May 14, 2009
Vol. 28 No. 16

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    Historian Hellie wrote on Russiaís voluntary slavery system

    Richard Hellie, a preeminent scholar of medieval and early modern Russian history, died Friday, April 24 in his Hyde Park home. He was 71.

    A Chicago faculty member since 1966, Hellie was the Thomas E. Donnelly Professor in History and Chairman of the College Russian Civilization program.

    Hellie wrote extensively on law, the military, and social and economic history. The University Press honored him with the Gordon J. Laing Prize in 1984 for his book Slavery in Russia, 1450-1725. His book was re-published in 1998 in Russian with a new foreword for the post-Soviet era.

    Slavery in Russia, 1450-1725 examined the enslavement of Russians who sold themselves to wealthier people to escape destitution. Russian slavery was unlike other systems, which usually consisted entirely of involuntary enslavement of foreigners.

    “Slavery was Russia’s safety net, its welfare system,” Hellie said.

    He also pointed out that slavery in early modern Russia may help explain why gulag and collectivization were possible in the Soviet Union. “It may also shed some light on the origins of what many view as the peculiar nature of the Soviet-Marxist system,” Hellie noted.

    For his research, Hellie used published records, some of which he purchased while studying in the Soviet Union during the early 1960s. The records trace slavery from the end of the 16th century and include genealogical information.

    He also wrote Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy, a book published by the University Press in 1972, which was awarded the American Historical Association’s Herbert Baxter Adams Prize. In 1999, Hellie published The Economy and Material Culture of Russia, 1600-1725. At the time of his death, he was completing The Structure of Modern Russian History.

    Hellie was editor of The Plow, the Hammer, and the Knout: Essays in Eighteenth-Century Russian Economic History, an effort that completed a project that Arcadius Kahan, Professor in Economics and History at Chicago, had started before his death in 1982.

    “Richard Hellie was a rigorous and indefatigable researcher who produced groundbreaking and lasting, massive historical syntheses on fundamental issues of early Russian history,” said Walter Kaegi, Professor in History. “A bibliophile, he assembled one of the largest personal collections of books on Russian history anywhere. He insisted on academic excellence, and he took great pride in the achievements of his students.”

    “Richard spent most of his life at Chicago and loved the University. He was a real Chicago character,” said Sheila Fitzpatrick, the Bernadotte E. Schmitt Distinguished Service Professor in History.

    “We all have fond memories of his originality (sometimes quirkiness) of mind and his untiring intellectual curiosity, as well as his erudition. Famous in the Russian field for his scathing book reviews, his bark was much worse than his bite. He was an unfailingly generous and helpful colleague and teacher.”

    In the early 1990s, Fitzpatrick and Hellie co-founded the Russian Studies Workshop at the University, which has formed several generations of Russian and Soviet historians. Hellie also headed the undergraduate Russian Civilization sequence.

    He held many fellowships, including a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship, and from 1997 to 2004, he directed the Slavic, East European/Russian and Eurasian Studies Center at the University.

    He was editor for many years of the journal Russian History, which published a three-part tribute to him in 2007 and 2008.

    Hellie received an A.B. in 1958, an A.M. in 1960 and a Ph.D. in 1965, all from Chicago. Before joining the Chicago faculty, he taught at Rutgers University from 1965 to 1966.

    He is survived by wife, Shujie; sons, Benjamin and Michael; step-daughter, Sara Yu; and sister, Margaret Huyck.