John Klier

BORN BELLEFONTE, PENN­SYL­VA­NIA, DE­CEM­BER 13, 1944. DIED LON­DON, SEPTEM­BER 23, 2007, AGED 62.

The Jewish Chronicle - - OBITUARIES -

APIONEERINGRESEARCHER into Rus­sian Jewry, Pro­fes­sor John Klier used the con­tem­po­rary Rus­sian press to get round Soviet ob­struc­tion­ism. Com­ing from a Catholic back­ground, he stud­ied his­tory at Notre Dame Univer­sity, In­di­ana, and took his doc­tor­ate at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois.

His the­sis looked at the hap­haz­ard process by which Tsarist Rus­sia sought to ab­sorb the large Jewish pop­u­la­tion it ac­quired as a re­sult of the par­ti­tions of Poland in the late 18th cen­tury.

He soon re­alised how lit­tle archival re­search had been un­der­taken in this field in the 20th cen­tury, largely be­cause the Soviet Union’s re­luc­tance to al­low the study or dis­cus­sion of Jewish is­sues made it im­pos­si­ble to gain ac­cess to the rel­e­vant ma­te­ri­als.

He cir­cum­vented th­ese con­straints by claim­ing to be re­search­ing the Rus­sian pop­u­lar press.

He thus be­came, as post­doc­toral re­searcher at Len­ingrad State Univer­sity in the late 1970s and early 80s, one of the first West­ern his­to­ri­ans to ex­am­ine and as­sess the vast doc­u­men­ta­tion on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties and the Jews.

In 1989 he left the US for the He­brew and Jewish stud­ies de­part­ment at Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don, head­ing it for most of the 1990s and greatly ex­pand­ing it. In 1996 he be­came Sid­ney and El­iz­a­beth Corob pro­fes­sor of mod­ern Jewish his­tory.

With the col­lapse of Com­mu­nism in the 1990s and eas­ier ac­cess to Soviet archives, he used ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to visit and fa­mil­iarise him­self with their Jewish-re­lated hold­ings, pub­lish­ing a guide for fu­ture re­searchers.

Through his in­no­va­tive work and gen­er­ous col­lab­o­ra­tion, as well as per­sonal charm, he played a ma­jor part in the re-es­tab­lish­ment of aca­demic Jewish stud­ies in the for­mer Soviet Union, fos­ter­ing con­tacts be­tween East Euro- pean and West­ern Jewish his­to­ri­ans.

With­out deny­ing the dire sit­u­a­tion of the Jews in im­pe­rial Rus­sia, Pro­fes­sor Klier chal­lenged the tra­di­tional as­sump­tion that the Tsarist regime wil­fully set out to op­press them.

Nor, he ar­gued, did the au­thor­i­ties ini­ti­ate pogroms, which were nearly al­ways spon­ta­neous erup­tions of pop­u­lar anti-Jewish sen­ti­ment. They may have fos­tered the ag­gres­sors’ sense of im­punity and of­ten in­ter­vened too late with too lit­tle. But they did try to end the pogroms, not out of any con­cern for the Jews but be­cause pogroms were a threat to pub­lic or­der.

Pro­fes­sor Klier con­cluded that al­though pogroms were an im­por­tant fac­tor in Jewish em­i­gra­tion to the West, they were not the pri­mary cause as tra­di­tion­ally be­lieved. In ad­di­tion to se­cu­rity fears, so­cial, po­lit­i­cal, re­li­gious and, above all, eco­nomic con­sid­er­a­tions drove the ex­o­dus.

His doc­toral the­sis de­vel­oped into his first book, Rus­sia Gath­ers Her Jews: The Ori­gins of the Jewish Ques­tion in Rus­sia (1986), now uni­ver­sally ac­knowl­edged as a stan­dard text. This was fol- lowed by Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Vi­o­lence in Mod­ern Jewish His­tory (1991), co-edited with Shlomo Lam­broza. It, too, be­came an in­stant clas­sic.

His later re­search led to Im­pe­rial Rus­sia’s Jewish Ques­tion, 1855–1881 (1995) and South­ern Storms: Rus­sians, Jews and the Cri­sis of 1881–2, to be pub­lished posthu­mously by Cam­bridge Univer­sity Press.

Jointly with his wife, He­len Mingay, he also pub­lished a pop­u­lar book, The Search for Anas­ta­sia: Solv­ing the Rid­dle of the Lost Ro­manovs (1995), which demon­strated that the ru­mours of Anas­ta­sia’s sur­vival were no more than a fairy tale.

A ded­i­cated and in­spir­ing teacher and speaker, he was an avid reader of world lit­er­a­ture, in the orig­i­nal wher­ever pos­si­ble. He had a pas­sion for classical mu­sic, opera and the arts, as well as a lively and well in­formed in­ter­est in sport, both ac­tive and pas­sive. His death from can­cer at the height of his pow­ers came as a pro­found shock.

He is sur­vived by his wife and their twin daugh­ter and son.

Pro­fes­sor John Klier: sift­ing through Rus­sian-Jewish his­tory

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