In Memoriam

Ivan Avakumovic: 1926–2014

Allan Smith | Oct 1, 2014

Historian of 20th-Century Yugoslavia, France, and Canada

Linked by his Serbian background to the complicated history of Balkan Europe, in touch through an enviable command of languages with the politics of France and Russia, and with deep roots in the Atlantic world thanks to his education at Rugby School and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, Ivan Avakumovic brought the varied perspectives these affiliations gave him to a long career of scholarship and teaching at the Universities of Aberdeen, Manitoba, and British Columbia.

Generations of students found his incisively articulated approach to 20th-century power politics a reward and a pleasure; heavily influenced by the work of D. C. Watt, Hugh Seton Watson, and E. H. Carr, he imbued his challenging, powerfully delivered lectures with a strong realist emphasis, a deep appreciation of the role national interest plays in foreign relations, and close attention to the place occupied in national action by historically conditioned institutional frameworks, political structures, and cultural norms. His scholarship, mostly concerned with radical forms of social critique in culturally and ethnically divided societies, had a similarly trenchant, strongly argued character. Sometimes collaborative—The Anarchist Prince: A Biographical Study of Prince Peter Kropotkin (1950) was done with George Woodcock, as was The Doukhobors (1977)—but usually carried out by Avakumovic himself, that scholarship explored class, communal, and ideological tensions, explicated the patterns of thinking activists developed, and paid particular attention to questions of organizational failure and institutional success. His History of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (1964) epitomized this work, and with The Communist Party in Canada: A History (1975) and Socialism in Canada: A Study of the CCF-NDP in Federal and Provincial Politics (1978), he extended it to a North American domain in which development of class consciousness and a class-based politics was complicated, not just by francophone/anglophone cultural cleavage, but also by strong (though not always explicit) beliefs on the part of that domain’s inhabitants that it, like its neighbor the United States, was a free, open, upwardly mobile new-world community in which old-world social constraints, and the radical politics necessary to overcome them, had no place.

Avakumovic’s interest in the history of radical action was matched by a pronounced concern with that action’s fate in the contemporary European and North American worlds; his approach to historical study remained focused around a strong belief that the inevitably presentist lens through which the past is viewed had to be recognized and, as much as possible, controlled for; and he sustained a strong sense of the importance of registering both continuities and ruptures in the linkages that tie the present to the past.

Austere and reserved in demeanor, aware of—and amused by—the impression his old-world formality made on students for whom it seemed as much an artifact of the past as were the subjects of his teaching, and deeply attuned to the centrality of social justice and a politics of recognition to balanced, stable, community life, his was a near perfect—and is now a much-missed—blend of styles abandoned and perspectives still held.

Allan Smith, University of British Columbia

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