Benjamin Nathans teaches and writes about Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, modern European Jewish history, and the history of human rights. He edited A Research Guide to Materials on the History of Russian Jewry (19th and Early 20th Centuries) in Selected Archives of the Former Soviet Union [in Russian] (Moscow, 1994) and is author of Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter With Late Imperial Russia (Berkeley, 2002), which won the Koret Prize in Jewish History, the Vucinich Prize in Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies, the Lincoln Prize in Russian History and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in History. Beyond the Pale has been translated into Russian (2007) and Hebrew (2013). Nathans has published articles on Habermas and the public sphere in eighteenth-century France, Russian-Jewish historiography, Soviet dissident memoirs, and many other topics. He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and an occasional commentator on current Russian affairs. From 2008 to 2012 he worked as a consultant for Ralph Appelbaum Associates, a leading museum design firm, chairing an international committee of scholars that helped design the content for the Museum of Jewish History in Moscow, which opened in November 2012.
Nathans' current book project, To the Success of Our Hopeless Cause: A History of the Soviet Dissident Movement, tells the story of dissent in the USSR from Stalin's death to the collapse of communism. It explores the idea and practice of rights and the rule of law in the setting of “mature socialism.” Rather than treat Soviet dissidents as avatars of Western liberalism, or take their invocation of rights and legal norms as natural, To the Success of Our Hopeless Cause investigates how, as products themselves of the Soviet order, dissidents arrived at a conception of law and human personality so at odds with official norms. Understanding this process - how orthodoxies contain the seeds of their own heresies, and how dissidents promoted the containment of Soviet power from within - promises to illuminate the broader problem of how citizens of authoritarian societies conceive and act on options for political engagement.
Along with Prof. Gabriella Safran (Stanford University), Nathans co-edited Culture Front: Representing Jews in Eastern Europe (Penn Press, 2008), based on the 2002-03 seminar at Penn's Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, "Jewish History and Culture in Eastern Europe, 1600-2000," of which he was a co-organizer. He is co-editor, with Prof. Kenneth Moss (Johns Hopkins University) and Prof. Taro Tsurumi (Tokyo University) of From Europe's East to the Middle East: Israel's Russian and Polish Lineages (forthcoming, Penn Press). He is also editing and annotating, together with Prof. Viktor Kelner (European University in St. Petersburg, Russia), the first English translation of the 3-volume autobiography of Russian-Jewish historian Simon Dubnov, The Book of Life: Memoirs and Reflections.
Nathans is a member of the Jewish Studies Program, the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies Group, the Graduate Group in Comparative Literature, and the Graduate Group in Germanic Languages and Literatures. He works with graduate students interested in the history of the Soviet Union, Imperial Russia, modern European Jewry, and historical theory and method. Applicants to the graduate program in any of these sub-fields are encouraged to contact Prof. Nathans via email (see above) before the application deadline.
Selected Articles, Essays, and Datasets
“Rewriting Human Rights,” New York Review of Books vol. 66, no. 19 (Dec. 5, 2019):44-48
"Helsinki Syndrome: Human Rights and International Diplomacy," Times Literary Supplement no. 6038/9 (Dec. 21 & 28, 2018), The Human Rights Issue:6-7
“To Hell and Back,” New York Review of Books vol. 65, no. 198 (Dec. 8, 2018):34-36
“Bolshevism’s New Believers,” New York Review of Books vol. 64, no. 18 (November 23, 2017):18-21
“Russia: The Joyful New Activism,” New York Review of Books vol. 64, no. 13 (August 17, 2017): 51-54
“The Real Power of Putin,” New York Review of Books vol. 63, no. 14 (Sept. 29, 2016): 88-92
“Talking Fish: On Soviet Dissident Memoirs,” Journal of Modern History 87 (September 2015):579-614
“Thawed Selves: A Commentary on the Soviet First Person,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History vol. 13, no. 1 (Winter 2012): 177–83
“Soviet Rights-Talk in the Post-Stalin Era,” in Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, ed., Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011): 166-190
“Questioning in the Darkness,” The Jewish Review of Books (Spring 2012):34-35
“Uncertainty and Anxiety,” The Nation vol. 293, no. 13 (Sept. 26, 2011):31-35
“The Wild Desire to Leave,” The Nation vol. 291, no. 22 (Nov. 29, 2010):34-36
“When Did Your Eyes Open?” London Review of Books vol. 32, no. 9 (May 13, 2010):25-26
with Kevin Platt: “Sotsialisticheskaia po forme, neopredelennaia po soderzhaniiu: pozdnesovetskaia kul’tura i kniga Alekseia Iurchaka, Vse bylo navechno, poka ne konchilos’,” Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie no. 101 (2010): 167-184
-----, “Socialist in Form, Indeterminate in Content: The Ins and Outs of Late Soviet Culture,” Ab Imperio no.2 (2011):301-324 [revised and expanded version of preceding essay]
How to Write Well (PDF)
- HIST 031 The Ascent of Europe
- HIST 048 The Rise and Fall of the Russian Empire, 1552 - 1917
- HIST 049 The Soviet Century
- HIST135 The Cold War: A Global History
- HIST 141 History of Jewish Civilization: 17th Century to the Present
- HIST 413 The USSR after Stalin: Individuals and Collectives
- HIST 414 Human Rights and History
- HIST 620 Soviet History
- HIST 620 Topics in Modern Jewish History
- HIST 700 Introduction to the Graduate Study of History
- HIST 720 Research Seminar: Europe, 1945 - 1991
- INTEGRATED STUDIES: Orthodoxies and Disruptions