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Giovanni Savino: “In a global world, history is not a subject of the past, but helps us to understand the present and future”

This time SPP Online questioned SPP Visiting Associate Professor in Contemporary History teaching “History” and “Great Books and Ideas” for the students studying the Global Governance and Leadership Program, enritely taught in English. He studied at University of Naples Federico II, one of the most ancient in Europe, and discussed his Ph.D. at the Institute of Human Sciences, which now is part of Scuola Normale di Pisa. He cannot live without good coffee, and he loves to observe and joke about Naples and Neapolitan culture, playing neapolitan cards with friends and daughters. 
So Giovanni Savino — about history, books, education in Russia and more else.

Ph: Alina Dremaylova (SPP Online)


I’m a historian, so for me it’s always as Marc Bloch stated in his masterpiece The  Historian’s Craft, describing our work ‘the historian is like the ogre of fairy tales: where he smells human flesh, there he finds his quarry.’ My interests are linked to the formation of national identities and nationalism, and to the intellectual history. My Ph.D. was on ideologies, organizations and practices of Russian Nationalism in Late Tsarist period, and I’ve recently published an article for the Russian journal Logos on representation of Polish, Ukrainians and Jews in the intellectual work of Russian Nationalists and I’ve just send a paper about the image of Eastern Galicia in Russian public opinion in 1900/1915; I’m interested in representations of history in contemporary societies (I’ve wrote on WWI memory in today Russia, and on Russian revolution in Italy); and, last but not least, I really appreciate the reflections of Antonio Gramsci on culture, hegemony and power and I’ve started to pay attention on this. One of my first attempts was published this November by RANEPA journal “Sociology of power”. To sum up, how ideas can be movements, and how movements can forge history — these are my main points.

Well, weather apart, there are differences in how learning process is structured in Italy and in Russia, and how it works at RANEPA. What for me it’s always quite surprisingly – the possibility to use interactive instruments, projectors, laptops, and so on; the presence of two highly qualified libraries: structures and projects for students and teaching personnel. These are very good points for RANEPA, as the great attention paid by program direction to every aspect of everyday life. Of course, to work in groups of 20-25 students is a plus too, because you can be more careful in organizing learning processes and receiving feedbacks is a good stuff for advance your method.


Although Great books as subject is relatively new, as it was born less than 100 years ago, for Russia, it’s quite new, and I think that is a very ambitious challenge, in giving a more deep view in global cultures. Of course, the US and British versions of Great Books are an example, but, as Franco Moretti observed, all the 200-books part of Victorian British canon now are unactual to us. So, it’s always important to evolve our concepts, and for us the discussion around Great Books is part of a more general debate around great ideas. Still now, I think, read Machiavelli or Herodotus, Marx or Montesquieu, can give us some reflections about how society and the world are working.

In a global world, history is not a subject of the past, but helps us to understand the present and future. Maybe it would be more correct to talk about ‘histories’, which are intertwined but different, let’s just think about China or Brazil. I think that knowledge of the past is not just sounding fascinating, but give us concrete examples how to act, how to do and (often) not to do, and tell us how to connect with other people. For public policy, knowing the roots and the developments in time and space, in my opinion, represents a great benefit.

About historical periods, it’s difficult to give an exhaustive answer; in my opinion, Late modern history, and especially XIX and XX centuries, is really interesting and still now some of those challenges are present in our world.

During history course, I give attention to personalities like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Wilde, Dickens, Mayakovsky, Proust, Joyce and others, which maybe are more related to literature than to political history, but I think that they are too part of history, acting and shaping that time. Let’s just give an example: writers like Nikolai Chernyshevsky had a great impact on Russian Populism, and it’s impossible to avoid it. For me, I really love to read classics, from Homer and Virgil to Tolstoy and Dumas, authors like Umberto Eco (I had the luck to attend lectures with him, when I was a Ph.D. student), Sergei Dovlatov, Italo Calvino, Walter Benjamin, Eduardo Galeano, Vasilii Grossman, Venedikt Erofeev… the list is long. About historians, I recommend to read classics like Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel, and about Russian and Soviet history, Abraham Ascher, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Peter Gatrell, Ronald Grigor Suny, Boris Kolonitskii, Terry Martin, Alexey Miller, Joshua Sanborn… here too the list is really long one.

Top five books about leadership and how to build leadership skills? Nicolò Machiavelli The Prince is still a masterpiece, as Aeneid by Virgil. The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius are a good summa of reflections about the judgement of self and others. The Conquest of America: the question of the other by Tzvetan Todorov helps to think about a very important category, the otherness. The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, by economic historian Carlo M. Cipolla, which gave us a very good advice: not underestimate the power of human stupidity. But I have five books about another topic, which marks this year, the Russian Revolution: for understand what happened, the importance of leadership and how a personality cult is built up, I recommend to read Tovarishch Kerenskii: antimonarkhicheskaia revoliutsiia i formirovanie kult vozhdia naroda (Comrade Kerenskii: antimonarchist revolution and the formation of people’s leader cult) by Boris Kolonitskii; Dominic Lieven’s Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia describes convincingly how war had a great impact in Late Imperial society; The Russian Revolution 1905-1921 by Mark D. Steinberg gives an account of how different social groups acted during those years; and Alexandr Shubin’s Start strany sovetov (The start of Soviets’ country).

My recommendation to students? Never give up: studying, learning, stay modest but steadfast are the best ways to achieve your aims.

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