Abbott Gleason, a scholar of Russian history and culture whose works helped illuminate the Soviet Union during and beyond the Cold War era, died Dec. 25 at a nursing home in East Providence, R.I. He was 77.
The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, his wife, Sarah Gleason, said.
Dr. Gleason, known as Tom, taught at Brown University for nearly four decades, from 1968 until he retired in 2005. In Washington, he was director of the Kennan Institute for Russian studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in the early 1980s, a role that made him well known among Kremlinologists during the Cold War.
At Brown, he chaired the history department and lectured on “everything from the emergence of the Slavs as a definable Eurasian culture all the way through to the end of the Soviet Union and into the Putin era,” he wrote in a memoir, “A Liberal Education” (2010), excerpted in the university alumni magazine.
Dr. Gleason displayed similar academic range in his writings. Among his best-known works were “Young Russia: The Genesis of Russian Radicalism in the 1860s” (1980) and “Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War” (1995).
The word “totalitarianism,” Dr. Gleason wrote, originated in Italy, where it was used to condemn fascism and later was adopted by Mussolini to project the strength of his regime.
Many leftists rejected comparisons of Nazism and communism, but Dr. Gleason presented totalitarianism as the basic characteristic linking the major U.S. enemies of the 20th century: Nazi Germany and fascist Italy during World War II, and the communist Soviet Union during the Cold War.
He argued “convincingly,” Dennis H. Wrong, a sociologist, wrote in a New York Times review, that totalitarianism would eventually “come to be seen as only the most extreme example of a phase in human history in which the transforming powers of the state, of politics, were greatly exaggerated by political actors, at the expense of slower and more complex cultural and economic change likely to be far more durable.”
Abbott Gleason was born in Cambridge, Mass., on July 21, 1938. His father was a historian who worked for the National Security Council during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. His mother was a painter.
“Tom” Gleason, as he had been called since infancy, graduated from the private St. Albans School in Washington in 1956. He later studied at Harvard University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in history in 1961 and a doctorate in Russian history in 1969.
Dr. Gleason participated in the civil rights movement and taught at Tougaloo College, a historically black institution in Mississippi, during the 1960s. Later, his work as a historian was distinguished by a “strong moral perspective,” Blair A. Ruble, vice president for programs at the Wilson Center and a former director of the Kennan Institute, said in an interview.
“What Tom took from the civil rights movement,” Ruble remarked, “is that politics is about morality and moral philosophy, not just about power.”
Dr. Gleason’s first book was “European and Muscovite: Ivan Kireevsky and the Origins of Slavophilism” (1972), about the Russian writer, philosopher and critic. He later co-edited volumes on Bolshevik culture, Soviet-American Relations, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and George Orwell’s novel “1984.”
Survivors include his wife of 49 years, the former Sarah Fischer of Providence, R.I.; two children, Nicholas Gleason of San Francisco and Margaret Gleason Beil of Brooklyn, N.Y.; a sister; and four grandchildren.
Outside his historical work, Dr. Gleason cultivated interests in jazz and art, fields that occasionally overlapped with his Russian scholarship. In 2008, he curated an exhibit at Brown University on Soviet art.
“When it’s not ‘Communist art’ any longer, it becomes ‘art of the mid-20th century,’ ” he told the Brown Daily Herald at the time. “I think we’ll see the political contrast may be somewhat lessened. We may see these things more with our eyes and less with our political antennae.”