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  • Leopold Haimson (1927–2010)
  • Jochen Hellbeck and Peter Holquist

“If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which seeds will grow and which will not.”

—Macbeth, used as the introduction to Haimson’s Russian Marxists and the Origins of Bolshevism

Leopold Haimson, Professor Emeritus at Columbia University, died at his home in New York City on 18 December 2010, at the age of 83, after suffering a stroke in October of that year.

Haimson was a leading historian of 19th- and early 20th-century Russian history. He was the author of numerous important books and articles; a tireless and singularly successful promoter of international scholarly cooperation among American, European, and Russian scholars; and the mentor of several generations of graduate students.1 As students of Haimson we would like to use the bulk of this commemoration to share with readers what it was like to study under his guidance and how we were shaped by his approach to history and the historical study of Russia more particularly.

Haimson was born in Brussels in 1927 to a family of Russian émigrés. His father had been born in Borisov in the Jewish Pale of Settlement, graduating from Warsaw University and moving to St. Petersburg. In his The Russian Marxists and the Origins of Bolshevism as well as in his introduction to The Making of Three Russian Revolutionaries, Haimson examined the social and psychological trajectory of revolutionaries from precisely this milieu.2 His mother was a daughter of a merchant family whose grant of large forested [End Page 755] territories contributed to the building of the Trans-Siberian railroad. After the revolution, the family went to first Harbin and then Berlin, settling in Brussels. Leopold was 13 when the Nazis invaded and overran Belgium. The family escaped on a fishing boat from Normandy to unoccupied France, and then to the United States. Soon after his arrival in the United States, Leopold Haimson enrolled at Harvard College in 1942 at age 15 (having lied about his age in order to be admitted), completing his degree in 1945.

This life trajectory, which Haimson shared with a certain cohort of his generation (Marc Raeff, Michael Confino, Moshe Lewin, Nicholas Riasanovsky), made him a cosmopolitan by life, rather than simply by choice. He was equally at home in the French, English, and Russian languages. He wore his cosmopolitanism lightly. Rather than preaching, by his life and scholarship he communicated to his many students that a serious scholar simply should be cosmopolitan.

As an undergraduate at Harvard, Haimson had focused on French history, with a B.A. thesis devoted to the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau on Maximilien Robespierre and the question of whether to hold “ideology” or “circumstances” responsible for the Terror in the French Revolution. With the defeat of Nazism, Haimson became fascinated with the Red Army and the Soviet Union and entered graduate study in Russian history. He formed part of a truly remarkable cohort of students studying under Michael Karpovich, notable equally for their breadth of views as for their later prominence: Richard Pipes, Marc Raeff (later his colleague at Columbia University), Martin Malia, Donald Treadgold, Nicholas Riasanovsky. He completed his degree in 1952 and moved in 1956 to his first position at the University of Chicago.

Yet even at this very early stage of his career, he engaged in independent study in the social sciences. For over five years he worked together with Margaret Mead on a project to identify contours and regularities of Soviet political culture. The essay resulting from this project, “The Ideal of ‘Conscious Activity’ ” (1951, a manuscript that only a few U.S. research libraries carry), seeks to lay bare Bolshevik assumptions on decision making by comparing Soviet approaches to chess, operational thinking in Soviet battle situations, and the organization of Soviet mass industry.3 Decision making in all these settings, Haimson argued, was shaped, albeit to different degrees, by how [End Page 756] Soviet Communists understood the laws of history and their own place in them. The Bolsheviks emphasized “the existence, in a world governed by objective laws, of forces outside their control, moving according to consistent patterns.” They believed that these consistent patterns...


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