Thursday, February 14, 2019
Seweryn Bialer, Robert and Renée Belfer Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Columbia University, MacArthur Fellow, and survivor of Auschwitz, died on February 8, 2019, at his home in Manhattan.
Born in Berlin in 1926, he was raised in Lodz in a prominent Polish Jewish family. He was driven into the Lodz ghetto at age 13, where he discovered the works of Karl Marx, which would become a lifelong study. There he joined the communist underground. In 1944 he was sent to Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camp and from there, with the dismantling of this camp, to Friedland, which was liberated by Soviet troops in May 1945.
Bialer abandoned factory work, owing to the endemic anti-Semitism in postwar Poland, and entered the Militia Officer School at Słupsk, which he completed in 1948 with the rank of captain. He then worked for the Polish Communist Party with a concentration in training and propaganda. In 1951 he was admitted to the Polish Academy of Sciences Institute for the Education of Scientific Cadres. There he prepared his doctoral dissertation on the U.S. Marshall Plan, while serving as lecturer and member of various Central Committee commissions dealing with propaganda, publications and education. In January 1956, he defected to the West while attending an international conference in Berlin. Later that same year he recorded his reasons for defection in the article “I Chose Truth: A Former Leading Polish Communist’s Story.” The following year he broadcast to Poland a series of programs for Radio Free Europe.
In the United States, following four years as a research analyst of Soviet and East European affairs for various government agencies, he entered the doctoral program in political science at Columbia University, where he earned his second Ph.D. with a dissertation that focused on the Soviet political elite, the foundation of the analytic concept of nomenklatura. Work on the dissertation was interrupted for the completion of his first book, Stalin and His Generals. Soviet Military Memoirs of World War II (1969), which was translated into several European languages. Harrison Salisbury hailed Bialer’s study as “an unprecedented glimpse of Stalin through the eyes of his associates” (New York Times, April 27, 1969).
Bialer’s next book, Stalin’s Successors: Leadership, Stability and Change in the Soviet Union (1980), secured his position as a leading expert in Soviet studies, which was recognized three years later when he was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, the first ever given to a political scientist, and the only one awarded to a Sovietologist.
In his final book, The Soviet Paradox: External Expansion, Internal Decline (Knopf, 1986), Bialer laid bare the fundamental paradox of Soviet rule: that the long-term survival of the Soviet Union depended upon the processes of democratization and glasnost, which were required for economic modernization, but which also imperiled the entire authority basis of the Soviet system itself. Writing for the New York Times Book Review, Peter Reddaway singles out for particular praise the “masterly chapter” that details the rise and suppression of Poland’s Solidarity movement as a “critical turning-point in the history of the Soviet empire'' (July 27, 1986).
In addition to his four books, Bialer is editor of another seven, including Global Rivals (Knopf, 1988), co-edited with Michael Mandelbaum, which served as the companion volume to the PBS TV series of the same name, in which Bialer appears on air with host Bernard Kalb, strolling in Moscow. In the same vein of writing for the general reader, Bialer was a regular contributor to US News and World Report from 1985 to 1991, in addition to frequent contributions to New York Times, Washington Post and New York Review of Books.All of this in addition to dozens of scholarly and academic chapters and articles.
A member of Columbia University’s Departments of Government and Political Science from 1964 through 1997, Bialer was director of Columbia’s Research Center on International Change from 1977 to 1982, and a member of the Harriman Institute’s steering committee. Bialer guided a generation of graduate students and traveled the world as an indefatigable lecturer and highly sought-after analyst of U.S. Soviet competition.
Bialer was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1984, the year following the MacArthur award. He was also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Harvard Project on Crisis Management, the Institute of Strategic Studies (London), and the Carnegie Foundation on International Studies. He served as chairman of the Ford Foundation/Columbia University Dual Competence Program (Soviet Union-Security and Arms Control), and also chaired the board of Transnational Research, Inc. He was a member of the Foreign Policy editorial board and chaired the East-West Forum.
Seweryn Bialer is survived by his wife of 51 years, Joan Afferica, L. Clarke Seelye Professor Emeritus of History, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.
Read his obituary in the New York Times (21 Feb. 2019), here.