Samuel N. Harper

Samuel Northrup Harper A Reluctant Sovietologist

William Rainey Harper, first president of the University of Chicago, travelled to Russia in 1900 with Chicago business heir Charles Crane. This trip, which included meetings with Lev Tolstoy and Nicholas II, made a deep impression on Harper, who began collaborating with Crane to build up Russian studies back home. Crane funded a series of lectures in Russian Studies at the University, which over the next several years brought such eminent figures as Thomas Masaryk, Maxim Kovalevsky, and Pavel Miliukov as visiting scholars. The lectures of Miliukov, the exiled leader of the Constitutional Democratic party, were published in 1905 and expressed his hope for a liberal Russia—which seemed imminent in 1917, when he became Foreign Minister in the Provisional Government.

William Harper’s new interest also had a profound effect on his son Samuel, who set out to become the first American specialist on Russia. He was one of five students in the University of Chicago’s first Russian language course in 1902, taught without much skill by another student. Harper then studied with Paul Jean Marie Boyer, a known specialist in Russian language training at the School of Oriental Languages in Paris, and was soon asked to prepare an English edition of Boyer’s Russian Reader with explanatory grammatical notes. Based on Tolstoy’s readers for peasant children, this was the first American textbook of the Russian language.

During his second year in Paris, Harper roomed with twenty voluntary exiles from Russia—revolutionaries who had set up a food commune. Though he eventually lost their confidence, he would continue to follow the revolutionary movement at close hand. In Vasily Klyuchevsky’s course on Russian history at Moscow University in November 1904, he saw notes circulating about student protests, and soon classes were suspended until the following September. In January 1905 he was in Petersburg, where his hotel window, as he writes his father, gave him a clear view of the events of Bloody Sunday. Attending a tea at the American Embassy later that day, he reported on the events, perhaps the beginning of his career as a government advisor. In April 1906 he attended the first sessions of the Duma, an elected body that Nicholas hoped would satisfy demands for democracy.

In the years following, Harper fulfilled the commission of Charles Crane, teaching six months at the University of Chicago, and spending the next six in Russia. His archive includes a voluminous record of his travels and research, often in collaboration with Bernard Pares. Their copious interviews were recorded via an inventive method: one asked questions, while the other commited the conversation to memory.

In 1917 Samuel Harper found himself in a familiar role: “During these critical July Days Huntington and I, as the two people at the Embassy knowing Russian, were often sent out to see what was happening in the streets.” Close observation, however, did not guarantee a correct diagnosis; in April, 1917 he wrote the French Ambassador, “You will recall that I refused to be worried with regard to the radical minority, advocating extreme measures. Also, I knew that the socialists, who were clearly under German influence, would be discredited immediately on their arrival in Russia. I am very glad they let Lenin proceed to Petrograd.” At a 1917 gathering in Mandel Hall, he reminded the audience of the university’s connection to Miliukov, the “political genius of democratic Russia” who was going to “assure the success of the new order.” This was what many people wanted to hear, and his prognostication was in high demand—both in the newspapers, and in the highest channels of the State Department.

Harper was given another opportunity to discredit the Bolsheviks in 1918, when Edward Sisson returned from Petrograd with a set of documents suggesting that Lenin, Trotsky and other party leaders had been in the pay of the German government. The Committee on Public Information printed the documents, with an appendix by Harper and L. Franklin Jameson suggesting their likely authenticity. Doubt as to this conclusion continues to this day, however, and Harper later recalled this episode with dismay, regretting that he had bowed to political pressure. 

Despite his misgivings, Harper began working for the newly formed Russian Bureau, and was the leading State Department specialist on the Soviet Union from 1919-1921. In this capacity he received numerous documents of historical interest, such as a tally of votes for election to the Central Committee from the 8th Party Congress in 1919. However, his political allegiances made Harper a persona non grata in Soviet Russia for a number of years. Finally acquiring a visa in 1926, he visited Moscow and adopted a more sympathetic view of the USSR in his 1929 Civic Training in Russia, which was well-received by the Soviets. His 1931 Making Bolsheviks showed him back in familiar territory: it was comprised of six lectures given at the University, based on an extended visit to the Soviet Union in 1930. Harper later wrote that watching his father create new traditions at the University of Chicago helped him understand what the Bolsheviks faced in the years after the Revolution.