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Professor Richard Stites: In Memoriam

Professor Richard Stites at Georgetown

Professor Richard Stites at Georgetown * (On photo, see note below)

My friend and distinguished Georgetown colleague, Professor Richard Stites, died on March 7 in Helsinki. Stites was a brilliant scholar and teacher, whom I met with I was a student at Georgetown University in the 1970′s. My first contact with Richard came when I was enrolled in Professor David Goldfrank’s History of Russia class. Stites taught the other section of that course, and many of my friends were taking it. During the second semester, the two classes collaborated on “revolutionary theater,” where they enacted episodes from Russian history. As far as I can recall, these skits were Richard’s idea and reflected the innovation and passion that he brought to his life’s work. When I returned to Georgetown as a faculty member in the 1980′s, I continued to see Richard as an amazing person– a committed intellectual, devoted to teaching and writing about Russian. And I came to understand that he was a true character.

Yesterday, the Washington Post ran an obituary on Richard. I am reproducing it below, as well as a noted send out by the University Provost.

From the Washington Post:

Richard Stites, 78, a Georgetown University historian whose books on popular culture and the role of women set new standards in the study of Russian and Soviet history, died March 7 at a hospital in Helsinki, where he had a second home. He had cancer of the esophagus.

While many other scholars of Russian history examined the records of statesmen, soldiers and revolutionaries, Dr. Stites focused on films, dance halls and entertainment. In a series of books and articles, he cast light on the tastes of the proletariat and on cultural trends ignored by more traditional historians.

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 dramatically changed life in Russia, but Dr. Stites found common threads woven across time.

“The Russians enjoy a kind of . . . ineffable longing for something far away, something lost, something unattainable,” he said in a 1993 interview with National Public Radio. “Pathos is very much a part of their high culture as well as their popular culture. For example, Russian movies . . . had to have Russian endings. That is to say, everybody had to die.”

In his influential 1992 book “Russian Popular Culture: Entertainment and Society Since 1900,” Dr. Stites used pulp fiction, rock-and-roll lyrics, circuses and jokes to reveal the Russian character in fresh and surprising ways.

“Popular culture is part of history because it is as much a human experience as war, slavery, revolution and work,” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1989. “Looking at its themes and styles is the best way to uncover values held by millions of people about life, love, friendship, success and the outer world.”

Dr. Stites could speak or write 10 languages and liked to conduct his research as close to the source as he could get.”Many years living and studying in Moscow and Leningrad,” journalist Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote in The Washington Post in 1993, “frequenting places where scholars are rarely found — sleazy nightclubs, movie houses, vaudeville theaters, pop concerts and workers’ clubs — brought him face to face with the country’s lower-depth realities.”

Early in his career, Dr. Stites concentrated on the little-known contributions of women in Russian society, which he described in his 1978 book, “The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia.” His 1988 book, “Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution,” analyzed the cultural underpinnings of the 1917 revolution. “Serfdom, Society, and the Arts in Imperial Russia” (2005) explored the influence of serfs who became actors and artists. At the time of his death, Dr. Stites was completing a book on European revolutionary movements of the 1820s.

A Georgetown colleague, David M. Goldfrank, called him “absolutely one of the more important Russian historians of recent times.”

Richard Thomas Stites was born in Philadelphia on Dec. 2, 1931. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1956 and received a master’s degree in history from George Washington University in 1959.

In accepting a job at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania in the early 1960s, he agreed to study Russian history and received a doctorate from Harvard University in 1968. He taught in Copenhagen, at Brown University and the Lima campus of Ohio State University before coming to Georgetown in 1977. A faculty member until his death, Dr. Stites always insisted that his students, whether freshmen or postgraduates, make use of the Library of Congress.

His marriages to Dorothy Jones, Tatyana Tereshchenko and Elena Stites ended in divorce.

Survivors include two children from his first marriage, Tod Stites and Thomas Stites, both of Hyattsville; a son from his second marriage, Andrei Stites of Washington; and a daughter from a relationship, Alexandra Stites of Moscow.

Dr. Stites lived in Washington but for many years maintained an apartment in Helsinki, where he did research at the Slavonic Library.

He became something of an expert on all things Finnish, including the concept of “krapula,” or hangover. Interviewed for a Washington Post Magazine article one morning in 2006 after a boisterous evening with colleagues, Dr. Stites admitted that he was in a state of krapula.

“There’s a whole culture of krapula in this country,” he said. “You would never show up for work in the U.S. and tell people about your hangover. In Finland, everyone understands.”

Portions of the message send out by the Provost to Georgetown Faculty:

Richard Stites was a proud native of Philadelphia, where he was born December 2, 1931. He received his B.A. in History from the University of Pennsylvania in 1956, his M.A. in History from George Washington University in 1959, and his Ph.D. in Russian History from Harvard University in 1968. Richard Stites taught at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania, the International College in Copenhagen, Brown University, and The Ohio State University (Lima campus) before joining Georgetown University’s faculty in 1977. He read and/or spoke nine languages apart from English.Professor Stites specialized in modern Russian cultural and social history. His extraordinarily long list of influential publications includes scores of articles, at least five edited or co-edited volumes, a major co-authored textbook, A History of Russia: Peoples, Legends, Events, Forces (Houghton-Mifflin, 2004), and the following single-authored books: The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860-1930 (Princeton University Press, 1978; 2nd edn 1991); Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Social Experiment in the Russian Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1989; 2nd edn 1991); Russian Popular Culture: Entertainment and Society since 1900 (Cambridge University Press, 1992); and Serfdom, Society, and the Arts in Imperial Russia: The Pleasure and the Power (Yale University Press, 2008). Revolutionary Dreams won the 1989 Wayne S. Vucinich Prize of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies. At the time of his death, he was in the final stages of completing yet another major manuscript: The Four Horsemen: Revolution and Counter-revolution in Post-Napoleonic Europe.

Richard Stites won research awards and fellowships from the Russian Research Center at Harvard, the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Harriman Institute for the Advanced Study of the Soviet Union, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He was selected for numerous IREX exchanges with Russia, he taught for a time at the US Army Russian Institute in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, and he was Fulbright Professor at the University of Helsinki in 1995. In 2003, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Helsinki—a degree that came complete with a ceremonial sword that he afterwards wore with a combination of pride and good humor at Georgetown convocation and commencement ceremonies. In 2007, he was appointed the School of Foreign Service Board of Visitors Distinguished Professor in International Studies at Georgetown.

A giant in his scholarly field, Richard Stites was also an unusually devoted and successful teacher and mentor at all levels of undergraduate and graduate education, and a source of inspiration to colleagues and students alike. His loss will be felt profoundly in the School of Foreign Service, the Department of History, Georgetown University, and the international community of scholars.

A Memorial Service for Richard will be held on Friday, April 9th from 3:00-5:00pm in Gaston Hall. More information on the service can be found here. A memorial site on Richard can be found here.

* On the picture above, Richard’s dear friend, Professor Howard Spendelow, offers the following note:

As for this photo, this is about as dressed-up as Richard ever got (except when a tux was required). Note the Harvard PhD robe (1968), Vicennial Medal (1997), and the hat and sword from the University of Helsinki honorary degree (2003), ΦΑΘ cords, and the ever-present neck amulet. Not visible: ΑΣΝ Jesuit Honor Society medal. On the right lapel, a значок for the Sesquicentennial of Mikhail Glinka, and below that, just barely visible, a pin commemorating the 70th anniversary of Martin’s Tavern. Photo courtesy of Georgetown University Office of the Registrar

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.