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Michael Luther, Historian of Soviet Ukraine, Dies at 97
December 5, 2022

Michael Luther 1925-2022

Michael Martin Luther, a dedicated educator and historian of Soviet Ukraine, was born in Brooklyn New York on April 20, 1925. His parents, Abraham and Mary Luther, had emigrated from Ukraine during the Russian Civil War and arrived to Ellis Island in 1921.

Luther excelled as a student, graduating from Brooklyn’s public schools with honors and obtaining a scholarship to attend Cornell University where he attempted to fulfill his mother’s dream of becoming a doctor. After realizing he had a greater aptitude for languages, he enrolled in an intensive Russian language program offered by the U.S. State Department. He went to work as a Russian translator for the State Department during World War II.

He subsequently earned his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in history from Columbia University. His dissertation, “The Birth of Soviet Ukraine,” investigated Ukraine’s quest for national autonomy at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. He spent the rest of his career engaged in research to expand his dissertation into a longer book.

In 1951 Luther was part of a team of Russian speakers and historians hired by Harvard University to interview refugees from across the Soviet Union for the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System. Luther and the other team members interviewed approximately 700 refugees, giving the West its first in-depth look at the political, economic, social and cultural conditions inside the Soviet Union during Stalin’s years in power.

The thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations led to the first student exchange at the university level between the two countries. In 1957, Luther spent a year with other students from Columbia University’s Russian Institute studying and conducting research for his dissertation at Moscow State University. The experience exposed him to the extreme vigilance of the Soviet system as his activities were closely monitored.

In 1960 Luther began his teaching career at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. A year later he moved with his wife and newborn daughter back to New York City to accept a position teaching European and Russian history and Soviet foreign policy at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. During his tenure he chaired the Russian Area Studies Program and served on numerous committees. He also taught summer courses in European history at Columbia.

In the 1960s Luther obtained the revolutionary book, On The Current Situation in the Ukraine, originally published in 1919, but which had been banned in the Soviet Union. In the introduction to the English translation of the book, published in 1970, Luther writes, On The Current Situation in the Ukraine is a cry of despair over a revolution that was betraying a nation. It is also a confession by its two authors of a loss of faith in their party as the embodiment of that revolution.”  The book was a foreshadowing of “the search for identity, individual and national, (which) has become part of the ‘permanent revolution’ of the twentieth century.”

Luther’s love of books and learning remained with him to the end. He died peacefully in his sleep at the age of ninety-seven on November 28, 2022, from complications of old age. He is survived by his wife Vilma, daughter Meg (Matthew) and two grandchildren, Nicholas and Lucia.