Leading sociologist and creator of ‘peasant studies’ dies

Teodor Shanin, one of Britain’s leading sociologists and the founder of the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences in Russia, has died, aged 89.

Credited as the creator of ‘peasant studies’, Shanin – who was born in the then Polish city of Vilna (now Vilnius, Lithuania) in 1930 and spent several years of his young life in exile in Siberia, and later in Uzbekistan – was a fluent Russian speaker who led a fascinating life forged in the turmoil of a world war and the fallout from the Holocaust.

Born into the family of a wealthy Jewish textile trader, his world was turned upside down when, first the Soviets occupied the eastern part of Poland in 1940, and then in June 1941 the Nazis invaded from the west. He was exiled to Siberia along with his mother shortly before the Nazis arrived following the arrest of his father by Soviet authorities.

But Shanin’s four-year old younger sister was allowed to stay behind with relatives when a Russian officer took pity on her, knowing she was unlikely to survive the long rail journey in a cattle truck. The little girl’s respite was brief – she and Shanin’s grandfather were subsequently shot by the Nazis and buried in an anonymous mass grave in pits dug in a forest near Vilnius.

Shanin, whose family had believed their blue eyes and blonde hair would help the small girl escape attention, carried that wound of her murder with him throughout his life.

A big man with a big sense of humour, he told the story of his life with candour and a precise sense of the history through which he had lived.

His experiences in Soviet exile and eventual return to Poland to the city of Lodz – by then part of the Soviet Union – after the war as the full scale of the Nazi Holocaust was emerging, prompted him to make his way to Israel, where he fought against British-backed Arab forces for the establishment of the state of Israel.

Later, after establishing himself as a pioneering – and radical (at times too radical for local authorities) – social worker in Israel, Shanin moved to the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Russian and Eastern European Studies in the United Kingdom, where he studied for his PhD on the Russian peasantry during the revolution.

It was, at the time, an undeveloped field and later led to his premise that Soviet 20th century history should be studied as that of a “third world country”.

He moved to Sheffield University before a brief return to Israel following the 1967 war, where he took up a teaching post at the University of Haifa. Disillusioned with the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, he returned to the UK to a fellowship at the University of Oxford before moving to Manchester University, where he stayed until establishing the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences (MSSES) with the backing of George Soros in 1995.

I first met Shanin in London around this time. He was housebound, having broken his leg, but that did nothing to temper his infectious enthusiasm for sociology and education. Later, in Moscow, we met on several occasions when he would proudly show visitors around the MSSES campus in southwest Moscow, where he was its first rector.

The school, which offered postgraduate qualifications in a range of disciplines leading to dual certificates validated by MSSES and Manchester University and Kingston University, proved popular. In keeping with his understanding of the history of modern Russia, Shanin ensured that the majority of Russian students from the provinces studied on scholarships.

Awarded an OBE in 2002 for his services to Russian tertiary education, Shanin used to joke that he – a lifelong anti-imperialist – was given an award for services to an empire that no longer existed.

Shanin later became president of MSSES and, at the time of his death in Moscow – on Tuesday, 4 February 2020 – was still active in sociological and historical research.