Friends, family, current and former students, and colleagues gathered in Tisch Hall on October 7-8 to celebrate the career and work of Ronald Grigor Suny, the William H. Sewell Jr. Distinguished University Professor of History.
Officially entitled “Nationalism, Revolution, and Genocide” but referred to by those in the know simply as “RonFest,” the two-day conference brought together scholars from the Netherlands, Taiwan, Finland, England, and Russia in celebration of Ron’s prodigious contributions to the fields of Soviet and post-Soviet studies. The event was made possible through the collective efforts of Professor Valerie Kivelson, former graduate student Krista Goff, now an assistant professor at the University of Miami, and Professor Lewis Siegelbaum of Michigan State University.
The festivities opened with a touching keynote from longtime friend and collaborator Geoff Eley, who spoke passionately about his nearly four-decade relationship with the man he called a “fellow profaner of pomposity and pretensions.” From their first meeting in a Ypsilanti Chinese restaurant, to the formation of the Marxist Studies reading group (“still going strong”), to late night discussions about politics, parenting, and “right everything” in between, Professor Eley’s remarks set the tone for an event intertwining deeply personal reminiscences with spirited scholarly exchange.
The conference’s five panels were inspired by major themes in Ron’s work: Marxism, identity, Soviet nationhood, empire, and genocide. Panelists presented on an array of topics and temporalities, from wine-making and science in late-Tsarist Russia, to empire and environment in Siberia, to narrating genocide in contemporary Turkish novels. RonFest’s diversity mirrored that of its namesake’s academic output, a fact highlighted by the University of Wisconsin’s Yoshiko Herrera, who demonstrated Ron’s extraordinary impact across time and discipline with a visual display of works and fields citing his writings.
Panelists also shared stories of Ron’s mentorship, patronage, and bonhomie. One common thread was his generosity and service to those outside his direct sphere of responsibility. Douglas Northrop, now a colleague here at Michigan, recounted how as an undergraduate he wrote to several eminent scholars for advice on researching Central Asia. Of all those, only one—Ron—responded.
The final panel featured a special confluence of the personal and professional. Anoush Suny, Ron’s daughter and a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at UCLA, presented on memory and materiality in Van, a center of Armenian cultural life prior to the 1915 genocide. Displaying both her father’s mastery of multiple languages and knack for making complex concepts intelligible, Anoush left no doubt that the Suny intellectual legacy continues in capable hands.
Of course, no celebration would be complete without a word from the man himself. Always quick with an apt-if-apocryphal Lenin-ism (“Seize every podium”), Ron took the stage to thank everyone and reflect on his career and the future of the historian’s profession. Calling Michigan “really special” and the “place I became a historian,” Ron concluded with a charge to his students: “What we do is fun. We are critical intellectuals. We have a special place in society, an important place. … We are people who can think deeply and be critical, even of our own nationality perhaps. And you’ll pay a price for that, but you will never, never, never be bored.”