Sheila Fitzpatrick

When I was growing up in Australia in the late 1950s and 1960s, the displaced European intellectual turned academic was a familiar figure on university campuses. Refugees from totalitarian and wartime Europe, conversant with Marx and Weber, polyglot and multilingual (but always with strongly accented English), veterans of complicated doctrinal wars in the sectarian world of European socialism, these rumpled figures, whom it was impossible to imagine had ever been young, provoked awed attention in some students and light-hearted mockery in others. For those who attended, there was an aura of mystery and suffering about these postwar refugees, who had lost country, family and possessions, and suffered multiple uprootings; they dwelt among the innocent – or at any rate ignorant – Australian young as exemplars of European experience and its burdens. Small groups of disciples clustered around them, absorbing political philosophy and an eye-witness view of the 20th-century history of Germany, Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union. Charismatic and demanding to the initiated, uncomfortable with outsiders and ultra-sensitive to slights, these Europeans taught their disciples political tactics too, including Leninist conspiracy, though their politics were usually strongly anti-Communist.

Moshe Lewin’s politics are different, and fate never landed him in Australia. Yet he has something in common with these figures from my youth, starting with a kind of gnomic (in both senses) charisma, an exotic life story, a first-hand view of Soviet history, and the crucial ability to personify European experience for Anglo-American disciples – in his case, mainly Marxists from the New Left of the 1970s – who feel the lack of it. Born in 1921 in what was then Wilno in Poland (later Vilnius, first in the Soviet Union and then in independent Lithuania), he was active as a young man in a variety of left-wing Zionist politics that favoured a binational Jewish state, with equal rights for Jews and Arabs. When the Germans advanced in June 1941, he fled eastwards and spent five years in provincial Russia, working in mines, factories and collective farms before ending up in the Soviet army, in training to be an officer. From the moment in 1941 when Red Army soldiers allowed the fleeing Lewin and his friends to climb onto their trucks in defiance of their officers’ instructions, he felt a kinship with the Russian people. As he said in a 1982 interview, Vasilii Terkin, the unheroic hero of Alexander Tvardovsky’s vastly popular wartime poem of that name, a kind of Good Soldier Schweik whose survival skills coexisted with a bedrock layer of Soviet patriotism, ‘really meant something for every Russian – and for me too. I knew therefore that if I ever had the chance to write history, it would be the history of those popular layers.’[*]

After the war, Lewin spent a few years in Poland and France before moving in 1951 to Israel, where he worked on a kibbutz and as a journalist for ten years, received a BA from Tel Aviv University, and made his first serious study of Marxism. However, as an old-fashioned idealistic Zionist, he was out of sympathy with the direction of Israeli politics, and in 1961, he left for the Sorbonne. There, he became acquainted with the Annales school and wrote the dissertation that was the basis for his Russian Peasants and Soviet Power, published in French in 1966 and in English in 1968, the same year that he moved to England as a research professor at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies in Birmingham. Lewin’s international reputation as a Soviet historian was made in the Birmingham years, but his status as a guru for the Marxist wing of Soviet historical ‘revisionism’ came mainly after his relocation to the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1970s.

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[*] The interview from which this quotation comes, conducted by Paul Bushkovitch for Radical History Review and published in Visions of History (1984), is an excellent source on Lewin’s life and politics.