In memoriam: Arfon Rees

Written by Jacqueline Gordon on . Posted in Community news, In memoriam

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of a former faculty member of the EUI community,  Professor of History Arfon Rees, on 27 November 2019, at the age of 70.

An historian of the Soviet state, Dr. Rees was a full-time professor in the Department of History and Civilization from 1999 until 2008. He served as Head of Department for the 2005/2006 academic year. Following his professorship at the EUI, he returned to the University of Birmingham, where he had begun his career in 1986, and from which he retired in 2018.

Professor Rees supervised many EUI doctoral researchers working on twentieth century Soviet and East-European topics. One of his former students, Dr. Balázs Apor, now of Trinity College Dublin, writes: ‘Arfon was a great lecturer and a fantastic mentor; he was very knowledgeable, incredibly sharp, witty, masterfully sarcastic, helpful and compassionate’.

Professor Stephen A. Smith, also a former professor in the EUI’s History Department, remembers his friend and colleague, writing:

‘He was a fine and prolific historian of the Soviet Union and of comparative Communism, the author of half a dozen books and the (co-)editor of a dozen more. His principal publications were: a history of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate, 1920-1934, a key institution in the early Soviet government; a major biography of Stalin’s henchman, Lazar Kaganovich;  and a history of political thought from Machiavelli to Stalin.  In addition, as a proud Welshman, he had a second string to bow as a historian of medieval Wales, authoring a marvellous book on Welsh outlaws, 1400-1603, and translating medieval Welsh poetry. […]

His years in Florence were exceptionally happy ones. His Russian wife, Tatiana, a very fine musician, and their children Maria and Victor, now in their twenties, loved Italian life and, as a family, they explored many corners of the country, with Arfon, an aficionado of flea markets, ever on the lookout for interesting purchases.

When I arrived as a professor at the EUI in 2008 he was exceptionally supportive, giving me valuable advice on matters both academic and practical.  Our careers, to some extent, had intertwined. We met around 1975 as graduate students at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies at Birmingham University, both drawn to work there with Moshe Lewin, the doyen of Soviet social history. We shared the desire – common in the 1970s – to go beyond Cold War approaches to Soviet history and to ground political history in the history of society. We each spent a year in the Soviet Union on the British Council exchange, albeit in different years. 

However, I have a distinct memory of Arfon  – probably on a second, shorter visit to Moscow State University in 1976 – filing a report to a Welsh radio station about life in the Soviet Union.  To a generation used to email and Facebook, it’s hard to imagine just how difficult it was to make contact with the outer world. Letters would take a couple of months to arrive –  having been ham-fistedly opened and resealed – and in order to make an international telephone call, one had to book it about two weeks in advance. Presumably, Arfon had done this in order to file his radio report and, no doubt, the public security officials were primed to listen to what he had to say to the people of Wales. To their great chagrin however, the call was in Welsh and understood not a word, asking him if he would speak in English in future.’

The Institute expresses its sincerest condolences to Professor Rees’ family.

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