- Nicholas V. Riasanovsky (1923–2011)
Nicholas Riasanovsky was a remarkable scholar, but in a very particular way. Unlike his Berkeley colleague Reginald Zelnik, he was not outgoingly charismatic; and unlike his other colleague Martin Malia he did not regularly mesmerize his audiences with the brilliance of his audacious (if not always entirely convincing) interpretations. What set Nick apart from the others was a simple and very powerful combination of two special qualities: an utterly extraordinary erudition regarding all aspects of Russian history and civilization, on the one hand, and the unsurpassed balance, judiciousness, and elegance with which he wielded this knowledge, on the other. Either of these qualities would be notable by themselves, but Nick brought them together in a way that made him sui generis and without question one of the great monuments on the landscape of Russian studies in the late 20th century. Of all his writings, his many-editioned textbook offers probably the best example of this combination, and there is no surprise in the fact that it remained for decades as the leading English-language text on the subject across much of the globe.1
As a supervisor he was decidedly noninterventionist. Restrained and gentle in his critiques, he was—so it seemed to me—quite as concerned about my mistransliterations of the Russian tverdyi znak as he was about my labored interpretations of Count Uvarov’s correspondence with Goethe. But the pedagogical effect of interacting with this scholarly paragon was immense and enduring. More than anyone I have ever known, Nick gave full meaning to the notion of “teaching by example,” and he did so entirely naturally and effortlessly. It may never have occurred to him to offer himself as a model of the sort of excellence that we historians should seek to achieve, but it would never have occurred to any of his students to see him in any other way. I was extremely proud when he agreed to write the foreword to the published version of the dissertation that he supervised. [End Page 1005]
In retrospect, it is clear that my most significant scholarly interaction with Nick related not to my dissertation research but to a rather different subject that I began to study seriously only later, namely the history of Eurasianism. This was a subject in which he had a personal interest, partly through his father Valentin Riasanovsky, who was a specialist on Mongol law, and partly because it involved issues of emigration and émigré visions of Russia in which he would have felt himself implicated. Nick published an extended essay on the topic in the mid-1960s, which was little noted at the time but—with the emergence of neo-Eurasianism in post-Soviet Russia—has today become one his most republished and oft-cited works.2 The essay stands out for the dynamism and intensity of the argument, which is presented with an unusual energy that is linked, I am sure, to Nick’s own sense of direct personal engagement with the subject. I studied the essay as his student, and while I admired it, I was skeptical of his emphatic conclusion that Eurasianism represented a fundamental break with the prerevolutionary legacy of Russian nationalist thinking. As I became an expert on the subject in my own right, however, and particularly in light of the revival of Eurasianism in Russia today, I came to appreciate precisely how important the point is and how very right he actually was. To be challenged by, and learn from, a scholar after his or her time has passed is without doubt the greatest tribute that can be paid. Nick’s legacy will continue to challenge and teach us for many years.
In 1986, Professor Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, my new advisor, told me I was sloppy because I didn’t know how to transliterate properly. He told me I was lazy because I refused to learn Latin. And he told me I had a bad attitude because I generally failed to follow directions and, when I did follow them, grumbled about their supposed unfairness. At the time, of course, I was miffed by...