Benjamin Nathans

Benjamin Nathans

Guest Speaker

Alan Charles Kors Endowed Term Associate Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania

Benjamin Nathans teaches and writes about Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, modern European Jewish history, and the history of human rights. He edited A Research Guide to Materials on the History of Russian Jewry (19th and Early 20th Centuries) in Selected Archives of the Former Soviet Union [in Russian] (Moscow, 1994) and is the author of Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter With Late Imperial Russia (Berkeley, 2002), which won the Koret Prize in Jewish History, the Vucinich Prize in Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies, the Lincoln Prize in Russian History and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in History. Beyond the Pale has been translated into Russian (2007) and Hebrew (2013). Nathans has published articles on Habermas and the public sphere in eighteenth-century France, Russian-Jewish historiography, Soviet dissident memoirs, and many other topics. He regularly contributes to the New York Review of Books and occasionally comments on current Russian affairs. From 2008 to 2012, he worked as a consultant for Ralph Appelbaum Associates, a leading museum design firm, chairing an international committee of scholars that helped design the content for the Museum of Jewish History in Moscow, which opened in November 2012.

Nathans' current book project, To the Success of Our Hopeless Cause: The Many Lives of the Soviet Dissident Movement, tells the story of dissent in the USSR from Stalin's death to the collapse of communism.  It explores the idea and practice of rights and the rule of law in the setting of “mature socialism.”  Rather than treat Soviet dissidents as avatars of Western liberalism, or take their invocation of rights and legal norms as natural, To the Success of Our Hopeless Cause investigates how, as products themselves of the Soviet order, dissidents arrived at a conception of law and human personality so at odds with official norms. Understanding this process - how orthodoxies contain the seeds of their own heresies, and how dissidents promoted the containment of Soviet power from within - promises to illuminate the broader problem of how citizens of authoritarian societies conceive and act on options for political engagement.

Along with Prof. Gabriella Safran (Stanford University), Nathans co-edited Culture Front: Representing Jews in Eastern Europe (Penn Press, 2008), based on the 2002-03 seminar at Penn's Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, "Jewish History and Culture in Eastern Europe, 1600-2000," of which he was a co-organizer.  He is co-editor with Prof. Kenneth Moss (University of Chicago) and Prof. Taro Tsurumi (Tokyo University) of From Europe's East to the Middle East: Israel's Russian and Polish Lineages (Penn Press, 2021).  He is currently editing and annotating the first English translation of the 3-volume autobiography of Russian-Jewish historian Simon Dubnov, The Book of Life: Memoirs and Reflections.