Professor John Klier

Indefatigable historian who challenged scholarly opinion on the Jewish community under the Tsars
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The Independent Online

John Doyle Klier, historian: born Bellefonte, Pennsylvania 13 December 1944; Sidney and Elizabeth Corob Lecturer in Modern Jewish History, University College London 1990-93, Reader 1993-96, Sidney and Elizabeth Corob Professor of Modern Jewish History 1996-2007; married Helen Mingay (one son, one daughter); died London 23 September 2007.

John Klier was one of a group of historians who, in the last 30 years, transformed our understanding of the history of the Jews of the Tsarist empire. From 1996 he was Sidney and Elizabeth Corob Professor of Modern Jewish History at University College London.

This Jewish community under the tsars, which came into being as a result of the partitions of Poland-Lithuania at the end of the 18th century and which by the early 19th century had become the largest in the world, has a long and distinguished historiography. Its original historians, including Ilya Orshansky, Shimon Dubnov and Yuli Gessen, who emerged in Russia in the late 19th century, were preoccupied with the worsening condition of the Jewish population there, and were committed to a Jewish national identity not based solely on religion.

They attributed what they saw as the Russian deep-rooted and ineradicable Judeophobia to the Byzantine religious inheritance of Muscovy. In Dubnov's view, the "European mask" of St Petersburg was merely a cover for Russia's "Muscovite face". It was this which explained why the Jewish issue was central to the thinking of the Tsarist government, which was prey to a "Jewish obsession".

The Bolshevik revolution and the subsequent victory of Stalinism greatly disrupted the study of the Jews of the Tsarist empire. When these studies revived after the Second World War, a group of mainly American historians substantially revised these judgements, demonstrating that Russian bureaucrats were frequently motivated by ideas drawn from the European Enlightenment. Jewish issues were more often than not peripheral to their concerns and affected mainly areas of the Empire annexed as a result of the partitions of Poland-Lithuania.

John Klier was one of the most influential of this group. Born in 1944 in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, he took his BA and MA at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, and completed his doctorate in 1975 at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. After teaching at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas, he was appointed lecturer at University College London in 1990, becoming Sidney and Elizabeth Corob Professor of Modern Jewish History in 1996 and also holding the position of Head of the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies for much of the 1990s.

Not himself Jewish, he came to investigate the history of the Jews of the Tsarist empire as an aspect of the history of Russia. He concentrated his attention on the period from the first partition of Poland in 1772 to the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 and the pogroms which followed.

His first book, Russia Gathers Her Jews: the origins of the 'Jewish question' in Russia, 1772-1825 (1986), which was based on his doctorate, analysed the policies of Tsarina Catherine and the Tsars Paul and Alexander I towards their newly acquired Jewish population. In contrast to the views of his predecessors, he argued that these policies were part of an attempt to transform the Tsarist empire into a "properly governed state", following the example of the enlightened autocracies of the 18th century, Austria and Prussia.

Two main principles underlay the actions of the Tsarist government. In the first place there was its belief that the Jews were a harmful element. They were unjustly blamed for disrupting relations between landlords and peasants in the sensitive western provinces of the empire, and it was felt that action needed to be taken in order to limit their deleterious influence. In their prejudiced view, well documented by Klier, Jews despised non-Jews and kept themselves separate from gentile society, feeling no loyalty to the country in which they lived or its sovereign. They disdained physical labour, which they felt should be performed by the inferior peasantry, and were concentrated in unproductive and parasitical occupations which depended on the exploitation of the surrounding society.

Yet at the same time Tsarist bureaucrats, for the most part men of the Enlightenment, shared the general European view that the faults of the Jews were not innate, but the consequence of their unfortunate history. Although the negative behaviour of the Jews had to be curbed, Jewish society could be made over by reforms which would transform them into useful subjects though not citizens.

Klier's book was written before the opening of the Tsarist archives following the collapse of the Soviet Union and was therefore based on the considerable mass of published sources. After the opening of the archives Klier, an indefatigable and gifted miner of documents, revised it, incorporating many important new discoveries. These are to be found in the Russian version, Rossia sobiraet svoikh evreev: proiskhozhdenie evreiskogo voprosa v Rossii 1772-1825 (2000).

There was considerable continuity in the policies pursued by the Tsarist government towards the Jews down to its overthrow in February 1917. Klier's next book, Imperial Russia's Jewish Question, 1855-1881 (1995) investigated the policies towards the Jews pursued by the "Tsar-liberator" Alexander II. Basing himself on an extensive examination of the Russian press and of the newly opened archives, he demonstrated how limited were the concessions granted to the Jews during this period and how the 1870s saw the widespread acceptance of Judeophobia among important sections of the bureaucracy.

As a result his book contributed to discrediting the belief that 1881 was a major turning point in the history of the Jews of the Tsarist Empire, with the abandonment by the government of policies attempting to transform the Jews into useful subjects and the consequent rejection by the Jewish élite of integration in favour of a national solution of the "Jewish problem". These developments were already well under way in the 1870s.

Together with the Israeli historian Shlomo Lambroza he edited a volume on anti-Jewish violence in the Empire, Pogroms: anti-Jewish violence in modern Russian history (1992). Following on the work of Hans Rogger, it showed that this violence, particularly in the first pogrom wave of 1881-2, was the result of the unsatisfactory way serfdom had been abolished by Alexander II and the consequent agrarian crisis, rather than a decision by the Tsarist authorities to deflect anti-government hostility on to a familiar scapegoat.

When he died Klier was working on what would undoubtedly have been the definitive account of this first pogrom wave, to which he had given the provisional title "Southern Storms: Russians, Jews and the crisis of 1881–2". With his wife Helen Mingay he also wrote a popular account of the life of the "lost" Tsarist princess Anastasia The Search for Anastasia (1995).

As a colleague and teacher, Klier was unfailingly generous, offering assistance of every description. For the growing community of Russian historians investigating the Jewish past of their country, his home in London became a mecca. He was a long-standing editor of East European Jewish Affairs, a member of the Academic Council of the International Center for Russian and East European Jewish Studies in Moscow and of the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies.

Antony Polonsky

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