A sweeping history of Russian power in the world, and of Stalin’s power in Russia (recast as the Soviet Union), full of surprises, with uncanny echoes of today’s realities.

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Stephen Kotkin

is the John P. Birkelund Professor in History and International Affairs at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1989. He is also a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

History: the Role of Accident (Personal)

Carl Scorske 100

A century!  Carl Schorske, emeritus professor of history at Princeton University, celebrated his 100th birthday.  He had a notable impact on countless people.  A large number of them gathered today in central New Jersey to pay tribute with a concert (music by Arnold Schoenberg), poems written for the occasion, and the awarding of the Grand Decoration of Honor in Gold by the Austrian government.  Carl changed the international image of Austria, forever.  “You helped restore Vienna to its rightful place on the map of culture,” said the Austrian culture minister, who flew in for the occasion.  “We owe you a lot.”

As an undergraduate, upon reading Carl’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna (1980), I became determined to go for a PhD in history.  Perhaps I would have done so anyway, after courses with Christopher Lasch, Eugene Genovese, Perez Zagorin, and William McGrath (who had obtained his PhD with Carl).  But I am not so sure (I wrote my undergraduate senior thesis on John Milton in the English department).  Never before, or since, have I encountered a book like Carl’s, which linked street politics and the fine arts.  A reader could travel to Vienna, as I would in 1983, and take it all in: the Klimt and Kokoschka paintings, the psychoanalytic office of Sigmund Freud, the entire architecture of the Ringstrasse.

The year I applied to PhD programs in history, 1980, was the year, unbeknownst to me, that Carl retired from Princeton at 65, despite the absence of a mandatory retirement age.  Instead of Princeton, where my application (to work with Carl) was rejected, I ended up at UC Berkeley.  There, I encountered the French history of the Annales School, another revelation, and soon started studying Czech.  Yet when I approached the professor of Habsburg history at Berkeley, William Slottman, a popular teacher of undergraduates, he told me he had no interest in supervising PhD students. For that and other reasons, I started the Russian language.  Had Carl not retired so early, perhaps I would have been accepted into the Princeton PhD program and realized my dream of writing a dissertation on Fin-de-Siècle Prague.  Instead, I ended up a professor of Russian history at, of all places, Princeton, having written a different kind of urban study, Magnetic Mountain, under the influence of Michel Foucault, whom I met at Berkeley.