Professor Michael Ignatieff

  • Toronto, Canada


Michael Ignatieff was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada on 12 May 1947, the son of a Russian émigré father and a Canadian mother. He read History at the University of Toronto and gained a doctorate at Harvard University. He is a former Senior Research Fellow at King's College, Cambridge, and has held teaching posts at Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, the University of California, the University of London and the London School of Economics.

A regular broadcaster and critic on television and radio, Michael Ignatieff has hosted many programmes including Channel 4's Voices, the BBC's arts programme The Late Show, and the award-winning series Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism, first screened by the BBC in 1993, examining the issue of nationalism in the late twentieth century. His first book, A Just Measure of Pain: Penitentiaries in the Industrial Revolution, 1780-1850, a study of the English penal system, was published in 1978. The Russian Album (1987) is a memoir of his family's experience in nineteenth-century Russia and its subsequent exile to Europe and, eventually, Canada. It won the Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction (Canada) and the Heinemann Award. His first novel, Asya, a love story about a Russian living in Paris and London during World War II, was published in 1991, and was followed by Scar Tissue (1993), a powerful examination of love and the acceptance of loss, which was shortlisted for both the Booker Prize for Fiction and the Whitbread Novel Award.

His acclaimed biography of Isaiah Berlin, the result of ten years' research, was published in 1998. It was shortlisted for both the Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Non-Fiction and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction). The Warrior's Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience (1998) is an examination of modern warfare and its complex moral implications, and Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond (2000), which won the George Orwell Prize, is a study of the NATO bombing of Kosovo, and Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry (2001) is an account of the successes, failures and prospects of advances in human rights. His most recent book on ethnic war and intervention, Empire Lite: Nation Building in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, was published in 2003. Charlie Johnson in the Flames: A Novel, the story of a veteran war correspondent whose rash expedition into the war-torn Balkans has life-changing consequences, was published in the same year. The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror was published in 2004.

Michael Ignatieff is also the author of a television play, Dialogue in the Dark, an exchange between the dying philosopher David Hume and the writer James Boswell, based on Boswell's diary and Ignatieff's own book The Needs of Strangers (1984). It was directed by Jonathan Miller for BBC Television in 1989.

Michael Ignatieff returned to Canada from the US in 2005 and is now the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

Critical perspective

Michael Ignatieff is an extraordinarily versatile writer, both in terms of the kind of writing he does well and the subjects he writes about.

But he is also utterly consistent, bringing the same liberal and compassionate intellectual conscience to all his work, whether it be his philosophical writings, his journalism, his biographical work or his fiction.

Asya (1991) was Ignatieff's striking first novel. It begins with a young girl in Russia in 1905, and traces her long life with its travels, its wars and its love affairs, coming to rest back in Russia eighty-five years later. It is a touching and highly readable story of a strong woman and her troubled century.

Bolder than this book, however, was Ignatieff's second novel, Scar Tissue (1993), which was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1993. It is a moving and difficult novel, dealing with the disintegration and death of the narrator's mother from a debilitating neurological disease. It is quiet and thoughtful, packed full of ideas, and one often feels that it is driven almost entirely by the development of a character's ideas, and only by plot insofar as plot events help to influence that development. Although at its most ambitious it can be a little idea-heavy, Scar Tissue does manage to be affective and distressing, and not just intellectually stimulating. It certainly does deal (and rather thoroughly) with big themes, life and death and identity and selflessness, really giving them a good working through ('I began to think of my mother as a philosophical problem...'). But only occasionally does a seam show through several long quotations from idea-laden speeches the main character gives, or papers he has written, that sort of thing, as if Ignatieff just couldn't manage to get all the ideas he wanted into the body of the writing and yet had to have them in somehow, hence the contrivance; but it is a small price to pay for the overall ambition, which is largely realised with great success.

Ignatieff has written philosophy, most notably The Needs of Strangers (1984), which examines our need for a sense of community, for the compassion and practical welfare it brings, a need that is often not met. But it may be that his greatest contribution to the field of philosophy is in fact his magnificent biography of Isaiah Berlin, Isaiah Berlin (1998), which brilliantly recreates the life of this extraordinary man, but also the equally extraordinary times he experienced and the remarkable people he met. Ignatieff clearly relished both his subject's ideas and the biographical material itself. Ignatieff's work on Berlin began with a single interview Ignatieff carried out with him in the summer of 1987, and grew to a full ten years of talking; Berlin was quite a talker, and Ignatieff's vivid presentation of him as such is one of the triumphs of the book. Ignatieff clearly comes to be a great admirer of Berlin, but a clear-thinking one with a balanced, questioning view. The result is a compelling exploration of a uniquely rich individual. Berlin had a fascinating life and a fascinating mind, and Ignatieff rose to the challenge of capturing both in a book which is as strong on ideas (sophisticated, but presented with great lucidity) as it on narrative (enthralling).

Other non-fiction includes Blood and Belonging (1993), a deeply important study of modern nationalism. The investigation takes Ignatieff through the former Yugoslavia and Eastern European republics, coming to rest in Great Britain's own trouble-spot, ravaged by decades of nationalistic conflict, Northern Ireland. The picture Ignatieff paints is at once inspiring and terrifying, the two sides of the coin are equally familiar. His conclusions are more than a little alarming: 'What's wrong with the world is not nationalism itself ... What's wrong is the kind of nation, the kind of home that nationalists want to create and the means they use to seek their ends. ... It's the battle between the civic and the ethnic nation. I know which side I'm on. I also know which side, right now, happens to be winning.'

Blood and Belonging is the first part of a trilogy of books looking at different aspects of conflict today. The second is The Warrior's Honour (1998). Dealing with ethnically-motivated conflicts (he is especially good, for instance, on recently-Taliban-controlled Kabul) this book picks up from the alarm sounded at the end of the previous book, and takes it further, showing the carnage that can result when such warnings are not heeded. Besides Yugoslavia and Afghanistan he travels to Africa (Rwanda, Angola, Zaire, Burundi) with United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and brings back an account of his visits which combines intellectually ambitious analysis with excellent reportage, the journalistic writing is brilliant as ever. The state of international and intra-national relations he witnesses is frightening and messy.

The final book in the trilogy, Virtual War (2000), offers no more reassurance than its predecessors. In typically lucid prose Ignatieff describes Kosovo as a 'virtual war' that the NATO forces fought from at a distance, one in which we were able to kill our enemies without having to 'get our hands dirty'. The sense of 'self-righteous invulnerability' this kind of war breeds comes at a cost: an over-eagerness to see war as an easy solution rather than only one 'of last resort', and a dangerous complacency. The events of recent months have proved these warnings all too well founded.

Ignatieff has written extensively as a journalist and has also published a history of prisons during the Industrial Revolution (A Just Measure of Pain) and a family memoir, The Russian Album (1987).

Daniel Hahn, 2002


After Paradise
American Exceptionalism and Human Rights
The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror
Empire Lite: Nation Building in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan
Charlie Johnson in the Flames: A Novel
Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry
Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond
The Rights Revolution
The Warrior's Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience
Isaiah Berlin: A Life
Scar Tissue
Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism
The Russian Album
Nineteen Nineteen
The Needs of Strangers
The Wealth and Virtue: The Shaping of Political Economy in the Scottish Enlightenment
A Just Measure of Pain: Penitentiaries in the Industrial Revolution, 1780-1850


George Orwell Prize
James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for biography)
Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Non-Fiction
Booker Prize for Fiction
MIND Book of the Year/Allen Lane Award
Whitbread Novel Award
Governor General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction (Canada)
Heinemann Award