An OBE for the soldier who fought the King

August 30, 2002

How did a Russian Jew who was exiled to Siberia, lost family in the Holocaust and fought British-led forces for an Israeli state earn an OBE? Nick Holdsworth reports.

Tears of mirth still spring to Teodor Shanin's eyes when he recalls the day the British ambassador in Moscow rang to tell him he had been made an OBE. "Me an officer of the Order of the British Empire?" says Shanin, founder and rector of the Russian-British Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. "I was amazed and amused - my relationship with the empire, when it existed, was involvement in anti-imperialism."

Nevertheless, Shanin will receive his OBE from the Queen at Buckingham Palace in October.

For Shanin - who was born 72 years ago in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius (then the Polish border city of Vilna), who endured exile in Siberia and the loss of many family members in the Holocaust, and who later led Israeli commandos against British-led Arab forces in the war for Israeli independence - the idea that he should be made an officer of an empire that no longer exists seemed a huge joke. But he is genuinely pleased with the award, which was made in recognition of his services to Russian tertiary education.

He has come a long way from the boy who was put on a train bound for Siberia and oblivion by the NKVD, Stalin's secret police. Shanin spent his wartime exile first in Siberia's remote Altai region and later in the ancient Uzbek city of Samarkand, where to stave off starvation, he worked as a "runner" in a gang selling stolen bread. The experiences toughened him up for later battles. These he fought on the front lines as a volunteer in Palestine in 1947 and 1948, and with bureaucracy as an Israeli social work chief and a pioneering British sociologist.

Shanin, the only son of a successful Jewish patrician textile trader and industrialist in pre-war Vilna, enjoyed an early life of privilege. All this changed after the arrival of the Soviets in 1939 - first with the installation of a pliant Socialist Lithuanian government as part of the Russian-German non-aggression pact to carve up Poland, then with full occupation in 1940. In June 1941, the arrest of Shanin's father, a former Social Revolutionary student in St Petersburg during the Russian February revolution of 1917, as a member of the "bourgeoisie", spelled the end of innocence.

"My father was sent to a camp, and my mother and I went into exile in Siberia," Shanin says. "The war began a week later. Arrest by the Russians saved our lives - a few weeks later the Germans were in Vilna."

One of the NKVD officers, knowing that Teodor's four-year-old sister would never survive the long journey by cattle car to Siberia, said he would "look the other way" if relatives could be found to care for her. Today, the remains of Shanin's sister, his grandfather and more than 80,000 other Jews, gypsies and other Nazi victims lie in the pits where they were shot in woods outside Vilnius. Shanin's mother never got over the loss of her little girl. Shanin, too, is still distressed by the image, related by witnesses they found on their return to Vilnius in 1946, of the "little blonde blue-eyed angel of a girl" being led away to her death by SS soldiers.

"My mother did not believe she was dead. By the standards of the Nazis, we did not look Jewish. The family is blue-eyed. My mother thought she had been left with a Catholic family. We searched for three weeks, but all we found were people who had seen them being led to their deaths."

Such experiences created an abiding hatred for Germans and a fierce and radical Zionism that made the 16-year-old Shanin a leader of Jewish youth in the Polish city of Lodz. After finishing his interrupted schooling, Shanin, his mother and his father - who survived the Soviet camps despite suffering from scurvy - moved to Paris. There on November 29 1947, at a meeting held to debate the United Nation's resolution on the creation of Jewish and Palestine states, Shanin declared: "The war begins today. No state is created by the decision of a committee, and everybody who is capable of carrying arms must move to Palestine. Those who are not must provide weapons."

Through a series of Zionist movement safe houses, Shanin made his way via Marseilles to Palestine where, lying about his age (he was just 17), he joined the Israeli forces in the war of independence. The absurdity of fighting Arabs to establish a Jewish state did not escape Shanin at the time. "I remember turning to one of my fellow commandos and remarking that here I was killing Arabs because I hated Germans," he recalls.

With victory won and the state of Israel established, Shanin took up a veteran's university scholarship in social work. He saw the chance to make a real difference in a country populated by people physically and mentally scarred by a multitude of 20th-century sins: war, imprisonment, displacement, torture and hunger. He went on to take a BA in sociology and economics and eventually became the head of a rehabilitation unit, which to this day he considers the "peak of social work", whose aim is to "set people free of the need of social workers".

After ten years, he went to England to study British rehabilitation work - "exceptionally good then and now" - before returning to Israel to lead a "splendid new rehabilitation unit" situated, bizarrely, in a hospital for the chronically ill. Shanin fought a long and fruitless campaign to get it moved, achieving only a reputation as a troublesome leftie. Finding himself "virtually unemployable" after he resigned, he wrote to friends in Birmingham who had urged him to apply for scholarships in Britain. One was still available, so in 1963 Shanin arrived at Birmingham's Centre for Russian and Eastern European Studies (Crees) to study for his PhD on the Russian peasantry during the revolution. It was an undeveloped field, he says, because although "peasants made up 87 per cent of the population in 1917, they were rarely found anywhere but in the footnotes of history books". He moved to Sheffield University in 1965 to establish a pioneering course on the sociology of the third world, where he developed his early intuitive notion of Russia as a third-world country into a trademark theory.

After being called up but missing service in the Arab-Israeli "six-day" war of 1967 because of its brevity, he returned to teach at Haifa University. Within three years he became disenchanted with Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and went back to England. After a year's fellowship at St Anthony's College, Oxford, Shanin moved to Manchester in 1974 to take up a professorship in sociology, where he stayed for 25 years, enjoying the freedom bestowed by "an extremely liberal" and supportive university.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika reforms in the late 1980s allowed Shanin to return to Russia for the first time in 40 years. They also allowed him access to archives to research books including Russia 1905-07: Revolution as a Moment of Truth and Russia as a 'Developing Society' . "Perestroika gave me the feeling that, for a Russian speaker, I had not so much a privilege but a duty to do something to help," he says.

Work in Britain retraining young Russian sociologists led to a George Soros-backed programme to help transform the study of the humanities in Russia and then, in 1993, to Shanin's suggestion of an integrated British-Russian postgraduate school to help accelerate educational reform by blending the best of the West with the skills of Russia's brightest young scholars.

Education ministers quickly agreed to the idea, the British Council and the Soros Foundation put up 90 per cent of the budget, and all seemed straightforward. But Russian bureaucracy was too big a barrier: the Russian side failed to come up with the promised site, the flats for staff or its share of the budget. The British Council called off negotiations and it looked as if the idea was dead.

Later, Abel Agabegyan, head of the Russian Academy of National Economy, stepped in with the offer of space at his institute on the outskirts of Moscow, and with backing from Soros, but not now the British Council, the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences opened its doors to its first postgraduate students in 1995.

Shanin was persuaded to lead the institution by friends who insisted that without his vision, the school would be "eaten up" by competing interests within a few years.

The school, which has faculties of sociology, politics, law, cultural management, social work, business studies and, from September, educational management, offers masters courses leading to twin certificates validated by Manchester University (for business studies, Kingston University) and the MSSES itself under Russian accreditation.

More than 200 students pursue full-time postgraduate courses each year, paying between £1,500 and £3,000 in fees. But as part of the institution's mission to help all of Russia, more than 70 per cent of students come from the provinces and get full scholarships in recognition of the disparities in wealth between the capital and the regions.

"Russian education is still in transition from the dominance of the system of learning by rote to that of learning how to think," Shanin says. "The key aim of the institution is to improve the ability of students to think independently and analytically."

He says that despite extensive changes in the past ten years, Russia remains handicapped by its unreformed bureaucracies and the slow pace of political change. Yet Shanin is optimistic about the country's future. And its fascination for him endures. Last year, when he returned for the first time in nearly 60 years to the Siberian village where he had been exiled, he found it virtually unchanged, still with a population of just 400.

"There was one old woman there who remembered me," Shanin says. "Well, she didn't remember me exactly. But she had never forgotten that in this bunch of Poles who arrived there was a small boy wearing shorts. Nobody wore shorts in Siberia then - not even in mid-summer, when we arrived. The shock of seeing a boy in shorts had never left the locals in 60 years. That boy was me."

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