Russian history authority Nicholas V. Riasanovsky dies at 87

Nicholas Valentine Riasanovsky, an emeritus professor of European history at the University of California, Berkeley, and a leading authority on the history of Russia, died May 14 in an Oakland, Calif., nursing home following a long illness. He was 87.

Riasanovsky’s “A History of Russia,” an English-language textbook for undergraduates, remains the bestselling survey of Russian history and covers every period of Russian and Soviet history from the Kievan state to Vladimir Putin. The first edition was published in 1963 and the eighth edition in 2010. It has been translated into French, Italian, Korean, Polish, Mandarin and Rumanian.

“For almost 50 years, most Americans who studied Russian history studied it by reading ‘A History of Russia,’” said Yuri Slezkine, professor of history at UC Berkeley and director of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies.He was a giant in the field of 19th-century intellectual history, but there was nothing about Russian history that he did not know or was not interested in.”

Mark Steinberg, a former Riasanovsky student and a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, worked with Riasanovsky on the last two editions of “A History of Russia.”  He said Riasanovsky’s efforts creating and revising the text reflected his dedication to teaching as an essential part of scholarship. He also praised Riasanovsky’s “careful attention to documentable facts, balance and fairness, recognition of diverse points of view, and an inclusive view of history that attends not only to the actions of rulers but also to social life, the economy, ideologies, culture and the arts.”

Steinberg said that Riasanovsky “continued a rich established tradition of how to do history: he was erudite and witty (with an amazing memory), devoted to the facts and to balance, sought to understand the point of view of those we study, but also willing to recognize their mistakes, blindness and abuses.”

He began his academic career as a member of the history faculty at the State University of Iowa from 1949 to 1957, and joined UC Berkeley’s History Department in 1957, becoming the Sidney Hellman Ehrrman Professor of European History until his retirement at age 70.

Nicholas V. Riasanovsky (Photo courtesy of the Riasanovsky family.)

He continued to write scholarly articles and books, including “Russian Identities: A Historical Survey” (2005).Riasanovsky was born Dec. 21, 1923 in Harbin, China, a primarily Russian city. In an interview recorded by the Regional Oral History Office at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, he said that his mother, who became a novelist, left Russia just before the Revolution of 1917 and his father, a legal scholar and attorney for the Russia-Manchuria railroad, emigrated during the civil war.

Riasanovsky came to the United States in 1938 and earned a B.A. degree in European history from the University of Oregon in 1942. In 1943, he became a naturalized citizen and joined the U.S. Army, serving in intelligence units in France and the Ardennes during World War II. Riasanovsky participated in the Normandy landings in June 1944 and fought at the Battle of the Bulge, receiving a battlefield commission and the Bronze Star for his service.

He resumed his academic studies after the war, receiving a master’s degree in Russian history from Harvard University in 1947 and a D. Phil. in Russian history from Oxford University in1949. While at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, Riasanovsky wrote a dissertation on the Slavophiles, a group of 19th-century romantic intellectuals who formulated an ideology centered on the need to return to the values of ancient Russia, under the joint supervision of B.H. Sumner, at the time Britain’s leading historian of Russia, and Isaiah Berllin, a political philosopher and historian of ideas.

An avid and impeccably dressed Cal sports fan, Riasanovsky followed the Golden Bears closely, attending games dressed in a jacket, tie and overcoat. He long held season tickets to UC Berkeley football and men’s basketball games, and was a regular at baseball games, watching from seats along the first baseline. Riasanovsky faithfully read “The Daily Californian” student newspaper, always turning first to the sports page.

Always happy to invite students and colleagues for conversation over coffee, Riasanovsky was said to have frequented a certain Bancroft Way eatery so regularly that graduate students dubbed the establishment “Café Riasanovsky.”

His daughter, Maria Riasanovsky, said her father never used notes in the classroom and appeared to speak extemporaneously as he paced back and forth, a motion which some students likened to following a tennis match.

Former students continued to recognize him and his name long after leaving his classroom. “He was easily recognizable as that same professor from years earlier, so he would be greeted on AC Transit, in line at the movies and even once at baggage claim at San Francisco International Airport by Cal grads who remembered him,” his daughter said.

Slezkine described Riasanovsky as “kind, generous and retiring” and a man proud of his own accomplishments, but prouder still of those of his colleagues, students and his family in particular. “He liked to help people, but he did not like to talk about it,” said Slezkine. “He had a wonderful sense of irony and a rare storyteller’s gift. He was an inspiration and a joy to be around.”

In 1993, Riasanovsky received the Award for Distinguished Contributions to Slavic Studies, issued by the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, and the Award for Scholarly Distinction by the American Historical Association in 1994.

Other awards included election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1987 and grants from the Fulbright and Guggenheim foundations. He was president of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies in 1973-1977 and a trustee of the National Council for Soviet and East European Research. Beginning in 1960, he was co-editor of the periodical, California Slavic Studies.

Riasanovsky had close ties to the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and was a founder of its Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute, serving as an institute board member from 1986 to 2005.

He is survived by his wife, Arlene Riasanovsky of Berkeley, Calif.; sons John Riasanovsky of Huntington, Beach, Calif., and Nicholas N. Riasanovsky of Berkeley; daughter Maria Riasanovsky of Palo Alto, Calif.; grandson Nicholas J. Riasanovsky of Huntington Beach, Calif.; and brother Alexander V. Riasanovsky of Tampa, Fla.

Funeral services were held at Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in San Francisco on May 20.