Richard Hellie, Russian historian, 1937-2009

Richard Hellie, a University of Chicago professor and a preeminent scholar of medieval and early modern Russian history, died April 24. He was 71 and died in his Hyde Park home.

A Chicago faculty member since 1966, he was the Thomas E. Donnelly Professor in History and chairman of the College Russian Civilization program.


Hellie wrote extensively on law, the military, and social and economic history. The University of Chicago Press honored him with the Gordon J. Laing Prize in 1984 for his book Slavery in Russia, 1450-1725. The award recognizes outstanding work by a University of Chicago faculty member. Slavery in Russia was re-published in 1998 in Russian with a new foreword for the post-Soviet era.

The book examined the enslavement of Russians who sold themselves to wealthier people to escape destitution. Russian slavery was unlike other systems, which usually consisted entirely of involuntary enslavement of foreigners.

"Slavery was Russia's safety net, its welfare system," he said.

He also pointed out that slavery in early modern Russia may help explain why gulag and collectivization were possible in the Soviet Union. "It may also shed some light on the origins of what many view as the peculiar nature of the Soviet-Marxist system."

For his research he used published records, some of which he purchased while studying in the Soviet Union in 1963 and 1964. The records trace slavery from the end of the 16th century and included genealogical information.

He also wrote wrote Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy, a book published by the University of Chicago Press in 1972, which was awarded the American Historical Association's Herbert Baxter Adams Prize. In 1999, Hellie published The Economy and Material Culture of Russia, 1600-1725. At the time of his death, he was completing The Structure of Modern Russian History.

Hellie was editor of The Plow, the Hammer, and the Knout; Essays in Eighteenth-Century Russian Economic History, an effort that completed a project began by Arcadius Kahan, professor in economics and history at Chicago, who died in 1982.

"Richard Hellie was a rigorous and indefatigable researcher who produced groundbreaking and lasting massive historical syntheses on fundamental issues of early Russian history," said Walter Kaegi, professor in history at the University. "A bibliophile, he assembled one of the largest personal collections of books on Russian history anywhere. He insisted on academic excellence. He took great pride in the achievements of his students."

One of his former students, Peter Brown, a professor of history at Rhode Island College, said, "Richard's joviality, humor and incisiveness mightily heartened his graduate students and so many others. His welcoming presence inspired many of us to come to South Side Chicago and stay longer than we might have intended.

"His was an unobtrusive leadership style through encouragement by example. He gave praise when it was due, but never even for a moment was he not dead-on-center, intellectually honest and blunt. Richard was equally unsparing in criticism of scholarship that he judged deficient, whether written by those who had worked under him or those who had not."

"Richard spent most of his life at Chicago and loved the university. He was a real Chicago character," said Sheila Fitzpatrick, the Bernadotte E. Schmitt Distinguished Service Professor in History at the University. "We all have fond memories of his originality (sometimes quirkiness) of mind and his untiring intellectual curiosity, as well as his erudition. Famous in the Russian field for his scathing book reviews, his bark was much worse than his bite. He was an unfailingly generous and helpful colleague and teacher."

Fitzpatrick and Hellie were co-founders in the early 1990s of the Russian Studies Workshop at University, which has formed several generations of Russian and Soviet historians.

Hellie headed the undergraduate Russian Civilization sequence.

He held many fellowships, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. He was Director of the Slavic, East European/Russian and Eurasian Studies Center at the University from 1997 to 2004.

He was editor for many years of the journal Russian History, which published a three-part tribute to him in 2007 and 2008.

Hellie received an A.B. in 1958, an A.M. in 1960 and a Ph.D. in 1965, all from the University.He taught at Rutgers University from 1965 to 1966.

He is survived by wife Shujie; sons Benjamin and Michael; step-daughterSara Yu and sister Margaret Huyck.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the First Unitarian Church, 57th Street and Woodlawn Avenue in Chicago.