Amherst Magazine

From Russia with Love

By Emily Gold Boutilier

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Russians don't write biographies the way Americans write biographies, said Professor William Taubman, right, after receiving the Order of Friendship from Andrey K. Yushmanov, consul general of the Russian Federation in New York.

On a quiet Monday in June, word spread that William Taubman, the professor who won a Pulitzer for his biography of Nikita Khrushchev, would soon receive one of Russia’s top civilian medals. Two days later, the Hon. Andrey K. Yushmanov, consul general of the Russian Federation in New York, traveled to Amherst to formally present Taubman with the medal, called the Order of Friendship.

Russian Federation President Dmitry Medvedev had decreed that the medal be awarded to Taubman—the Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science—for “a great contribution to the development of cultural ties with the Russian Federation, including the preservation and popularization of Russian language and culture.”

Taubman’s wife, Jane, who is a professor of Russian at Amherst, and more than 50 of their friends and colleagues came to the ceremony in the Center for Russian Culture, an intimate, book-filled room in Webster Hall with an awe-inducing view of the Holyoke Range. After an introduction by Russian professor and center director Stanley Rabinowitz, Yushmanov praised Taubman for writing about events that “shaped the past and the present of Russia.” Yush­manov presented the official medal and order, “written in Russian,” he told Taubman, “but I’m sure it’s not a problem for you.”

Taubman approached the podium and told a few stories, including one about his grandfather who fled to the United States from Russia in 1905. Taubman has been to Russia and the former Soviet Union some 30 times to conduct research for various projects. His 2003 book, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, won a National Book Critics Circle Award in addition to the Pulitzer. It sold out its first printing in Russia; a second edition has just been released.

“I am a political scientist who, in effect, ends up doing history in the form of biography,” Taubman said at the ceremony, where he noted that Russians don’t write biographies of this kind. “They are inclined,” he said, “to think that the great moving forces of history are impersonal rather than personal.”

Taubman is now at work on a biography of another Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Photo by Samuel Masinter '04