his research into Churchill’s primary texts he subverted the standard view, held at the time and still prominent today, that Churchill was a raving anti-Communist who put aside his thoughts between 1934 and 1945 due to the greater threat of Nazism. Instead he maintained that Churchill had a fundamentally pragmatic approach to Russia, inherited from the 19th Century ‘Great Game’ and British diplomacy against Russian Expansionism, recognising the potential for Britain and Russia to cooperate when their interests aligned. This was interrupted between 1917 and 1934 when Churchill thought that Russia was acting irrationally, posing a threat to national self-interest and making any diplomacy impossible.
However, the show trials marked a clear shift in his thinking, convincing him that Russia was again a rational agent. Churchill’s broadcast on the day of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 and his conversation with Maisky were both moving and testament to his point.
Overall, it was incredibly stimulating to witness the work of an academic on the brink of changing the history of their field. We sincerely hope that we will be able to properly welcome Professor Toye to Eton when this COVID age is over.