Michael Ignatieff

Michael Ignatieff was president of the Central European University in Budapest until 2021 and is a former leader of the Canadian Liberal Party. His books include a biography of Isaiah Berlin, The Rights Revolution, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror and The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World.

To be a liberal in Europe is a frustrating business. In Britain Liberal Democrats can only stand by and fume while Blair’s Third Way steals liberal nostrums and enlists them in the service of a new centrist consensus designed to keep Lib Dems on the margins for ever. In Germany, the liberals have gone from being the king-makers of the Kohl era to bystanders in Schröder’s. In Jospin’s France, it is not possible to be a genuine liberal at all. The word itself has collapsed into a synonym for ‘neo-liberal’, which means rabidly free market.‘

Sergeant Jones’s Sleeping-Bag

Michael Ignatieff, 17 July 1997

It adds greatly to the glamour of this book that its author was threatened for having written it. Her offence was to argue that many of the passing media events of our culture – chronic fatigue syndrome, Gulf War syndrome, satanic ritual abuse allegations, alien abduction fantasies – are forms of mass hysteria. This so enraged American sufferers of chronic fatigue syndrome that they threatened to kill her. The fact that people so tired they can barely get out of bed could muster the strength to do this would be comic if it weren’t so alarming.’

The Beloved

Michael Ignatieff, 6 February 1997

When Andrei Sinyavsky looked up tsenzura in a Soviet dictionary of foreign words imported into Russian, it wasn’t there. ‘The word censorship was itself censored.’ Censorship is ashamed of itself. It is also ridiculous: a censor, J.M. Coetzee writes, is like a man trying to stop his penis from standing up. To censor is to give proof that one is in the grip of that which one wishes to forbid others desiring. Not even feminist critics of pornography like the philosopher Catharine MacKinnon actually want to censor pornography. ‘Censoring pornography would not delegitimise it; I want to delegitimise it.’ Besides, ‘censorship excites men a lot.’

What about Anna Andreyevna?

Michael Ignatieff, 6 October 1994

Ryszard Kapuściński’s is the most passionate, engaging and historically profound account of the collapse of the Soviet empire that I have read. Caustic and lyrical by turns, it is driven by that combustible mixture of love and loathing for their neighbour which Poles seem to have felt since the days of Mickiewicz. As in all of his previous work – The Soccer War, The Emperor, Shah of Shahs – Kapuściński (with the help here of Klara Glowczewska’s translation) has raised reportage to the status of literature.’


Michael Ignatieff, 20 December 1990

This is a very good biography indeed – thorough, compassionate, refreshingly unreverential. Is it, on the other hand, necessary? Any literary biographer must proceed on the assumption that the life gives us the work, yet Nabokov’s scorn for this way of thinking was proverbial. The butterflies of his art were always flying free of the dingy Continental hotel rooms in which they happened to have had their pupation. So what exactly do we learn about the butterfly darting out of the window when we learn the name of the pension, the name of the landlady or the floor the window was on – the humdrum specimens that end up in the nets of the harmless drudges of biography? The best that a biographer can do is to demonstrate the unheroic reality – those mean Berlin rooms, the absurd, forgotten émigré cabals – that Nabokov’s art managed to transcend.’

The central dynamic of global politics since 11 September 2001 has been the profound shift in the nature of American foreign policy. After the end of the Second World War, the United States...

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Dangers of Discretion: international law

Alex de Waal, 21 January 1999

Over a century ago, Gustave Moynier, a stocky middle-aged Genevan lawyer, author and philanthropist, proposed an international court to enforce respect for the Geneva Convention. Moynier was the...

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Moderation or Death: Isaiah Berlin

Christopher Hitchens, 26 November 1998

In​ The Color of Truth*, the American scholar Kai Bird presents his study of McGeorge (‘Mac’) and William Bundy. These were the two dynastic technocrats who organised and...

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Among the quilters

Peter Campbell, 21 March 1991

Asya, the heroine of Michael Ignatieff’s novel of revolution and exile, is born into an aristocratic Russian family in 1900. As a child, she nearly drowns walking out over the thawing ice...

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The Charm before the Storm

Mary-Kay Wilmers, 9 July 1987

Stuck in the country, bored and vaguely discontented, with themselves, their lives or the way things are, half the heroes in Russian fiction appear to be waiting for something to happen while the...

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Dependence and Danger

Paul Seabright, 4 July 1985

Is it possible for the aspirations of politics in mass societies to be informed by that central tradition in art, religion and psychology which emphasises the world of personal relationships as...

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The Great Scots Education Hoax

Rosalind Mitchison, 18 October 1984

Historians of any society have to learn to be wary of the accepted myths of their subject. Sometimes these bogus visions of the past are deliberately created or fostered by the governing group....

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