Benjamin Nathans

Benjamin  Nathans

Alan Charles Kors Endowed Term Associate Professor of History

Imperial Russian and Soviet; modern Jewish; history of human rights


College Hall 206C

Benjamin Nathans teaches and writes about Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, modern European Jewish history, and the history of human rights. He edited A Research Guide to Materials on the History of Russian Jewry (19th and Early 20th Centuries) in Selected Archives of the Former Soviet Union [in Russian] (Moscow, 1994) and is author of Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter With Late Imperial Russia (Berkeley, 2002), which won the Koret Prize in Jewish History, the Vucinich Prize in Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies, the Lincoln Prize in Russian History and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in History. Beyond the Pale has been translated into Russian (2007) and Hebrew (2013). Nathans has published articles on Habermas and the public sphere in eighteenth-century France, Russian-Jewish historiography, Soviet dissident memoirs, and many other topics. He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement and an occasional commentator on current Russian affairs. From 2008 to 2012 he worked as a consultant for Ralph Appelbaum Associates, a leading museum design firm, chairing an international committee of scholars that helped design the content for the Museum of Jewish History in Moscow, which opened in November 2012.

Nathans' forthcoming book (August 2024),To the Success of Our Hopeless Cause: The Many Lives of the Soviet Dissident Movement, tells the story of dissent in the USSR from Stalin's death to the collapse of communism.  It explores the idea and practice of rights and the rule of law in the setting of “mature socialism.”  Rather than treat Soviet dissidents as avatars of Western liberalism, or take their invocation of rights and legal norms as natural, To the Success of Our Hopeless Cause investigates how, as products themselves of the Soviet order, dissidents arrived at a conception of law and human personality so at odds with official norms. Understanding this process - how orthodoxies contain the seeds of their own heresies, and how dissidents promoted the containment of Soviet power from within - promises to illuminate the broader problem of how citizens of authoritarian societies conceive and act on options for political engagement.

Along with Prof. Gabriella Safran (Stanford University), Nathans co-edited Culture Front: Representing Jews in Eastern Europe (Penn Press, 2008), based on the 2002-03 seminar at Penn's Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, "Jewish History and Culture in Eastern Europe, 1600-2000," of which he was a co-organizer.  He is co-editor, with Prof. Kenneth Moss (University of Chicago) and Prof. Taro Tsurumi (Tokyo University) of From Europe's East to the Middle East: Israel's Russian and Polish Lineages (Penn Press, 2021).  He is currently editing and annotating the first English translation of the 3-volume autobiography of Russian-Jewish historian Simon Dubnov, The Book of Life: Memoirs and Reflections.

Nathans has held visiting professorships at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris and at University College London.  At Penn, he is a member of the Jewish Studies Program, the Russian and East European Studies Program, the Graduate Group in Comparative Literature, and the Graduate Group in Francophone, Italian, and Germanic Studies.  He works with graduate students interested in the history of the Soviet Union, Imperial Russia, modern East European Jewry, and historical theory and method. Applicants who have questions about the graduate program in any of these sub-fields are encouraged to contact Prof. Nathans via email (see above) before the December application deadline.  Interviews with finalists are usually conducted in January and February.  If you are having any difficulty with the the Penn PhD application portal due to a military conflict or natural disaster, or because of your citizenship or country of origin, please let Prof. Nathans know as soon as possible.

Selected Recent Articles, Essays, and Datasets

“Bureaucrat’s Honor,” New York Review of Books vol. 69, no. 7 (April 21, 2022):10-12

“Victor Yefimovich Kelner, 1945–2021,” Jewish Quarterly Review Vol. 112, No. 2 (Spring

“The Many Shades of Soviet Dissidence,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History
       vol. 23, no. 1 (Winter 2022):185–196

"Stalin's Lawyers at Nuremberg," New York Review of Books vol. 68, no. 14 (September 23, 2021):38-41

“Time to Try the Impossible: Fighting Words in the USSR and Putin’s Russia," Times Literary Supplement no. 6149 (Feb. 5, 2021):22

“Profiles in Decency,” New York Review of Books vol. 67, no. 7 (April 23, 2020):50-52

“Rewriting Human Rights,” New York Review of Books vol. 66, no. 19 (Dec. 5, 2019):44-48

"Helsinki Syndrome: Human Rights and International Diplomacy," Times Literary Supplement no. 6038/9 (Dec. 21 & 28, 2018), The Human Rights Issue:6-7

“To Hell and Back,” New York Review of Books vol. 65, no. 198 (Dec. 8, 2018):34-36

“Bolshevism’s New Believers,” New York Review of Books vol. 64, no. 18 (November 23, 2017):18-21

“Russia: The Joyful New Activism,” New York Review of Books vol. 64, no. 13 (August 17, 2017): 51-54

“The Real Power of Putin,” New York Review of Books vol. 63, no. 14 (Sept. 29, 2016): 88-92

“Talking Fish: On Soviet Dissident Memoirs,” Journal of Modern History 87 (September 2015):579-614

"Database of Published Memoirs by Soviet Dissidents"




Suggested Readings

Careers for History Majors

How to Write Well

How to Edit Your Own Writing

How to Write a Book Review (PDF)

What to Expect at an Oral Qualifying Exam (PDF)

Why Oral Exams?

Suggested Readings for PhD Qualifying Exam in Soviet History (PDF)

Suggested Readings for PhD Qualifying Exam in Imperial Russia (PDF)

Office Hours
Wednesdays 12:30 – 1:30pm and by appointment
Online Office Hours

By appointment


B.A.  Yale University

M.A. and Ph.D.   University of California at Berkeley

Non-degree study at the University of Tübingen (Germany), Leningrad State University (USSR), the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel), and NYU Law School

Courses Taught


  • INTEGRATED STUDIES: Orthodoxies and Disruptions
  • HIST 0240 The Rise and Fall of the Russian Empire, 1552 - 1917
  • HIST 0250 The Ascent of Europe
  • HIST 0290 The Soviet Century
  • HIST1362 The Making of Modern Israel and Palestine
  • HIST1735 The Cold War: A Global History
  • HIST 102 The Literature of Dissent from Socrates to Sakharov
  • HIST 141 History of Jewish Civilization: 17th Century to the Present
  • HIST 413 The USSR after Stalin: Individuals and Collectives
  • HIST 414 Human Rights and History
  • HIST 4997 Junior Honors Seminar
  • HIST 4998 Senior Honors Seminar
  • HIST 6200 Topics in Soviet History
  • HIST 6200 Topics in Modern Jewish History
  • HIST 7000 Introduction to the Graduate Study of History
  • HIST 7200 Research Seminar: Europe, 1945 - 1991
CV (file)