Richard Stites, Historian of Russian Culture, Dies at 78

Historians in the News

Richard Stites, who opened up new territory for historians with a landmark work on the Russian women’s movement and in numerous articles and books on Russian and Soviet mass culture, died on Sunday in Helsinki, where he was doing research. He was 78 and lived in Washington.

The cause was complications from cancer, his son Andrei said.

Mr. Stites made a practice of seeking out unexplored historical byways. After publishing “The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism and Bolshevism, 1860-1930” (1978), a book that virtually created a subdiscipline, he turned his attention to mass entertainment.

In books like “Russian Popular Culture: Entertainment and Society Since 1900” (1992), he shed light on cultural forms previously ignored or dismissed, writing about the variety stage, the composers of factory songs and beloved actors like Lyubov Orlova, a star in musical comedy films of the 1930s, who, as he put it, “sang and danced her way through a decade of terror and mass executions.”

“Popular culture is part of history because it is as much a human experience as war, slavery, revolution and work,” he wrote in The Los Angeles Times in 1989. “It is what most people create and consume in their spare time. Looking at its themes and styles is the best way to uncover values held by millions of people about life, love, friendship, success and the outer world.”

One of his most important works, “Serfdom, Society and the Arts in Imperial Russia: The Pleasure and the Power” (2005), explored the little-known world of the theaters maintained by noblemen on their provincial estates in the 18th and 19th centuries, whose peasant actors, musicians and painters influenced Russian high art.

“His works were one of a kind, outstanding in their writing and in their scholarship,” said Richard S. Wortman, an emeritus professor of Russian history at Columbia University. “He dealt with subjects that other people had not yet gone into.”

Richard Thomas Stites was born on Dec. 2, 1931, in Philadelphia and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Pennsylvania in 1956. He received a master’s degree in European history from George Washington University in 1959 and accepted a teaching position at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania on the condition that he acquire expertise in Russian history.

To that end he enrolled at Harvard, where he studied with Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and, under Richard Pipes, wrote his dissertation on women in the time of Czar Alexander II. He received his doctorate in 1968.

After teaching at Brown University and the Ohio State University at Lima, he joined the history faculty at Georgetown University in 1977....
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