Leading historian of Russia who argued that the country could have taken a democratic road in 1917 rather than follow Lenin
For the historian Israel Getzler, who has died at the age of 91, there was no inevitability about Russia entering its totalitarian cul-de-sac with Lenin and the communists. He regarded the year 1917 as a time when Russian society had a credible chance of constructing a democracy. His career involved an intensely personal debate with the shade of Lenin.
Getzler’s masterpiece was his biography of Yuli Martov (1967) the anti-war Marxist and democratic socialist who lost the struggle against Lenin’s October revolution. While deeply admiring Martov, Getzler pointed up the many strategic and tactical errors he had made. He refused to see history as merely the interplay of impersonal forces, and insisted that individual and group choice counted.
His subsequent books, Kronstadt 1917-21: The Fate of a Soviet Democracy (1983), on the 1921 naval mutiny, and on the greatest chronicler of the revolution, Nikolai Sukhanov (2002), argued that the democratic road not taken had been a genuinely realistic alternative. Though he respected EH Carr, the doyen of the history of Stalinism, he rejected what he saw as the older scholar’s philosophical determinism; and he regretted that he could not make Carr understand why he took political “losers” seriously.
Born in Berlin to a Jewish-Polish immigrant family, Getzler grew up amid the dangers of the Nazis’ rise to power and joined Hashomer Hatzair, a Zionist-socialist youth movement. At one point, its leadership even sent him, a boy in his mid-teens, to defend it before the Gestapo. Tears of hilarity would run down his face as he told how the class teacher in his Jewish school, in mock-accordance with Nazi pseudo-science, measured the heads of the pupils and declared young Israel to possess a classic Aryan cranium.
The Nazis deported him and his family to Poland in 1938. At the outbreak of the second world war, the Soviet authorities roughly deposited the Getzlers in a Siberian gold-mining settlement. When the family eventually moved to the USSR’s Volga German republic, he made an earnest attempt to resume his studies. Whenever he found himself without a Russian novel or a political tract, he improved his English from a Russian-English dictionary. After the Third Reich’s defeat, the family successfully applied to leave the USSR and eventually fetched up in Australia.
Having taken a degree in history, he gained a tenured post at Adelaide University; but he was eager to come to the UK and test out his ideas about the Russian revolution on scholarly luminaries such as Carr, Leonard Schapiro and Isaiah Berlin. He also burrowed away in the mountain of documents of the Hoover Institution archives at Stanford University, California.
Subsequently he was warmly encouraging to younger scholars and always took them seriously. He himself had a passion for argument leavened by conversation. I well remember the day we had to break off a discussion at 11am: when he returned five hours later, he resumed exactly where he had left off, without a single lubricating word of linkage, “And seventhly, Lenin…”
In 1971 Getzler’s commitment to Zionism drew him to Israel, where he became a professor at the Hebrew University. His new homeland had been his lifelong dream, but he came to deplore how it dominated and discriminated against Palestinians through its occupation of the West Bank. He raged against the settlement policies of both the Labour party and Menachem Begin’s Likud.
He marched in anti-settler demonstrations until well into his 80s and was a keen supporter of the Peace Now movement. But he also knew when to cut short his political homilies and loved to quote the Psalms of David and the more recent literature in Hebrew.
As one of the finest historians of the Soviet Union, Getzler raised his cheers for the Gorbachev reforms of the late 1980s; and on his regular trips to London, he scrutinised the latest copies of the government newspaper Izvestiya for signs of a successful process of democratic change in the USSR. This was of a piece with his scholarly output, which tended the plants of hope.
He and his second wife, Dvorah, a political reporter and peace activist, were married in 1976. Disapproving of what he termed the stranglehold of the religious establishment on Israeli society, he arranged to be buried in a kibbutz in an “alternative” cemetery, without presence of clergy.
He is survived by Dvorah and his son, David, and daughter, Anne, from his first marriage, to Agatha, which ended in divorce.
• Israel Getzler, historian, born 14 May 1920; died 8 January 2012