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  • Marc Raeff (1923-2008):"A Pebble in the Water"
  • Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter

Drop a pebble in the water: just a splash, and it is gone; But there's half-a-hundred ripples circling on and on and on, Spreading from the center, flowing on out to the sea And there is no way of telling where the end is going to be.

Drop a pebble in the water: in a minute you forget, But there's little waves a-flowing, and there's ripples circling yet, And those little waves a-flowing to a great big wave have grown; You've disturbed a mighty river just by dropping in a stone.1

Marc Raeff was like a pebble in the water. In life and in learning, the ripples flowed from his wisdom and erudition, "circling on and on and on."

Marc was born in Moscow on 28 July 1923. The only child of Victoria, a biochemist, and Isaac, an engineer, Marc spent his early childhood in Czechoslovakia, where from 1926 his father worked for the Soviet government inspecting imported machinery parts. Isaac, a Menshevik, was recalled to Moscow in 1927 or 1928, but instead of returning he took his family to Berlin. Marc began school there at age seven. The Raeffs moved to Paris in 1933, after the Nazis took power, and in 1941 they emigrated to the United States. In New York, Marc briefly attended City College before being drafted into the military. During World War II, he served as an interpreter in camps for prisoners of war. After the war, Marc attended Harvard University, where he and other "founding fathers" of Russian studies in the United States studied with Michael Karpovich. Marc received his Ph.D. in 1950 and taught at Clark University from 1949 until 1960. There he met Lillian Gottesman, a graduate student in psychology. They married in 1951 and had two daughters, Anne (b. 1959) and Catherine (b. 1964). Marc moved to Columbia University in 1961 and taught there until his retirement in 1988. After retiring, he continued to live in Tenafly, [End Page 216] New Jersey, and to enjoy with his wife, Lillian, the cultural offerings of New York and Europe. Just recently, the Raeffs moved to Teaneck, where Marc died on 20 September 2008.2

As Bakhmeteff Professor of Russian Studies at Columbia University, Marc Raeff trained several generations of historians. The range of his knowledge was legendary and can readily be seen in the titles of his nine books, not to mention the numerous articles, essays, and reviews that he wrote in English, French, German, and Russian.3 (Marc also read Italian and some Polish.) His love of reading and writing amazed everyone who knew him. It was invariably the case that his friends, colleagues, and students owed him a letter. The swiftness with which he read and commented upon draft manuscripts instilled both fear and admiration. Those manuscripts came back so quickly that one's first thought had to be, "Oh, no! He could not get through it. It's a mess." Always, however, the manuscript brought with it a detailed, perceptive, and honest letter, one that recognized the author's hard work and encouraged him or her to face the next revisions. When I discussed my work with Marc or read his written reaction, I often had the feeling that he understood what I wanted to say better than I did. He could see ideas and implications that had not yet been fully articulated.

I do not want to belittle the deep sadness that surrounds Marc Raeff 's passing. But still, I imagine Marc up there in heaven (even though he did not believe in heaven), looking at us and saying, "What is all the fuss?" Marc's objectivity, his ability to discern reality in a rational and detached manner, was one of his outstanding intellectual and emotional qualities. Objectivity did not, however, mean coldness or lack of concern. Marc was a devoted son, husband, and father. He helped Russian relatives to emigrate and to live more comfortably in Soviet [End Page 217] and post-Soviet Russia. He supported colleagues and students in their professional endeavors over and over again...


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