Professor Nicholas V. Riasanovsky (1923 – 2011)

Nicholas V. Riasanovsky died on Saturday, May 14, 2011 at the age of eighty-seven.

He was the most influential Russian historian in American history. Since 1963, most Americans who study Russian history have been studying it by reading his A History of Russia (recent editions have been coathored with his student, Mark Steinberg). Russian intellectual history, in particular, is unimaginable without his Russia and the West in the Teaching of the Slavophiles: A Study of Romantic Ideology (Harvard University Press, 1952); Nicholas I and Official Nationality in Russia, 1825-1855 (University of California Press, 1959); A Parting of Ways: Government and the Educated Public in Russia, 1801-1855 (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1976); The Image of Peter the Great in Russian History and Thought (Oxford University Press, 1985); and Russian Identities: a Historical Survey (Oxford University Press, 2005). He wrote on European intellectual history beyond Russia (The Teaching of Charles Fourier, University of California Press, 1969; The Emergence of Romanticism, Oxford University Press, 1992), and he had planned a book about "the overwhelming congruence between the Nazi ideology and the Nazi performance."[1] 

Riasanovsky's colleague and friend, Reginald Zelnik, called him "a Russian-European American." Riasanovsky himself attributed the success of his History of Russia to the book's mixed origins. "One way to state this," he wrote, "is to emphasize that my father was linked to the main traditions of prerevolutionary Russian historiography and that I managed to adapt that historiography, and whatever else I learned, to the American and Western scene." He was a European who grew up in China and the United States; a Russian who attended baseball games as religiously as he did the Orthodox mass; an American who, in his own words, was "certainly not Anglo-Saxon or Protestant." (Nikolai Berdyaev once asked him how a "spiritual Russian" like him could possibly live in the United States.) He was a Russian-European American, and he was none of those things. He relished a good audience for his stories and enjoyed lunches with his colleagues and students (at Espresso Experience, on Bancroft), but he tended to avoid large groups of people and sometimes appeared lost in thought. He spent most of his life in his office, reading and writing about history. History, he wrote in a 1988 article, represents "people's efforts to do the command of God, and often, earn their own salvation and eternal life in the process. And if we are to speak in secular terms, the situation is even more drastic: the only possession human beings have is history."[2]

Nicholas V. Riasanovsky -- or "Nick," as his colleagues and friends called him, "Nikolai Valentinovich," as he was known to Russian-speakers, or "NVR," as I will refer to him by way of compromise -- was born in 1923 in Harbin, China, into a family of refugees from the Russian Civil War. His father was a legal scholar, his mother a fiction writer. NVR grew up bilingual in Russian and French; his first school was an American YMCA school. In 1936, after the Chinese Eastern Railway was sold to Japan, the family moved to Tientsin; in 1938, after the Japanese bombardment, they boarded the RMS Empress of Asia and left for America.

NVR graduated from the University of Oregon in 1942, served in the US Army in Europe during World War II, and received an A.M. from Harvard in 1947. His most vivid memories were of Mikhail Karpovich's course on Russian history, Crane Brinton's on the Enlightenment, Gaetano Salvemini's on the Renaissance, Robert Blake's on Byzantium, and Joseph Schumpeter's on the history of economic theory. In 1947, he won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. In 1949, he defended his dissertation (supervised by B.H. Sumner and Isaiah Berlin) and took up a teaching position at the University of Iowa, where he met his wife Arlene. They arrived at Berkeley in 1957 and never left. NVR served as chair of the History Department in 1967-69 and as President of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS) in 1973-77. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1987. He received the AAASS Award for Distinguished Contributions to Slavic Studies in 1993 and the American Historical Association Award for Scholarly Distinction in 1995.

He was prodigiously prolific. The bibliography of his writings, last updated in 1993, lists 239 items, not counting reprints and translations. He never forgot to put copies of his new book reviews in his colleagues' mailboxes: two type-written pages with an occasional typo correction in blue ink and a neat signature at the top. All of his drafts, written or dictated, were final. All of his books were written on the same typewriter. He prepared for writing by reading and taking notes. He wrote entire books in his head before committing them to paper. He remembered every book he had ever read.

His work was epic in scope and tone; his view of human affairs was both morally serious and ironically detached. He had a quirky way of stating the familiar and an unaffected way of arguing the unconventional. "In some sense," he told an interviewer in 1996, "I'm very much an individual; here I remember Hans Rosenberg's statement, and I don't know whether he meant it as condemnation or praise, or rather as a description. I'm a rare example of 'people who don't seem to be affected by trends, a person going his own way'. And I think that's correct."[3]

NVR's favorite subjects -- from Count Uvarov to Charles Fourier to Prince Trubetzkoy -- were remarkable for their hubris and humility, eccentricity and love of order. And so, in his own peculiar way, was NVR. He was irrepressibly, almost boisterously proud of his parents, his upbringing, his books, and his family, but he was wholly sincere when he wrote: "Especially taking into account my opportunities, I cannot claim to have done much. As one of the heroines in Mother's fiction put it, 'my fame is mainly local'." [4]  He wore a suit and tie to football games. He might appear shyly reserved one moment and recite an Akhmatova poem the next. (He had a special expression when he recited poetry: self-mocking and solemn at the same time.) He would walk into our kruzhok seminar room, bow stiffly, take off his raincoat, sit down, and reach for the biggest cookie on the tray. He had a firm handshake and a high-pitched laugh. He was spontaneously and unselfconsciously generous. He had never met a bad person. Most people he had met were eccentrics of Dickensian proportions.

Here are some of NVR's reminiscences (taken from his oral history interview and familiar to many of his students and colleagues).

There were very few Russians in Oregon, but there were several groups scattered in various places, Old Believers and sectarians, and some miles from us there lived a farmer, Dobrynin, who was a dukhobor. […] Dobrynin had a marvelous farm; everything was in order, everything was prosperous. […] His neighbors said, "Dobrynin, how do you manage that? Why are you so successful?" And he said, "Because of my beard." The other farmer said, "Well, that's very interesting; I should grow a beard. How long did it take you to grow it?" He said, "Sixty-five years."[laughter]

At the time, NVR was at the University of Oregon, taking classes in a variety of departments.

I had a good course in the Department of Economics in the principles of economics. I had a less good course in sociology taught by an enthusiast, a handsome, impressive man, but I remember one statement: he said that before Freud, we didn't know why people behave as they do, and after Freud, we know: they behave like their parents, or the exact opposite, or some stage in between.

During the Battle of the Bulge, NVR was stopped at a checkpoint and asked to identify himself. Passwords were believed to have been compromised, so NVR had to prove he was American in a less conventional way.

I remember moving and being stopped by a young fellow, and Iremember that some Germans did use American uniforms and did know our passwords. What he asked me was, "Who plays third base for the Cards?" And I said, "Whitey Kurowski." And I passed [laughter]. Whitey Kurowski was a very good third baseman. [45]

After the war, NVR declined a job offer from the CIA, but they kept coming back with new ones.

I had absolutely no interest in being in the CIA. I don't know why they were so persistent. But finally I got a letter which said: "State your conditions and we'll meet them." I never got such an offer again; I was invited to Yale and so on, but no one said such a thing. I wrote back: "Another world war." [laughter]

At Harvard, NVR was even more successful than he had been at the University of Oregon or in the US Army.

I had the highest record at Oregon in my graduating class, and I think I had the highest record at Harvard perhaps ever, and for this reason: Harvard does not give A-pluses, and I got two A-pluses. One was from a professor from Yale who simply left before he learned the system. The other is more interesting: it was [Robert P.] Blake in Byzantine history. He was a completely confused person; he probably thought that I wrote one of my father's books, in which case he had to give me an A-plus [laughter].

Blake's course in Byzantine history was remarkable in many ways. It was a graduate course, and in a sense it was a lesson perhaps for me at least in humility, because he would come in and fill the blackboard with names, and we wouldn't know a single one. He began the course by saying that here's a long book list, etc., but "I shall lecture to you on little-known things in Byzantine history." He was about 300 or 350 pounds, he would press himself back against the wall and blush. A memorable class, with such passages as Commander of the Left Horse, meaning a military rank, a unique Byzantine designation, and then suddenly his eyes would light up and he would say, "No, there's a comparable one in the Thai army." [laughter]

But NVR's favorite Harvard lecturer was Gaetano Salvemini.

He never learned the English way of designating centuries, because, you know, in Italian it's different. The seventeenth century is the sixteenth because it's the six that you see. So we always had our centuries wrong. That, of course, didn't stop him. As he would lecture, just out of nowhere he would say, "Gentlemen, if you remember one thing in history, remember: history is never yes or no. History is always more or less." And he was moving his fingers like that [gestures], and we would begin to see wires from his fingers to the back of the room [laughter]. One evening we were tired, and we went to the movies, and there was a British movie, and then there was a short on great Italians in the United States. And the next moment Salvemini was there [on the screen], saying, "Gentlemen, I want you to remember one thing about history: history is never yes or no. History is always more or less." [laughter] And then we knew there was no escape.

Also at Harvard (but some years later, when he was a visiting professor there), NVR met the economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron.

At one point Martin Malia, my colleague here, and I were thinking, who exercised the greatest influence on our generation in Russian studies, and we put him first. He more or less counted his life by books -- how many books he has to read. He also calculated when he was going to die and he died pretty much on time and how many books he would be able to read by then. Every book counted. He was reading on an airplane, and there was a lady next to him, and she said something, and he said nothing but kept reading. Finally, the lady said to him, "Don't you notice me?" He still paid no attention. The flight was from Vienna to New York. Then the lady said, "Was it your mother who told you not to talk to strange women?" "No, my father," and went on reading. The plane stopped. It was Marlene Dietrich. [laughter]

At Oxford, one of NVR's advisers was B.H. Sumner.

Sumner was in Russian diplomatic history, and again, my advantages always come back. The first thing he asked, "Are you related to the scholar?" I said, "He's my father." Then, that time, he started speaking Russian, and in about ten minutes, I talked him down in Russian, and he never spoke Russian with me again.

The other one was Isaiah Berlin.

Berlin, of course a world-famous figure, was from a Russian-Jewish family and spoke Russian natively. He was also completely confused and lost most of the time. […] I remember when I returned from vacation, and I got a telegram saying, "I see I have an appointment with you, but who are you and why?" [laughter] […] He was known as the only person whose second sentence you would hear before you hear his first. […]Sometimes he would confuse what he was lecturing on, which course it was, or he would be reading proofs of something he was publishing.

The eight years in Iowa were among the happiest in NVR's life.

I liked Iowa very much -- that's where I met my wife, and she was quite willing to go to Berkeley, and I said, "Shame on you. Aren't you an lowan?" And she said, "That proves it." [laughter] […]She was head reference librarian. One decision in our life -- she was offered the position of head librarian at Douglass College, the women's campus of Rutgers University. Instead, she married me, and I thought that she could be head librarian and I would be gentleman scholar [laughter].

When NVR arrived at Berkeley, he went to see Robert Kerner, one of his predecessors in the field of Russian history.

He called me in, in this Dwinelle Hall where we are located still. He was retired but had an office on the ground floor, and he said, "I want to be straight with you. I opposed your nomination for only two reasons." I said, "Yes?" "One, you're not my student. Two, I think it's better that the Anglo-Saxons teach Russian history." [laughter] […] He was already out of the department, and they were very happy to have him out. He made life easy for me because no matter what I did it was better than Kerner [laughter]. I got for several years letters, Why did Professor Kerner do that to me? And I would answer and say, I promise not to do that to you. [laughter] But, by comparison, I was just the department's darling, you know.[5]

"As I grow old," wrote NVR in his 1988 autobiographical article, "I am increasingly impressed by another characteristic of history, namely, in history as a bid for the survival, for a time, if not for eternity, of the events and record of the past, and with them, of the recorder himself. In this respect the earliest markings on the tombstones or the bragging inscriptions of pharaohs, are already history, even central history." The history that NVR created -- in his writings, his stories, and his life, as we shared and remember it, -- will survive for a very long time. Perhaps for eternity.[6]


Yuri Slezkine

Director, ISEEES

Jane K. Sather Professor of History

University of California, Berkeley


[1] Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, "On History, Historians, and An Historian," Collected Writings, 1947-1994 (Los Angeles, Ca: Charles Schlacks, Jr., Pubisher, 1993), 295.

[2] Ibid., 294, 291; Reginald E. Zelnik, Introduction to Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, "Professor of Russian and European Intellectual History, University of California, Berkeley, 1957-1997,"an oral history conducted in 1996 by Ann Lage, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1998,

[3] Riasanovsky, "Professor of Russian and European Intellectual History," 220.

[4] Riasanovsky, "On History," 294.

[5] Riasanovsky, "Professor of Russian and European Intellectual History," 39, 35, 47, 55-6, 33-4, 65, 66-9, 86-8, 95-6.

[6] Riasanovsky, "On History," 291.