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  • Moshe Lewin, 1921–2010
  • Sir Ian Kershaw (bio)

I can't claim to have known Misha very closely. In fact, I did not meet him until 1991, when he was the main organizer of (and inspiration behind) an important conference, held in Philadelphia, comparing the historical development of Russia and Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries. Before then, Misha had been known to me only as the author of a brilliant book on the Soviet Union which I had frequently used with my students, his collection of essays published as The Making of the Soviet System.1 I was delighted, therefore, when I received the invitation to the Philadelphia conference. The conference brought together an array of outstanding specialists on Germany and on Russia/the Soviet Union from across the world, including a number of Russian scholars now able to travel freely and to offer their own accounts of the fall of the Soviet system. The conference went extremely well, producing some fascinating papers and discussion. Misha, its central figure, was in his element. He and I seemed somehow to strike a chord from the outset, and we continued our discussions by correspondence when I returned home to England.

The conference had, I think it is fair to say, broken new ground in its wide-ranging comparisons, ranging back to the imperial period in Germany and Russia and ending in the upheavals of 1989–90. It had, in particular, sought to depart from the concept of totalitarianism, which up to then had been practically the only framework of comparative analysis for the two countries. Misha's original idea had been to publish not only the 27 conference papers and 18 prepared commentaries but also transcripts of three days of intense discussion. I told him straightaway that I thought this plan was illusory. Not only was the sheer volume of material daunting from a publishing perspective; in addition, the comparison worked better in some areas than others. I suggested to Misha that we should confine a published version to the area where comparison was likely to be most enlightening: the period of the Stalin and Hitler dictatorships, [End Page 123] and that I would be happy to collaborate with him on producing such a volume from the relevant conference papers. Without hesitation, Misha agreed, and we began a fruitful and intellectually enjoyable period of close collaboration.

Quite a number of the papers had been written in English by non-native speakers of English and, as is natural and inevitable, required some editorial attention. What I had not anticipated is that this would apply to the contributions of my coeditor! Misha was, of course, fluent in many languages, and his English was excellent—if inimitable in its style and expression. Reading his earlier published work had given me no inkling that his written English needed a strong editorial hand to polish the style. I was left with the tricky job of recouching and touching up Misha's English without, of course, altering the content. It was a sensitive task, though Misha never bristled at my suggested amendments to his wording. My changes were accepted by Misha with patience and good humor. What had seemed to me an awkward assignment turned out to be relatively straightforward. What emerged was, I think, a valuable set of essays in a volume which plainly bears the imprint of Misha's views, not just on Stalinism but on the nature of the comparison of the two systems.2 Working with him, while I could not claim it to have been easy, was a pleasurable intellectual experience, from which I gained a great deal.

During the 1990s, I saw Misha almost every year when he came over to England to visit long-standing friends in Birmingham, where he had been based for some years—in the 1970s, I think—at the university's Soviet Studies Centre. Among his close friends in Birmingham were Dorothy Thompson (the widow of E. P. Thompson) and Rodney Hilton, the eminent medievalist (a prominent Marxist historian and one of the founding editorial board of the journal Past and Present), and his wife Jean Birrell (herself a specialist on the rural society of...


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pp. 123-125
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