Teodor Shanin: There and Back

Sociologist Teodor Shanin has worn so many hats in his lifetime that he
has a remarkable capacity for empathy. He has displayed this quality in his writings on peasants, for which he has won world renown, and in his efforts to revive Russia’s social sciences.

Born into a prosperous Jewish family in Wilno, Poland, Shanin saw his childhood idyll shattered with the outbreak of  World War II and the occupation by Soviet troops in 1939. After spending a year in the newly created Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, Shanin was deported to the Uzbek city of Samarkand. When he returned to his hometown after the war, he discovered that the deportation had saved his life: His sister, who had remained behind, was killed by fascists when Lithuania was occupied by Germany.

If war disrupted Shanin’s childhood, it was the dream of a Jewish homeland that caused him to take flight again. In 1947, he headed for the Middle East. Though only 17 years old, he lied about his age so he could join a special unit to defend the new state of Israel.

“After victory, he decided to return to what fate had robbed from him at the age of 8,” recounts Otto Latsis in the Russian newspaper Russky Kuryer. “He loved to read books, though he had no inkling that he would one day write them.” Fate took yet another turn, however, and before becoming a scholar, Shanin spent 10 years as a social worker, helping Jerusalem’s poor. When his unit was demobilized, Shanin discovered that many of his fellow fighters could not find work.

By all accounts, Shanin developed a fine understanding of the human condition. He went to Britain to study sociology and economics, wrote a dissertation on the Russian peasantry, and  pioneered a field that became known as “peasantology.” In the early 1990s, he helped to organize a study of peasants in the former Soviet Union. A researcher involved in the project said of his subjects, who had been alternately glorified and vilified under communism: “They speak with us as if they’ve been waiting 50 years: 30 years they’ve been afraid to speak, and another 20 years no one would listen to them.”

In the late 1980s, Shanin set up courses in England to retrain Russian sociologists, who had been cut off from the Western branch of their discipline. In the 1990s, he raised money for a new school in Russia to educate social scientists and business people. The Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, with Shanin as rector, opened in 1995. In 2002, Queen Elizabeth conferred on Shanin the Order of the British Empire for service to Russian education.