Nicholas V. Riasanovsky (1923–2011)
Mark D. Steinberg, October 2011
Intellectual Historian and Historian of Russia, Recipient of the AHA's Award for Scholarly Distinction
Nicholas Riasanovsky, who died on May 14, 2011, after a long illness, may be the best known historian of Russia of the last half-century, thanks to his widely read textbook, A History of Russia, which has appeared in eight revised editions since 1962 (with translations into many languages). But his contributions to scholarship embrace a larger body of research and writing, including seven influential books on Russian and European intellectual history. As a historian of ideas and thinkers, Riasanovsky sensitively described the experiences and perspectives of both dissenting intellectuals and conservative officials and rulers, and always in a comparative European context. Methodologically, he believed that nothing should be excluded from the historian's gaze—a belief reflected in the inclusion of art and literature alongside economics and foreign policy in his textbook. His methodology might also be described as "responsible." Riasanovsky believed strongly in a professional integrity that required historians to determine and verify the facts (and avoid straying beyond them), recognize multiple interpretations, and seek interpretive balance and fairness. Some of this seemed rather old-fashioned to many students of my generation, as did his focus on elites and his great appreciation for scholars of the past (though he viewed new methodologies with respect, even when not to his taste). But the standards he set for himself and for his students, his respect for others, and his passion for understanding and teaching about the past, remain exemplary.
Described by the late Reginald Zelnik, his colleague of many years in the history department at the University of California, Berkeley, as a "Russian-European American," Riasanovsky grew up in an intensely cosmopolitan atmosphere. Both his parents were Russian intellectuals who left revolutionary Russia for China. Nicholas was born there on December 21, 1923, in Harbin, Manchuria, which he recalled as a largely Russian city in those years. Linguistically adept, he grew up equally at home in Russian, English, and French. In 1938, his family sailed to the United States and settled in Eugene, Oregon, where he received his BA from the University of Oregon in 1942. He enlisted in the army, was eventually promoted to military intelligence as he knew German quite well, received the Bronze Star, and celebrated the end of the war in Paris. Riasanovsky then entered the history doctoral program at Harvard. After being awarded a Rhodes scholarship, he transferred to Oxford University, where he received his DPhil in 1949, working with Isaiah Berlin and B. H. Sumner, and writing a dissertation on the Slavophiles. History attracted him, he said, for its variety of approaches and topics: "history is everything." And, for him, this historian must be open-minded, the "opposite attitude from … trying to build a school and denouncing everyone else," as he said in 1996 (Oral History Recording, Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley).
Riasanovsky's first position was at the University of Iowa, where he taught from 1949 to 1957. The rest of his career was spent at Berkeley, where he was named Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professor of European History in 1969. Among many fellowships, awards, and honors, he received the Rhodes, Fulbright, and Guggenheim fellowships, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1987, was honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies in 1993 for Distinguished Contributions to Slavic Studies, and received the American Historical Association's Award for Scholarly Distinction in 1995.
In addition to A History of Russia (Oxford Univ. Press), his major publications include Russia and the West in the Teaching of the Slavophiles: A Study of Romantic Ideology (Harvard Univ. Press, 1952); Nicholas I and Official Nationality in Russia, 1825–1855 (Univ. of California Press, 1959); The Teaching of Charles Fourier (Univ. of California Press, 1969); A Parting of Ways: Government and the Educated Public in Russia, 1801–1855 (Oxford Univ. Press, 1976); The Image of Peter the Great in Russian History and Thought (Oxford Univ. Press, 1985); The Emergence of Romanticism (Oxford Univ. Press, 1992); and Russian Identities: A Historical Survey (Oxford Univ. Press, 2005). In 2002, Riasanovsky invited me to become coauthor for a new edition of A History of Russia. By working closely with him, I learned what I had not fully appreciated as a graduate student in the 1980s: in the preface to the first edition, he had written that "for a student of Russian history to write a complete history of Russia is, in a sense, to give an account of his entire intellectual and academic life." This book, indeed, sought to synthesize and distill for students his own best scholarly work and the best work of the profession. He welcomed the changes I made, for he understood that historical knowledge, approach, and interpretation continually develop. And I gained a deeper appreciation for his foundational methodological choices: careful attention to documentable facts, recognition of diverse points of view, and an inclusive view of what matters in history.
That said, Riasanovsky was not without judgments of the past. Although he was strongly committed to a scientific and objective approach to history, Riasanovsky's work was informed by a deep moral commitment to the liberal values of the Enlightenment, especially the dignity and rights of the individual (tinged with some of the spirituality and passion of the Romantic era). This meant that he could see the blindness, abuses, and mistakes of those he admired (Peter the Great, for example) but also that he strove to understand the points of view of those he reviled (notably, the Bolsheviks). Especially in person, and when teaching, Riasanovsky was erudite and witty, with an astonishing memory. These qualities also made him a great raconteur. He loved telling anecdotes—just as he loved history's stories—drawn from his experiences in the world and with people. And he was a devoted fan of the American sports of basketball (which he had played in college), football, and baseball. He attended Berkeley games religiously, always attired in jacket and tie, exemplifying his characteristic blend of the traditions of the old world and the new, of propriety and enthusiasm.
—Mark D. Steinberg
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign