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Life Arts    H3'ed 3/26/19

Sergei Vasilievich Utechin's "You Tube" Reflections on Isaiah Berlin

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Sergei Vasilievich Utechin, 1921-2004

The extraordinary life of Sergei Vasilievich Utechin, Professor Emeritus of Russian History at the Pennsylvania State University (1969-1984), ended on 11 July 2004 when he died at the Stanford University Medical Center from complications arising from a stroke suffered on 20 May.

S. V. Utechin was born on 18 December 1921 in the village of Tenki, near Kazan'. His father became a teacher and principal after completing a theological seminary education that included Latin, Greek, and Church Slavonic. His father also had been active in the "small deeds" populist movement during the February revolution in Tenki volost' and in delaying the Soviet takeover there until the summer of 1918. His father also steadfastly refused to join the Communist Party. Sergei Vasilievich's mother was a teacher who had studied the higher women's courses at Kazan University, from which she received her diploma in 1917.

Although his parents came under increasing political pressure during the late 1920s and early 1930s, they were heartened by the educational reforms of the early 1930s. Looking back, Sergei Vasilievich credited those educational reforms, especially the return to the classics of Russian literature, for the intellectual and moral survival of his entire generation. Nevertheless, political pressure and the "disappearance" of individuals from Kazan' persuaded the Utechin family to move to Karanganda, Khazakstan during the summer of 1934. Three years later, when Sergei Vasilievich contemplated refusal to join the Komsomol (the youth organization of the Communist Party), his mother asked: "Do you want your father and me to be arrested?" With that warning, he joined.

As one of the Soviet Union's secondary school otlichniki (standouts), Sergei Vasilievich was able to enter the history faculty of Moscow State University in 1939, after an interview, not the oral examination required of less accomplished students. There he studied Russian history under K. V. Bazilevich, a student of S. V. Bakhrushin, who, in turn, had studied under the legendary, V. O. Kliuchevskii (Thus, as a student of Utechin, one might say I'm a descendant of a royal family of historians). Over the course of his life, Sergei Vasilievich would apply his astounding gift for mastering foreign languages to amass encyclopedic knowledge of history, but especially Russian history.

His studies in Moscow were jeopardized in the summer of 1940, when he was summoned to Liubianka (home of the infamous NKVD, The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs) for an interrogation that lasted several hours. It led to a failed attempt to expel him (in absentia) from the Komsomol in 1941.

Nazi Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 did eventually interrupt his studies and sent him south, where he, nevertheless, came under Romanian occupation in Anapa. On 31 August 1942, Sergei Vasilievich was accused of being the Russian soldier responsible for killing a Romanian soldier (in fact, his poor eyesight caused him to be rejected for military service three times). He avoided execution when another Russian confirmed that he was a teacher, not a soldier. But, two days later, he was confronted by, but escaped from, two drunken German soldiers, one of whom suspected him of being a Jew who should be exterminated. Finally, however, in November 1943 Sergei Vasilievich was captured by the Nazis, transported to a camp in Germany, and forced to labor at the Krupp shipyards while surviving on meager rations designed to cause gradual starvation.

Having survived to see war's end, Sergei Vasilievich heard rumors alleging that repatriated Russians were being imprisoned in Siberia, which prompted him to hide in a Polish camp. Successful at hiding, he then settled in Kiel, resumed his studies, and received a doctorate of philosophy from Kiel University in 1949. During that same year Sergei Vasilievich sought positions in Kiel and Berlin before receiving a scholarship to Oxford University, where he arrived in February 1950. Soon thereafter, however, he returned to Berlin for a few months, during which time he became acquainted with Michael Josselson and Melvin Lasky. That summer he delivered a report about the prospects for freedom in the Soviet Union to the founding session of the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

At Oxford, Utechin became a friend (and informal student) of Sir Isaiah Berlin, but declined his formal invitation to spend a year reading analytic philosophy. Nevertheless, it was precisely Berlin's philosophy of liberty and tragedy, as well as his critique of utopianism, that profoundly influenced Sergei Vasilievich's views and works for the rest of his life.

From 1953 to 1958 Utechin worked for the BBC's foreign broadcast service while laboring on what would become Everyman's Concise Encyclopedia of Russia (London, 1961). From 1958 to 1962, at the invitation of Leonard Shapiro, he lectured at the London School of Economics. In 1963, Utechin's translation (in collaboration with his wife, Patricia) of Vladimir Lenin's What is to be Done? (Oxford, 1963) was published. More significantly, 1963 saw the publication of what was, perhaps, Sergei Vasilievich's most influential book, Russian Political Thought: A Concise History (Dent, 1963.)

In 1965, Utechin moved to Scotland, where he became the editor of the University of Glasgow's journal, Soviet Studies. Between 1965 and 1969 he lectured at many institutions, including the University of Kansas and Indiana University, before accepting a faculty appointment at the Pennsylvania State University.

Until his retirement in 1984, Sergei Vasilievich's erudition and enthusiasm caused numerous unsuspecting and casual students in his classes at Penn State to be "bitten by the bug" of scholarship, as he called it. Some became ardent students of Russian history. I was one of those unsuspecting, but fortunate souls, having studied under his tutelage from 1971 until May 1976 and having served as his graduate teaching assistant during the 1975-76 academic year. Such students found themselves automatically "enrolled" in his ongoing graduate seminar/salon, normally held at his home. There one discussed various topics and issues in English, French, or Russian while fortifying oneself with beverages and "zakuski" (hors d'oeuvres).

Sergei Vasilievich was extremely demanding when it came to historical methods. As his friend and colleague, George Enteen, observed: "His course combined exacting standards as concerns the formal methods of research with a sense of the high purpose and dignity of historical investigation."

In 1984, Utechin moved to Menlo Park, California. It was from there that he devoted his last twenty years of scholarly life to Stanford University, to Russian e'migre' politics as a member of the National Labor Organization (NTS), to visits, lectures, and television appearances in Russia after the fall of communism, to attempts to publish Isaiah Berlin's work in Russia, and to the creation of a virtual university.

Sergei Vasilievich Utechin is survived by his son from his first marriage, Nicholas Sergeevich.

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Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San (more...)
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