[Access article in PDF]
Alexander Vucinich (1914-2002)
Alfred J. Rieber
Alexander Vucinich, who died peacefully at his home in Berkeley, California on 25 May 2002, will be remembered by his students, colleagues, and friends for his immense scholarly legacy and his great humanity. His pioneering work in the history of Russian sciences and social sciences spans 40 years of productive work. The two-volume history of Science in Russian Culture to 1917 (1963 and 1970) was followed by Social Thought in Tsarist Russia: The Quest for a General Science of Society (1976), Empire of Knowledge: The Academy of Sciences of the USSR, 1917-1970 (1984), Darwin in Russian Thought (1988), and his last book, Einstein in Soviet Ideology (2001). These were only his major works. He also contributed many articles to a wide range of journals from Isis to Slavic Review and the Journal of the History of Ideas. His recently published series of essays on the history of Russian mathematics in Historia Mathematica demonstrated once again his enormous range of knowledge. His intellectual powers remained unimpaired to the very end.
Beyond the obvious erudition and scope of his work, there was an underlying mission, as it were, to restore the rational and analytical aspects of Russian intellectual life to their rightful place in history. Much of that tradition had been ignored or undervalued in the Western literature. When Alex began to publish there was still a powerful interpretive current among American and British specialists to treat Russian intellectual history and social thought in terms of a non-rationality and collectivism that separated them from the mainstream of "Western" thought. One has only to mention Hans Kohn's The Mind of Modern Russia or Ernest Simmons's edited volume Continuity and Change in Russian and Soviet Thought to recall the dominant views of those early postwar years. Throughout his work Alex demonstrated that in modern times Russian scientists were always part of the European tradition. But that was the point: there was more than one way to do science in Europe throughout much of the 19th century, and Russia was no exception. He made this point particularly clearly in Darwin in Russian Thought. Darwin's reception in Russia was a complex matter. It was not simply a question of for and against, the Westerners against the Slavophiles. The record that Alex scrupulously unfolded revealed the nuances and subtleties that characterized the debate in Russia as elsewhere in Europe. He distinguished between [End Page 755] the genuine scientific aspects and the popular polemical ones that had been all too often taken as the expression of the murky Slavic soul. To be sure, he did not himself directly confront the received wisdom, but the weight of his scholarship was sufficient to make the point.
As for his attitude toward Soviet scholars, that too was unusually reasonable. Although he based his work mainly on primary sources, he did not neglect the contributions of the leading Soviet specialists in the history of science, men like Leonid Iakovlevich Bliakher and Boris Evgen'evich Raikov. These scholars were not only unappreciated in the West, but also among mainstream historians in the Soviet Union as a result of the unfortunate segmentation of the Soviet intellectual community. In the 1960s conversations with historians in the Institute of History in Leningrad revealed that they were unaware of the innovative work being done by their colleagues in the Institute of the History of the Natural Sciences and Technology. 1 Alex was one of the first and one of the few to consider their work as an integral part of the intellectual history of Russia.
Despite his impressive scholarly output Alex never slighted his teaching, in which he excelled both as a lecturer and seminar leader. He began his career at San Jose State College from 1950-64. He then moved to the University of Illinois, where he found one of the most outstanding collections of holdings in the history of Russian science, one that he then helped to expand...