Retired Professor of History Roberta T. Manning, an expert on Soviet history and politics who helped spearhead a major international research project on the Stalin era, died on Jan. 3. She was 77.
Dr. Manning joined the Boston College faculty in 1975, a period when the Cold War remained at full boil despite U.S.-Soviet efforts at détente. The next two decades were a watershed for Soviet scholars like Manning, driven by a succession of events including the USSR’s perestroika-glasnost reforms, the collapse of the East Bloc in 1989 and the Soviet Union’s dissolution two years later.
When Dr. Manning retired in 2013, few if any freshmen entering college that year had been alive during the Soviet Union’s existence.
But the downfall of the USSR provided Dr. Manning with an opportunity to build on what had already been an extensive body of work that utilized rare Soviet archival material going back decades. During the 1990s, she co-led a group of 40 scholars from Russia, the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and South Korea in collecting, arranging, translating and publishing a five-volume set of books, The Tragedy of the Soviet Village: Documents and Materials, drawn from five major Moscow archives, including that of the KGB. The project allowed these materials to be accessed and used by academics around the world.
Publications like The Tragedy of the Soviet Village, as well as her 1983 book The Crisis of the Old Order in Russia: Gentry and Government and Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives, a 1993 collection of essays she co-edited, underscored Dr. Manning’s belief that Stalin-era research too often employed a “top-down” approach that inflated the dictator’s role in the infamous 1930s purges and overlooked more systematic patterns of oppression and persecution.
In a 1989 article for Russian History, Dr. Manning described the various tensions, disputes and fissures in a Communist Party organization in a rural district northwest of Moscow to illustrate the scope and character of purges on a local level. Such episodes, she wrote, demonstrated the “social and political hatreds that spawned the revolution and continued to influence Soviet politics 20 years later,” and suggested a more complex picture than that which painted Stalin as the purges’ orchestrator.
Viewed from this perspective, Dr. Manning concluded, the Great Purges “do not appear to be the simple morality play that much of existing scholarship and belles lettres alike would have us believe. Rather, these events resemble a tragedy in the classical sense of the term, in which the protagonist – the nation – was undone largely by the circumstances, and virtue, carried to extremes, gave way to vice.”
Reflecting on his former colleague, Professor of History Alan Rogers said, “Some people thought Roberta was naive, a babe in the woods of sharp Cold War political differences, but her published work about the Soviet Union was only possible because she had the nerve to challenge Soviet archivists to allow her to look at documents that revealed the Soviet state, warts and all.”
In an interview with Boston College Chronicle 10 years after the Cold War’s end, Dr. Manning said she looked forward to the release of more past archival material: "The hope is that these documents will deepen our understanding of the Cold War era, and perhaps help us make some sense of what's happened since then."
Dr. Manning’s work won her recognition from her peers and beyond academia. She was awarded the American Historical Association's prestigious Herbert Baxter Adams Prize in 1983 and was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1989. She frequently offered her expertise to the media on topics such as the end of the Cold War and the eventful presidency of Boris Yeltsin in post-Soviet Russia.
A native of Texas, Dr. Manning was an alumnus of Rice University and earned her doctorate from Columbia University.
She is survived by her daughters, Innessa Anne Manning and Rebecca Emily Manning; her brothers, Robert and Charles Thompson; and three grandsons.
The family is planning a memorial service for some time this spring, and seeks to create a scholarship fund as a tribute to her academic accomplishments. More information is available by request at firstname.lastname@example.org.