Vladimir Shlapentokh

In Memory of My Friend Mikhail Loiberg

(Johnson's Russia List, 2007-#73, 27 March 2007)

The life of my old friend Mikhail Loiberg, who died at age 83 in a nursing home, which had a special section for Russian Jews, in Boston on March 24, can be used as an illustration of any period of Soviet history since the 1930s. As a young sergeant, he was wounded at the front in the fall of 1943 and returned to the study of history at the university in Moscow and later in Kiev. He was accepted to a graduate program at Kiev University in 1948, when anti-Semitism in the USSR and particularly in the Ukraine was rising fast. He had been helped by his father who served as a deputy minister of the grain supply in the Ukrainian government. He received his PhD in medieval Polish history and, again as a miracle for a Jew, was hired as an assistant professor at the Kharkov Institute of Culture, because the regional party secretary wanted to receive leniency from Misha's father in the amount of grain that Kharkov's boss had to supply to the state. However, quite soon Misha's privileges turned into a curse. In order to fire his father, the last Jew in the Ukrainian government, the KGB decided to do what was easiest: they arrested Misha in March 1951 using his statements against Stalin in private conversations in Moscow several years before, making it impossible for the Ukrainian leader to sustain his father's employment.

Misha spent four years in the Gulag and twice attempted suicide. If not Stalin;s death in 1953 he had to spend there at least 10 years. His father's connections played a positive role. Nikita Khrushchev, when he was the first secretary of Ukraine, respected him very much as an excellent worker. For this reason, Misha was released from the Gulag in 1954, at Khrushchev's personal order, two years before Khrushchev's famous report at the 20^th Party Congress in 1956. Misha's return to normal life was very painful. Being a Jew and excluded from the party he could not find a decent job for several years. For a long time he worked as a ghostwriter for professors in Kiev and then in Moscow. Here he was a member of a big team that included some famous scholars. Misha and the other ghostwriters prepared one text after another for their "slave owner," a prominent liberal official who published their work in books, journal articles and newspapers using only his name.

However, as soon as he was able to use his talents, given his enormous general erudition and fabulous knowledge of history and literature, he gained high recognition for his textbook, which he coauthored with our common friend, on the Middle Ages that was used in Soviet high schools. The book received the highest prize in an anonymous competition.

Only in the late 1960s, now free from ghostwriting, he started to work as a sociologist in a research institute that dealt with the forest industry and published a few books with the results of his surveys. With Perestroika came a time when Misha could finally feel free from the pressure of the past and the fears that never left him. He started to teach in a new university that was run by liberal scholars such as Larisa Piasheva and in 1997 published his book "History of economy," which became a very popular textbook for college students. Misha participated as a speaker at the numerous international conferences, among other one devoted to the new elites in the post Communist countries in 1997.

However, in the late 1990s, he faced new problems. His second wife Rita (his first wife left him after his arrest), a very decent ethnic Russian lady whom I respected enormously, became incurably ill. In his late 70s, his own health became frail. With a meager salary as a professor, they both were doomed to a fast end. And then they both made a very risky decision: they went to the United States hoping that, even if they did not work, the final years of their lives would be as good as possible. They were not at all disappointed and praised America for its generosity literally each day. American doctors conducted several surgeries to prolong Rita's days. She died in 2005 in S. Monica where they both lived after arriving in the US in 1999. Misha became increasingly ill and was not able to live alone. His niece was able to transfer him to the nursing home in Boston where he found his end from liver cancer. He met his death as an old warrior, practically without any complaints.

Until his last days, even with a big dose of pessimism, he avidly followed the developments in America, Russia and Israel, three countries that were always the object of his keen interest. Misha belonged to the legions of people whose potential was diminished by the political forces of the Soviet Union. And still, despite all the adversities, he lived the life of a brave and creative person.

* International Biography and History of Russian Sociology Projects feature interviews and autobiographical materials collected from scholars who participated in the intellectual movements spurred by the Nikita Khrushchev's liberalization campaign. The materials are posted as they become available, in the language of the original, with the translations planned for the future. Dr. Boris Doktorov (bdoktorov@inbox.ru) and Dmitri Shalin (shalin@unlv.nevada.edu) are editing the projects.