Introduction by Professor Reginald E. Zelnik
(NB: this file of the complete oral history is approximately 20Mb)
Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, a Russian-European American
It is no easy task to introduce Nicholas Riasanovsky, a man who is widely and wisely considered the world's leading authority in the field of nineteenth-century Russian history, one of the leading authorities in any sub-field of Russian history whatever, and winner of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies special Award for Distinguished Contributions to Slavic Studies. To make matters worse(or at least more difficult for me), as his various publications on Fourier, Lamennais, and English and German Romanticism reveal, his vast scholarly breadth extends westward from Russia to include France, Germany, England—any European area whose intellectual history impinged on that of Russia. Though born in Harbin, China, Nick (as he is known to friends, colleagues, and those of his students who have earned the Ph.D.) could well be described by a phrase (once used to describe a noted Slavophile thinker)—“A Russian European.” But that would not fully capture him, for as of age fifteen, as he describes in his interviews, Nick's Russian-European traits began to be absorbed into an American persona that (at times) would make him almost unrecognizable to other Russian Europeans, those who lacked his intimate exposure to and romance with the United States. The transplanted Russian-European teenager quickly pushed new roots deep down into American soil, and the adult, the “new man,” that emerged was a unique combination of old- and new-world elements.
Because I have read virtually all of his published work (and that's a lot!), and having been his colleague in the Berkeley history department for over thirty-three years, I may be in as good a position as anyone to confirm what is already well known: Nick is a brilliant, enormously productive, and very original scholar, a wonderful teacher (of his colleagues as well as his students) and—despite a publication list that should be the envy of most historians—a modest man. He is an intellectual, with an open and inquiring mind, sensitive to fresh new approaches, even those that go against his own rather traditional grain. But rather than dwell on his widely acknowledged scholarly achievements (a complete bibliography of his publications through 1992 is available in Russian History, Vol. 20, 1993, pp. 237-263), I would prefer to say some words that may help the reader to envision Nick as a human being, including a teaching human being.
Nick has always had his own special way of doing things. Here is my best recollection of our first meeting in his office (3311 Dwinelle Hall, then as now) some three and a half decades ago, when I was still a starstruck Stanford graduate student making my initial contact with someone who was already a towering giant of the field. Nick (“Professor Riasanovsky,” then), as I recall, spent a lot of time looking out the window as we spoke, a habit that is with him still, but it was soon clear that he was giving me his undivided and friendly attention. Then as now, barring a scheduled class or appointment, it was virtually impossible to be asked to leave Nick's office, in part a reflection of his natural politeness, in part because he so enjoys good conversation. Nor is such conversation restricted to scholarly and academic topics. Nick engages with colleagues and students on all kinds of subjects—current politics, religion, personal matters (and the personal and familial problems of his colleagues and students always concern him deeply), and sports (to which I will return). And, as readers of the interviews will see for themselves, he is particularly in his element when he recounts, as he often does, one of the myriad personal anecdotes, always amusing but often very serious in intent, that are so readily at his disposal. I may be one of the few people who has heard them all, by now, some (such as the tale of the professor who called him an “Anglo-Saxon”) more than once. (Here I must confess to not letting on, at times, just for the pleasure of the moment, that I heard him tell the story before.) Nick's anecdotal style is also unique, one of its salient features being his own hearty laughter at his own stories, which he genuinely enjoys each time he tells them.
I mentioned sports, and here we have one of those American features he absorbed so readily and so fully. Nick is a fanatical sports fan, and I don't mean soccer or rugby, but good old American sports such as football, baseball, and basketball (which he played in college inter-murally), the three biggies. He is an unfickle, fanatical fan (here Nick would twit me gently for the redundancy) of all three Cal teams, and attends the games with greater regularity, rain or shine, than any other professor I know. In a typical blend of old- and new-world styles, he attends the games in full dress, by which I mean jacket, tie and, unless the heat is sweltering, overcoat. He can tell you whatever you want to know, and a few things that you may not, about records, batting averages, or the complex rules of the game. Nick's remarkable memory stands him in good stead with sports information as it does with historical fact (I doubt if anyone could ever beat him at Jeopardy with the category “Russia”), language, and, most impressive of all to me, poetry, which bubbles up to his lips, seemingly from nowhere, in three different languages.
Nick has shown incredible devotion to his present and former students, who honored him with a special Festschrift on the occasion of his seventieth birthday (it is the same volume of Russian History cited above). His weekly meetings with graduate students at the “Café Riasanovsky” (find it if you can!) have become a legend. His commitment to students' well-being, from admissions, to fellowships, to job placement, is total. He is a generous critic of his students' and his colleagues' work and an unremitting yet unintimidating corrector of any errors in their Russian, down to the missing little miagkii znak (soft sign). Though he never fails to point out “mistakes,” Nick rarely writes a strongly negative book review (though he accepts more requests for reviews than anyone I know). He receives his colleagues' criticisms of his own draft writings graciously, without, of course, adopting all or even most of the suggestions offered. He abides our idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, as we accept and enjoy his, and I can think of no more than one occasion in recent years when he was truly angry at any of us. Lunching with him—and I imagine I've done this over 600 times by now—is always a pleasure. One of his delightful little habits is to wait until he sees what I will order and then to order exactly the same dish. Another habit, one for which I admit I have less sympathy, is to order sherry with his meal, though lately we have both been sticking to burgundy. One of our oldest shared customs, perhaps of interest to cultural anthropologists, is to treat each other to a drink whenever a graduate student whom one of us directed lands a job. The thesis supervisor foots the bill. (I believe this is the first time that this strange, exotic practice has been publicly revealed. I hope that students aren't shocked!)
I cannot close this little essay without mentioning Nick's deep devotion to his wonderful family. His love for wife Arlene and children John, Nick, and Maria is absolute, and, unlike many others, he is able to talk about his children's fine achievements with measure, though not without pride. His deep devotion to the memory of his parents, Russian intelligenty of the first order, is highly visible in the pages that follow. I am confident that readers will sense these and other aspects of Nick's liberal personality and moral sensitivity in the interviews that follow, parts of which constitute a mini-history of the sometimes embattled Russian history wing of our profession.
Reginald E. Zelnik
Professor of History