In Memoriam: Paul Avrich
Vivian Gruder, May 2006
From the In Memoriam column of the May 2006 Perspectives
Paul Avrich died on February 16, 2006. He joined the Queens College faculty in 1961 and remained until his retirement in 1999. He was made distinguished professor in 1982. Avrich was a noted historian of Russian history, and the leading historian of the anarchist movement throughout the world, a scholarly pursuit that was his personal passion.
Avrich came to Russian history through his study of the Russian language. When he joined the Air Force during the Korean War, he was sent to language training school at Syracuse University to study Russian. He was then stationed in West Germany, where his work as an intelligence officer was to gain information about Soviet airplanes stationed in Europe. After his service, he used his language training to become a Russian historian, earning his MA and PhD from Columbia University. Avrich knew not only Russian, but also German, French, and Yiddish. The latter he cultivated with his many acquaintances who were former members of the Jewish Bund of Poland and Russia, as well as socialists and anarchists from Russia and eastern Europe with whom he conducted interviews for his books on anarchism.
Among his books were The Russian Anarchists (1971), Kronstadt 1921 (1970), The Haymarket Affair (1984), and Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background (1991). Avrich's work was characterized by clear analysis and a masterful narrative. He had the ability to make the people and events of history come alive. A former colleague once said that when he read Avrich's account of the Kronstadt sailors' uprising tears came to his eyes. His knowledge of the anarchist movement was amazing. He could name every individual Italian anarchist and where he or she came from in Italy. He loved to talk about his beloved anarchists. Knowing my husband was an Italian historian, he would tell me about the Russian anarchist-socialist Anna Kuliscioff and her Italian socialist companion. He spoke at the American Historical Association annual meeting comparing the anarchism of Bakunin and Kropotkin. This was one of his themes (as well as the names of his cats). The anarchism he sought to illuminate was the nonviolent tradition of Kropotkin, which sought to establish self-governing societies devoid of the encumbrance and constraints of a bureaucratic state structure. But he also explicated and addressed the more violent strain, as in his analysis of the milieu from which Sacco and Vanzetti came.
Avrich also excelled as a teacher. His passion for his subjects and the insights he had into history, his ability to dramatize his material, his wonderful gift for humor, and his humane temperament won him a large following from Queens College's students. They flocked to his classes on Russian history, anarchism, and utopian thought.
Paul Avrich was an avid music lover (we shared a love of Mozart and a non-love of Wagner) and a private person who did not advertise his generosity. But his friends were often the recipients of his thoughtfulness and generosity—whether it was giving financial assistance over the years to a needy former colleague, or volunteering to write a letter of recommendation for my daughter for entrance to high school, or inviting my husband, a specialist in the history of silk in Italy, to visit the Paterson, New Jersey, silk mill, now museum, and to gaze at the waterfall that convinced Alexander Hamilton to make Paterson the first industrial center in the United States. All were typical of Paul Avrich. He was not only a distinguished scholar and marvelous teacher; he had a humane and generous heart.
Queens College (emeritus)