- Moshe Lewin's Century
I met Moshe Lewin for the first time in Paris in the mid-1980s. At the time, I was doing research in the Archives Nationales and had met the wonderful Israeli painter, Raffi Kaiser, who had been living in Paris for many years. One evening Raffi suggested we visit an old friend and an important historian with whose name at the time I was unfamiliar. I well remember that first meeting, in a comfortable apartment on one of the higher floors of a house in the posh Sixteenth District. We were welcomed by a short, sturdy man with a peasant's handshake and a indefatigable joy of hosting. We began speaking already in the kitchen, while Misha, as I had later learned to call him, attempted to uncork a bottle of Chablis he had prepared for the occasion. But the bottle slipped out of his hands, fell on the floor, and shattered, splashing its valuable content all around. We had to content ourselves with another wine, which was accompanied by rabbit pâté and pear and almond pie, and if memory serves, we proceeded to talk over several more glasses of vodka.
I was then a young historian, whereas Misha was at the height of his powers. But at that first evening together he did not show even a hint of the arrogance and self-importance that one often finds among renowned academics. Conversely, despite his charm and his known predilection, as I was to discover, to host generously whether at home or in restaurants, Misha was not one of those people who would hasten to agree with their interlocutors or avoid an argument with their guests in order to preserve the rules of good behavior. Whether with a smile or a frown, by way of a joke or a story, but usually in good humor, Misha would not only readily point out areas of disagreement but proceed to provide a lengthy and well-argued explanation of his views on this or that topic. In his own area of specialization, the formation of the Soviet regime, the transformation of the Russian peasantry, the transition from Lenin to Stalin, or the last days of the Soviet Union, there were many who disagreed with him, but few who could win out in an argument. [End Page 115] For that reason, alongside his admirers, Misha also accumulated over the years a not inconsiderable number of intellectual enemies.
A few years after that first meeting, I moved to Philadelphia, where Misha was teaching in the University of Pennsylvania's Department of History. During that time we met quite often and occasionally had lengthy telephone conversations. Misha was a tireless workhorse all his life. Consequently, he preferred to speak on the telephone only late at night. But if you called him at the usual hour, around 11:30 pm, you knew that you were in for an extended conversation on politics and academe, history and contemporary issues, which would last well beyond midnight. As my own professional and personal burden grew, I increasingly avoided these lengthy conversations into the night, and now, knowing that no one will pick up the phone any longer in Misha's home, I regret that. Before writing this essay, I listened to a radio interview with Misha recorded in 2005, and instantly the memory of those nightly conversations returned; I recalled his wise voice, always slightly amused, which at the same time made unequivocal and seemingly self-evident statements, rooted in a long life of deep study, sharply analytical thinking, and a rare ability to clearly articulate even the most complex issues. But I remember especially vividly the visits to his humble home in Philadelphia, not far from the university, in the narrow sitting room and kitchen at the top of a steep flight of stairs, during which the man opened up and related stories from his own past.
Misha combined several characteristics that normally reside in very different individuals. A generous man who liked social life, he lived in splendid isolation and was considered to be a bit of a misanthrope; a careful researcher and great believer in the use of original...