Richard Stites, 78

Richard Stites, Georgetown historian of Russian culture, dies at 78

Historian Richard Stites could speak or write 10 languages.
Historian Richard Stites could speak or write 10 languages. (Georgetown University)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010

Richard Stites, 78, a Georgetown University historian whose books on popular culture and the role of women set new standards in the study of Russian and Soviet history, died March 7 at a hospital in Helsinki, where he had a second home. He had cancer of the esophagus.

While many other scholars of Russian history examined the records of statesmen, soldiers and revolutionaries, Dr. Stites focused on films, dance halls and entertainment. In a series of books and articles, he cast light on the tastes of the proletariat and on cultural trends ignored by more traditional historians.

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 dramatically changed life in Russia, but Dr. Stites found common threads woven across time.

"The Russians enjoy a kind of . . . ineffable longing for something far away, something lost, something unattainable," he said in a 1993 interview with National Public Radio. "Pathos is very much a part of their high culture as well as their popular culture. For example, Russian movies . . . had to have Russian endings. That is to say, everybody had to die."

In his influential 1992 book "Russian Popular Culture: Entertainment and Society Since 1900," Dr. Stites used pulp fiction, rock-and-roll lyrics, circuses and jokes to reveal the Russian character in fresh and surprising ways.

"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. "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."

Dr. Stites could speak or write 10 languages and liked to conduct his research as close to the source as he could get.

"Many years living and studying in Moscow and Leningrad," journalist Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote in The Washington Post in 1993, "frequenting places where scholars are rarely found -- sleazy nightclubs, movie houses, vaudeville theaters, pop concerts and workers' clubs -- brought him face to face with the country's lower-depth realities."

Early in his career, Dr. Stites concentrated on the little-known contributions of women in Russian society, which he described in his 1978 book, "The Women's Liberation Movement in Russia." His 1988 book, "Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution," analyzed the cultural underpinnings of the 1917 revolution. "Serfdom, Society, and the Arts in Imperial Russia" (2005) explored the influence of serfs who became actors and artists. At the time of his death, Dr. Stites was completing a book on European revolutionary movements of the 1820s.

A Georgetown colleague, David M. Goldfrank, called him "absolutely one of the more important Russian historians of recent times."

Richard Thomas Stites was born in Philadelphia on Dec. 2, 1931. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1956 and received a master's degree in history from George Washington University in 1959.

In accepting a job at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania in the early 1960s, he agreed to study Russian history and received a doctorate from Harvard University in 1968. He taught in Copenhagen, at Brown University and the Lima campus of Ohio State University before coming to Georgetown in 1977. A faculty member until his death, Dr. Stites always insisted that his students, whether freshmen or postgraduates, make use of the Library of Congress.

His marriages to Dorothy Jones, Tatyana Tereshchenko and Elena Stites ended in divorce.

Survivors include two children from his first marriage, Tod Stites and Thomas Stites, both of Hyattsville; a son from his second marriage, Andrei Stites of Washington; and a daughter from a relationship, Alexandra Stites of Moscow.

Dr. Stites lived in Washington but for many years maintained an apartment in Helsinki, where he did research at the Slavonic Library.

He became something of an expert on all things Finnish, including the concept of "krapula," or hangover. Interviewed for a Washington Post Magazine article one morning in 2006 after a boisterous evening with colleagues, Dr. Stites admitted that he was in a state of krapula.

"There's a whole culture of krapula in this country," he said. "You would never show up for work in the U.S. and tell people about your hangover. In Finland, everyone understands."

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