"Ritualized Violence Russian Style: The Duel in Russian Culture and Literature" by Irina Reyfman is reviewed.
Allen Sinel, who served the UBC Department of History for more than 50 years as a gifted teacher and scholar, a wise administrator, and an engaged and engaging mentor and raconteur, died at peace on January 29 at Vancouver General Hospital. Prof. Sinel, born in 1936 in New Haven, Connecticut, had congestive heart failure. This fact he regarded as a nuisance – bothersome, to be sure, but one that he did not allow to interfere with what became, in his alleged retirement, a myriad of largely self-appointed tasks at UBC and, possibly more important to him, with the sharing of culinary and musical pleasures, of conversations and jokes, and of big ideas with his beloved family and friends. His passing signals generational shifts in the department, the university, and the larger scholarly world which shaped Prof. Sinel and which, he might reluctantly admit, were shaped by him as well.
The son of Russo-Jewish immigrants, a housepainter, Nathan, and a sales clerk, Mona, Prof. Sinel studied piano as a youngster and harboured aspirations of becoming a professional baseball player. Wisely, he was known to have remarked in his later years, he took up reading instead, and he regarded reading as a kind of calling, never quite able to comprehend how it could be seen in any other way. When his own vision began to fade in mid-life, he found ways to continue reading – and he read more, and more widely, than seems possible. Roaming the eleventh and twelfth floors of Buchanan Tower, Prof. Sinel, coffee cup in hand, habitually sought out colleagues and students for their impressions of his latest “discovery” in historical literature or in his first love in the written word, fiction. As a lifelong student of Russian literature, he was in particular drawn to the classics of the 19th Century and to the moral dilemmas embedded in them. But later in life he immersed himself in modernist fiction and also in the work of the secularized sons and daughters of both European and North American Jewry. His childhood infatuation with Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers morphed into engagements with Isaac Babel, Joseph (and Philip) Roth, and Saul Bellow.
In fundamental ways, Prof. Sinel’s sense of what history is all about, and what he was about as an historian and a person, was shaped more by his one-year fellowship at The University of Oxford than by his undergraduate years at Yale and by his graduate career at Harvard, where he studied under Prof. Richard Pipes, the brilliant, controversial former head of that university’s Russian Research Center. For it was in Sir Isaiah Berlin, an Oxford don and historian of ideas known as much for his allegiance to independent, liberal thinking as to his family and friends and who, like Prof. Sinel, was the son of Russo-Jewish immigrants, that Prof. Sinel found an exemplar. Berlin, a great “Hebrew Hammer” of 20th-century intellectual life, possibly best-known for his essay on Tolstoy’s views on history, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” never seemed far from a perch on the shoulder of Prof. Sinel. It was this seminal, highly popular piece, along with Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty,” that informed so many of the conversations that Prof. Sinel shared with his students and friends.
Hired as a specialist in Russian History, Prof. Sinel came to UBC in 1964. His study of 19th-century Russian education, The Classroom and the Chancellery, published a few years later, explored the politics of Tsarist educational reform, and marked his emergence as an internationally respected scholar. Lamentably, the publication of this book coincided with the onset of a degenerative eye disease that made it increasingly difficult for Prof. Sinel to read, in English or Russian; while he was able to enlist readers of English to assist him in fulfilling his pedagogic responsibilities and many of his literary passions, it became increasingly difficult for him to undertake research and writing in Russian. This did not dampen his enthusiasm for teaching – or for anything – but instead seemed to sharpen his intellectual skills and deepen his empathies. These, in combination with a searing curiosity, displayed decade after decade at all levels – graduate, undergraduate, and above all in the department’s honours program – propelled Prof. Sinel to the top tier of university teachers, earned him UBC’s coveted Dean of Arts award in 2001, just prior to his official retirement, and doubtless constituted the undergirding of his most formidable intellectual legacy. Notably, his passage to the status of an emeritus professor changed virtually nothing about his weekday routines of advising students, working as the revered book review editor for the scholarly journal, Canadian-American Slavic Studies, participating in the department’s colloquia and seminars, and chairing lunchtime meetings with his cherished colleagues, especially those who arrived with him in Vancouver in the 1960s and ‘70s. Like Prof. Berlin, though, Prof. Sinel was a committed democrat, and the trappings of rank and authority never seduced him: he saw all of his teaching colleagues as equals and welcomed them into his home with the same grace he afforded his students – high praise, he might well quip, indeed.
Prof. Sinel derived great pleasure from his stewardship of the department’s honours and graduate programs, as well as from his interim, but critically important, headship, but his supreme indulgences were provided by food and wine, by classical music and, above all, by his beloved children, Alexa and Zoe. He loved them in ways which, he knew, reflected the nurturing of his parents, and he always was happiest when he could be with his children and their families – in Italy, where Alexa resides, or in Ontario, where Zoe has made her home. Adored by his daughters and his two grandchildren, Eleonora and Edoardo, he was perhaps never more happy, nor in recent years more healthy, than during a grand familial visit last summer in Vancouver.
When Sir Isaiah Berlin died, The New York Times noted that “his was an exuberant life crowded with joys – the joy of thought, the joy of music, the joy of good friends.” Like his mentor – though it is hard to imagine anyone mentoring Prof. Sinel – he, too, created a life of exuberance, and filled it with courage and integrity and with witty, insightful thinking.
On March 26, 2014, Prof. Sinel taught his last class at UBC, substituting for a new friend, Dr. Richard Pollard, who had recently joined the department as a postdoctoral fellow. Here is how one of Dr. Pollard’s students recalled that day with Prof. Sinel: “I actually remember his lecture vividly because it was different. He told us about medieval Russia, but a lot of his lecture also focused on the essence of history. One thing I remember his saying is that history is what keeps people together. He said that history is basically the same event woven into different stories, and that idea stays with me…. He also asked us to think about whose story we are reading when we look at history…. I don’t think I really will forget the lecture – even if I forget exactly what he said, I can remember the feeling of learning something completely new that prompted me to do more research. In a way, Allen Sinel’s last lecture is one of the myriad stories of my life that shape my personal history…. It’s one of the sparks that influenced me to question things and look at history differently.”
For Prof. Sinel, historian-of-Russia-turned-interpreter-of-texts, no words could have been more gratifying. He nailed it in his last class, as he always had.
In addition to his daughters and grandchildren, Prof. Sinel is survived by his former wife, Marjorie; his brother, Norman, and his wife, Ellen; and his son-in-law, Andrea Nisi. A celebration of his life will be held in Vancouver later in the year.