The secret lives of our profs

Naveed Islam

Associate Professor of History Peter Blitstein has been interested in Russia and Eastern Europe since he was kid. “During the Cold War,” he recalled, “it seemed like an area of the world that adults didn’t know much about. It was kind of closed off from America’s understanding.” His ongoing fascination with life behind the Iron Curtain led him to learn Russian in college and focus his attention on the Soviet Union. “My interest was always in this society that was a very different kind of place in terms of its economy and politics. I concluded that I wanted to help people understand it better.”
Blitstein grew up in New York City, living with his family in an apartment in Manhattan instead of a picket-fenced house in the idyllic suburbs. Here he met and interacted with people from different cultures.
“When I was growing up,” he recalled, “I had friends from all kinds of backgrounds and races, people from different parts of the world. I learned later that it was very different from what most people experienced.”
After graduating from high school, he enrolled at Johns Hopkins University, where he majored in political science and minored in Russian. “The basic culture,” he said about his time as an undergrad, “was that if you saddled yourself with more work, you were kind of like a jock. Although we had athletes, the culture was set by the huge number of students who were pre-meds, so a lot of it was like this masochistic ‘how-hard-can-you-work’ way of life.”
While there, Professor Blitstein found his interest in political science shifting to studying history. In 1989, Blitstein went to the Soviet Union as an exchange student for the summer, an experience that he called “really transformative.” Blitstein said, “I’m really happy to this day that I got to see the Soviet Union before it changed” following its collapse in 1991.
He went on to the University of California-Berkley to earn his doctorate in history with a master’s degree in political science.
“I recommend that everyone live in Northern California for a time. It’s like the closest thing to heaven on Earth. And Berkley is this huge university with so many people and so much interesting work and research being done and classes being taught, of every variety you can imagine. I was in grad school for nine and a half years because I couldn’t bear to leave.”
In those nine and a half years, Blitstein was able to spend some time in Moscow. Said Blitstein, “It was really interesting to see and live in a society that was in such turmoil and transition. People were not used to freedom. It was a society that was sort of breaking down and in transformation. It was an exciting and also a sort of thrilling and scary place to live in every day.”
Many of the courses he teaches today are focused primarily in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s under Stalin, a time period which he describes as “kind of like an alternate universe.”
He aims to demonstrate to his students that not everyone was living in fear and terror all the time. “I really enjoy showing students how different the Soviet Union was than what they experienced — wherever they are from — and at the same time how it’s not quite what you might expect.”
Professor Blitstein calls teaching “living the life of the mind. Obscure historical facts surround my mind all the time. I’m thinking about ways of explaining them and talking about them.”
His eight years teaching at Lawrence have been enriched by students who are both eager to learn and grateful for the experience. “When I came here, I didn’t really know what to expect. My own experience of college was a huge percentage of smart-ass smart kids who came from the Northeast and were trying to game the system. People talk about the liberal arts setting and how students are here to have their horizons opened and it is to some extent, more than I would have expected, really true here.