By Lee Gordon, C’68
As a college student, how fortunate it is to have a special person mold your personal universe. Someone so dynamic and brilliant that you feel at once transformed into a thinking adult, while you could sense that you were in the presence of genius. That was me, Lee Gordon, fifty years ago, at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Daily Pennsylvanian “Course Guide” cited Russian History 149 as one of the finest introductory courses in the University. Yet it was the guide’s reference to the course professor that truly resonated: “The Great One, as many students refer to him, received unanimous ratings of excellent from his students. His lectures are regarded as consistently interesting, often humorous, and always very well organized. He was also praised for his interest in the individual student, a trait not often found in one who lectures to 500 pupils.”
And so Alexander V. Riasanovsky — “The Great One” — entered my life.
Watching Professor Riasanovsky on the grand stage in College Hall was mesmerizing. His cadence was fast-paced, his baritone voice carried in a thunderous roar when he emphasized a certain point, and his command of Russian history was awe-inspiring. Alex Riasanovsky was Penn personified. His Russian history course was popular with students from all programs: Wharton, pre-med, engineering, and liberal arts. Everyone wanted to hear him lecture. He was the consummate Penn ambassador, speaking to all the Penn Clubs throughout the United States, with alumni eager to hear his talk.
I got to know Alex more intimately when he allowed me the privilege of taking his graduate course in Russian history, and to this very day, I fondly remember our conversations about the Russian intelligentsia. In his graduate seminar, Professor Riasanovsky challenged you to think analytically. He had edited a masterful book “Generalizations in Historical Writing” and believed that since history was approached from numerous philosophical, religious, social, political and economic positions, the historian must be able to frame meaningful generalizations.
Born in Harbin, Manchuria China in 1928, Alex’s childhood innocence ended abruptly at age 10 when he witnessed a Japanese soldier behead a prisoner. His family fled and found safe haven across the Pacific Ocean in Eugene, Oregon.
The Riasanovsky family was living history. Alex’s father Valentin was the preeminent scholar of Mongol law and his mother Antonina won the Atlantic Monthly prize for fiction in 1940 for her novel “The Family”. Both Riasanovsky sons were Rhodes Scholars and both became famous Russian history professors, with Alex at Penn and his brother Nicholas at the University of California at Berkeley.
But Alex was more than just a wonderful history professor. He was also a true Renaissance man: a historian, a freethinker, a fine artist and a prolific poet.
I wish I had learned the Russian language because my bookshelf is filled with his poetry written in Russian. A Wallace Stevens devotee, Alex wrote poem after poem, and, gratefully, some were translated into English.
Philosophically, Professor Riasanovsky was a man of peace, and he loved to poke wicked fun at the imperious political megalomaniacs. In a 1995 poem he lamented eloquently:
And twisted way
Marked by festoons
Of broken flowers
Leads to a land
Where blood-soaked sand
In monuments and towers
Here judgement’s rendered
In a glance
Of lying levity, by clowns
Here means and ends
Wear plastic crowns.
I will long cherish Alex’s books, especially the one with the inscription: “To my favorite student family”. But even more important, I will always cherish the memories with Alex and the love and friendship we shared together these many decades along with my wife Sandy and our three sons Alex, Eric and Michael.
When my eldest son was born, we proudly named him Alex. I still have the wonderful note Professor Riasanovsky sent: “I’m very happy to hear about your son. What a lovely name you have given him!” Yes, Alex, a lovely name indeed!
A note: Class of 1968 will be hosting a Professors Forum: A reunion with some of 1968’s favorite faculty members led by coordinated by Lee Gordon and will be held on Saturday, May 12, 2018, from 9:00 to 10:30 AM, with breakfast from 8:00 to 9:00 AM.