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