Professor William Taubman is presented with the Russian medal of  the Order of Friendship

Hon. Andrey K. Yushmanov (left) presents Professor William Taubman with one of Russia’s top civilian medals.

By Emily Gold Boutilier

One of my favorite things about editing Amherst magazine is that sometimes the job is unpredictable. On Monday, in between writing about students who edit Wikipedia and approving an illustration on the economics of dueling, I heard that William Taubman, the political science professor who won a Pulitzer for his biography of Nikita Khrushchev, would soon receive one of Russia’s top civilian medals. Two days later, I found myself in the same room as an important Russian official. Who would have thought?

The Russian official, the Hon. Andrey K. Yushmanov, is consul general of the Russian Federation in New York. He’d traveled to Amherst to formally present Taubman with the medal, known as the Order of Friendship. Russian Federation President Dmitry Medvedev 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 college’s Center for Russian Culture, an intimate, book-filled room in Webster Hall with an awe-inducing view of the HolyokeRange. 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 then 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 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 observed 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 working on a biography of another Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.