An Interview with Alfred J. Rieber

Kritika, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

An Interview with Alfred J. Rieber


We at Kritika were eager to interview Alfred J. Rieber for two reasons. He was "present at the creation" of Russian Studies--at Columbia University, in Paris in the darkest days of the Cold War and in Moscow on the first U.S.-Soviet exchange, and when Western historical scholarship came to Budapest after the fall of communism. Second, in the half-century since he completed his Ph.D., he has helped shape the field not only through his written work, which is in easy reach of anyone with a library card or Internet access, but in ways less visible yet just as consequential as one of the most influential mentors, colleagues, and leaders in the profession. Below is our "e-interview": we sent written questions to Professor Rieber and received his responses by e-mall .

Born in Mount Vernon, New York, in 1931, Rieber earned his bachelor's degree at Colgate University in 1953 and attended graduate school at Columbia University's Russian Institute, obtaining his M.A. in 1954 and his Ph.D. in 1959. By that time, he had already taught at Colorado State University in 1956-57, spent the next year teaching at Northwestern University, and then traveled to Moscow on the first U.S.-Soviet exchange in 1958-59. After returning from the USSR and completing his doctorate, he joined the faculty at Northwestern. In 1965, he moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught for 30 years and chaired the Department of History in 1967-72 and 1983-88. Together with Moshe Lewin, whom he helped hire in 1978, he was instrumental in developing Penn's doctoral program in Russian history. After retiring from Penn in 1995, he embarked on a new career, this time promoting Western-style academia in the former Soviet bloc by joining the Department of History at Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, where the students voted him professor of the year in 1997-98. He headed the Department of History until 1999 and continued teaching at CEU until 2007. He has also been a visiting professor at Columbia, Princeton, Oxford, and the University of Chicago, as well as a recipient of numerous major grants.

The bibliography of Rieber's published scholarship reflects the productivity and wide-ranging interests that have been hallmarks of his career. His first monograph, which grew out of his graduate research during a lengthy stay in Paris, was Stalin and the French Communist Party, 1941-1947. (1) His next book-length project, The Politics of Autocracy: Letters of Alexander II to Prince A. L Bariatinskii, 1857-1864, took him back to 19th-century high politics, followed by another departure in Merchants and Entrepreneurs in ImperialRussia. (2) As these titles suggest, Soviet politics and 19th-century political reform have been two of his abiding interests. Another area of interest has been the legacy of Russia's great pre-Soviet historians, which Rieber bas helped perpetuate with a book-length translation of A. E. Presniakov's Formation of the Great Russian State. (3) In recent years, much of his work has concentrated on empire and borderlands in 20th-century Eastern Europe and Russia; thus he contributed as author and editor to the collected volumes Forced Migration in Central and Eastern Europe, 1939-1950 and Imperial Rule. (4) All told, Rieber is the author, editor, or translator of 11 books and has published more than 50 chapters and articles. In addition to recent publications on the young Stalin, his current research includes major projects on the economic context of the Great Reforms, comparative empires, and the connection between the Cold War and the long-running national and imperial conflicts of Eastern Europe.

Rieber: The editors of Kritika have posed a number of probing questions about my intellectual formation and academic life which I find stimulating and intimidating. Stimulating, because they oblige me to think in unaccustomed ways about myself; intimidating, because I fear the questions may be more interesting than the answers. …

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