Sergei P. Sorokin, “Life With Pitirim Sorokin: A Younger Son’s Perspective”
I was born in Boston, Massachusetts, during a snowstorm in April, 1933. When I opened my eyes and saw my father for the first time. He was 44 years old, well beyond exciting years and terrifying moments in Russia and the Soviet Union, nearly a decade after first settling in the United States, and about two-and-a-half years after becoming founder and Chairman of the Department of Sociology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He died just after his 79th birthday at our home in the suburb of Winchester. Thus my impressions are of him during the second half of his life.
I should state at once that what follows does not pretend to be a comprehensive account of my father’s life, nor an overall assessment of his achievements. The biographical details given here are limited to topics I know best, either from my own observation, from hearing about them from my parents, or from documents in family or university archives. They may help to fill gaps in his two main autobiographical works. Leaves from a Russian Diary and A Long Journey, my mother’s essay, “My Life with Pitirim Sorokin,” and Barry Johnston’s more recently published, Pitirim A. Sorokin, An Intellectual Biography, which concentrates on father’s professional career in the United States. The facts that, some thirty years after his death, English editions of several of his books are still in print, many of his American works have been translated into Russian, and agreements for publication in other languages continue to be drawn, are in themselves strong evidence of their lasting worth. I was less certain why father has been so long remembered in the northern regions of Russia until after I visited the Komi Republic in February, 1999. I now see more clearly that this is not just for being a promising native son who achieved worldwide recognition, but equally for his being involved in some of the earliest ethnographic studies on the Komi people, for trying to represent them in the chaos of early days of the Revolution, and for being mindful of his heritage in later years of exile far from his homeland.
What was it life, living with such a man as Ptirim Alexandrovitch? When I first knew him he already was a renowned scholar; and if this was always understood by the family, it did not mean he took on special airs during everyday life at home. Compared to my mother Elena Petrovna, father was a rather strict parent, and because he projected a formidable personality our neighborhood playmates were careful not to cross him. After all, he had survived the Russian Revolution in spite of his prominence as a rising figure on the losing side.
Consequences of Exile
At the time my brother Peter and I were born there was no prospect of our family’s ever returning to Russia, and so our parents continued to focus on adapting themselves to life in the United States. In particular both were determined to raise their children as “typical Americans.” How well they succeeded I am not sure, but we received our primary and secondary school educations in the Winchester public schools and learned to “fight our own battles” there. The rudiments of Russian picked up as we were learning to talk were allowed to fade away after our teachers told the parents that their sons spoke with Russian accents. And although we studied Russian from textbooks in later childhood, it was a secondary language in our corner of the world. In consequence, many years later my story has to be translated into Russian!
Adapting to Life in the United States
How well did Pitirim and Elena adapt to America? The country my parents came to in the 1920s of course was different from what it is today. Values of rural rather than urban life were more prevalent, sexual mores were more restrained, violence more rarely intruded into daily life, and fewer people locked their doors at night. It may have been a good thing for my father’s acclimatization that the first position he held in America was in the northern Midwest and not on the more urban East Coast or in Yankee New England. In an appreciation of Pitirim, his long-time colleague and friend Carle C. Zimmerman considered this a fortunate accident of history. In Minnesota frontier days were not long past, the social structure included relatively few “old families”, and a fifty year-old building was certainly an “antique.” Furthermore, because many heavy Scandinavian accents were still audible in the populace, someone with imperfect English did not stand out as much as in older-established communities.
After lecturing on social morphology and the sociology of revolution during the 1924 Minnesota summer session. Pitirim received a one year, half-time appointment as full Professor. This allowed him plenty of time for writing: he threw himself into his work and during the third year was given tenure. Mother received her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1925, pursued research in plant genetics and pathology, and later served as Assistant Professor in St. Paul’s Hamline University, teaching botany and plant cytology. The published biographical accounts as well as family stories and photograph albums indicate that apart from the Minnesota years being a productive period in the creative lives and professional careers of both parents, they were also enriched by many outings with friends, social gatherings, concerts, picnics, and fishing or camping trips, including two extended ones to the Rocky Mountains where father climbed to the summit of Colorado’s Mount Elbert in August, 1929.
The pattern of life gradually changed after Pitirim took up his position at Harvard in 1930. At first my parents rented an apartment in Cambridge within easy walking distance from the University, but by March, 1932, they had moved into a large suburban house in Winchester. It had the advantages of being very well built and being located just at the edge of a large reservation of upland woods. This century-old house has character, perhaps because designed by an architect for his own family, but it has been in our hands for almost 70 years and to this day retains an aura of Elena and Pitirim.
Having moved to New England, father no longer climbed mountains like the Rockies, nor played handball with graduate students at Harvard as he did in Minnesota. In the first years, however, he went hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with some of the younger members of the Sociology Department, and as soon as the children could manage, the family ascended the easily accessible Mount Monadnock (965 m) in Jaffrey. In Winchester we often took long walks on Sunday afternoons, for which the adjoining woods offered inviting trails. At times one or two of our neighborhood chums would go with us, accompanied in our earliest years by Jerry, an old German shepherd dog that hung about our street for the companionship of the children.
Most Serious Writing Done at Home
During the years prior to the Second World War, father was preoccupied with preparing his magnum opus, Social and Cultural Dynamics, as well as launching and directing the Department of Sociology. Because he wrote these volume mostly at home, Peter and I hovered about the fringes of their creation, but we were taught at an early age not to disturb him while he was working. In a similar way we were present while later books were being written, and as we grew older, father sometimes tried out certain passages on mother and the boys as standings for presumably intelligent laypersons. Barry Johnston’s biography of Pitirim  has documented the extent of academic maneuvering and political battles that occurred at Harvard in relation to Sociology and other social science departments before and after the war, but despite the trouble and worn these events undoubtedly brought on, we heard remarkably little about them. It was as if home was haven for father’s creativity and the family, from which problems at Harvard largely were excluded, and it seems he kept it that way for a long time. Peter and I were of an age with the children of our next-door neighbors, the Carle Zimmerman, and we spent much time playing with them in their house and yard. Since Zim was unhappy at Harvard and very plain-spoken about it to his family, we picked up echoes of discontent there more frequently than in our own home. Whatever we learned about this, it seemed unimportant at the time, for the ideal being held up to us was to train our minds for some kind of creative activity “of real importance” whether it be in the sciences, humanities, or arts. On balance, therefore, our childhood was upbeat.
Typical work day
I still marvel how Pitirim could accomplish so much and still have time for the family and other social activities. He organized his time well and had the ability to compartmentalize various aspects of his life; and if his schedule largely regulated our domestic timetable, it was not made without considering our legitimate interests or needs. During the school term he usually left to lecture at Harvard well before eight in the morning, and when there were no afternoon seminars or department meetings, generally returned in time for our midday dinner, which until just before high school years was our main meal. This was possible because Winchester primary schools recessed long enough at noon for Peter and me to walk home, eat, and return in time for the afternoon sessions. After a short nap father would shut himself in his study for two hours or so and then go out to work in the yard. We usually had an early supper around 5 p.m. Father then read the newspaper and listened to the news: and thereafter the family often heard one or two other radio broadcasts or something from our growing collection of 78 rpm records of classical music. As the Victrola invoked dawn breaking over Moscow River, father paced the room while sharpening the cactus needle needed to play the next side. The radio broadcasts could be news commentaries (which often were found shallow), concerts of the Boston Symphony or NBC orchestras, and mystery stories or dramas. Our little circle looked forward to programs by the various comedians of the 1930s and 40s (Fred Allen, “Amos n’ Andy,” Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, or “The Great Gildersleeve”) even if the wit sometimes escaped us. When he was working most intensely, father would then return to his study for another two or three hours before going to bed. Indeed my first memories of him at work are in his study on winter nights when we were allowed to come in and sit by the fire provided we were quiet. When our bedtime arrived, he sometimes came up to tell us of the latest adventures of “Ivan and Kisel” characters he invented to entertain us.
Pitirim was a light sleeper and frequently lay awake meditating about his work, so that when we got up in the morning it was not unusual to discover he had been up writing for some time, or that he had before a short walk in the woods to think matters over, and incidentally could report that the ice in the pond above our house was now thick enough to skate on. Habitually he composed directly on the typewriter, and although he used an untrained typist’s two-finger method, this did not materially slow his output. After coming to the United States, father wrote virtually all his manuscripts in English. These drafts would be given to the departmental secretary or professional typist to produce a clean copy. For his most important works, the revised drafts were gone over by a colleague or a copy editor to correct or improve his English. In later years short manuscripts were sometimes edited by someone in the family.
Sacrifices in Elena’s Career
With the move to Harvard, mother gave up teaching and the promise of a regular academic career. She had been prevented from obtaining a position at the University of Minnesota despite strong advocacy by botanical colleagues on the faculty’ because of “anti-nepotism” regulations in place at the time, and similar rules were also in effect at Harvard. This was difficult for mother to accept because her education in progressive schools, and attitudes in the circle of St Petersburg intelligentsia to which Pitirim and Elena belonged, were far more liberal with regard to women’s rights in the professions than those existing in the United States prior to the 1960s. Nevertheless, she found an opportunity to continue research without pay in the laboratory of an eminent Harvard botanist, Professor Irving W. Bailey. Once the children were born, however, she cut these efforts back sharply. Fortunately, she was able to pursue some work at home because her métier was the cytochemical study of living cells, and these could be obtained from plants in the garden. For this she needed only a top-notch light microscope and certain reagents, which Dr. Bailey provided. The Second World War brought this research to a standstill, and it wasn’t until Peter and I had graduated from college in the early 1950s that she resumed her studies and had another fruitful ten years, still working mainly at home but provided with an appointment at the Radcliffe Institute and a collaborative arrangement with the plant physiology research group at Harvard. She also wrote a few papers with me.
Social Life at Harvard
At Harvard social life was more complex than in Minnesota. As a department chairman, father was expected to attend and return various cocktail and dinner parries given by faculty members as well as to entertain visiting professors and scholars. Although the demands of his position now left him much less time to get to know students than in Minnesota, one or two “open houses” were held each year in Winchester to which they were invited. On these occasions Peter and I usually put in brief, shy appearances at the foot of the stairs, to be smiled at or patted on the head by the guests and then sent to bed. Occasionally we stayed up longer and were pleased if any of the students befriended us. I particularly remember an undergraduate named Philip who fed us tasty slivers he pared from an Edam cheese being served to the company. For some time thereafter we continued to ask if Philip the Cheese were coming to the next party. A few years later we were dazzled by the arrival of a glamorous graduate student named Liliana who casting aside her platinum mink coat at the door, presented mother with a large bouquet of pink roses, and we looked forward to more grand entrances in the future.
Concerning his undergraduate years before the war. Frank Davidson, Class of 1939, wrote:
Of course there were tighter moments. I recall the winter evening when the Leverett House Glee Club, under the baton of George Phillips, embarked on an expedition to Winchester aboard two horse-drawn sleighs, to surprise and serenade Professor Pitirim Sorokin. This “recycled’ former secretary of Kerensky opened the window and exhibited his tasseled nightcap with a burst of apparent anger. But quickly he announced “Everybody come in! Caviar and wine!”.
Twenty years earlier, an unexpected night visit could have signified arrest, but father was delighted by this one, as we learned the next day. I am not sure about the tasseled nightcap and the caviar, but father certainly kept a good wine cellar and was generous about sharing its bounty.
In pre-war years the evening dinner parties were black-tie affairs, but Peter and I were too young to be included. After our ceremonial appearance was over and the guests had sat down at the table, we sometimes managed to slip into the living room to eat up any leftover zakuski and wash them down with the little crescents of sherry remaining in glasses left behind. We had a live-in servant until the early 1940s, but for grand occasions mother usually made the special dishes and closely supervised preparation of the rest, since good cooking came naturally to her. For the largest events additional help came in for the day.
Some of these social functions were intended primarily as vehicles for informed discussion but were held in pleasant home surroundings. For example, shortly after my parents came to Harvard they were invited to join the Now and Then Club. This was a mixed group of Harvard faculty from various departments and a few “Proper Bostonians” who had intellectual interests. The vitality of clubs like this depends on the presence of a goodly number of “interesting” members, and for this Pitirim was eminently qualified, being unusually well-informed about current events and many topics outside his own field. In conversation, besides, he was able to convey complex ideas in simpler terms that everyone could understand.
Not everybody enjoys a gathering where a single person dominates the discussion. In Crossing to Safety Wallace Stegner, well-known American novelist, had his hero Larry Morgan recall a dinner party in Cambridge where father was expostulating upon social mobility. “Larry” held an “imaginary debate” with Pitirim, silently taking issue with the appropriateness of describing upward mobility as “vertical peristalsis in society”. Stegner was an instructor in English at Harvard from 1939 to 1945. Since the novel wasn’t written for another half-century, it testifies plainly to the provocative and memorable qualities of Pitirim’s conversation.
Thus Pitirim and Elena became assimilated to life in the United States. By 1940 Pitirim had been recognized as an outstanding international figure in sociology, evidenced by the many diplomas of election as fellow of one academy, or corresponding member of another, that we still have tucked away at home. At the New York World’s Fair that year, the inscription of his name on the “Wall of Fame” bounding the American Common affirmed him as one of foreign birth who had made outstanding contributions to American culture. Years later, in the early 1960s, I heard father clearly express his attitude about being uprooted while talking to a formerly well-to-do Cuban couple who had lost everything when exiled by Fidel Castro’s revolution. He advised them not to look back too bitterly on what was past, nor to put much hope in the imminent fall of Castro and their return to Cuba, but to focus on what life yet could offer them in the United States, and to pursue it as best they could. That being said, my parents never turned their back on Russian culture. They always gave high priority to meeting and getting to know well educated, cultured Russians. The great historian Mikhail Ivanovitch Rostovtzeff and his wife Sophie Michaelovna were in Madison, Wisconsin, when my parents came to Minnesota, and their deep friendship began in the United States. Whenever Russian artists came to Minneapolis on a tour, my parents were likely to attend and did not hesitate to go backstage after the concert. This way they met the Orthodox church composer Nicholas Kedroff, his brother, and two others making up a male vocal quartet renowned in its day for exemplary performances of both sacred and secular works.
Similarly, it was after a Minneapolis concert by the Boston Symphony Orchestra that Pitirim and Elena first met Sergei Alexandrovitch Koussevitzky and began a friendship that was to last until the conductor’s death in June. 1951. As public figures the Koussevitzkys were required to attend many functions of Boston “society” which for them was no substitute for truly intellectual Russian friends. And so when my parents came east to settle in the Boston area, Natalia Konstantinovna welcomed them with the traditional offering of bread and salt. Through the Koussevitzkys in turn they later met many of the leading classical musicians of the time, including among Russians, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev, Feodor Chaliapin, Jascha Heifetz, and Gregor Piatigorsky. Peter and I were always excited to visit Papa and Mama Krestny. Most often this was for Sunday breakfast and around Christmas and Easter. They sometimes had a Christmas tree with real candles, which to the children was straight out of The Nutcracker. And at Easter there was paskha and kulich, as at home. For the Koussevitzkys these visits were brief respites from the musical world they inhabited and an opportunity to talk about many additional things that interested them. Conversations were for the most part in Russian, but Peter and I were made to feel warmly at home even if we said little. We were on our best behavior and from an early age appreciated the privilege of being close to such interesting and cultivated people and treated so kindly. Consequently memories of them have remained vivid all these many years. After 1941, when Natalia Konstantinovna died, the pattern of our visits continued much as before, but we also attended the panikhidas (memorial services) sung in her memory in company with Sergei and Olga Alexandrovna (Natalia’s niece whom Koussevitzky later married), as if members of the family, and my father and mother were with Sergei Alexandrovitch when he died.
There were few Russian émigrés living in Winchester when Peter and I were growing up, but our family was friendly with Alexander Samoiloff, an engineer, and his American wife Carlene who had studied at the Moscow Arts Theater. Although raised in a Celtic artistic tradition, with her flair and love for things Russian she appealed to our imagination as archetypic of the Russian artiste, more Russian than a real one! Of those on the Harvard faculty, we saw mainly Wassily Leontief, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, and his family in Winchester; and when their daughter Svetlana was born father stood as godfather. Mother’s cousin, Olga Nicholaevskaya, was our closest relative and the most frequent Russian guest at our home. As a social worker “Tetia Olia” specialized in helping immigrants become established in the United States. She made point of getting along with everyone and so kept in contact with many Russians in Greater Boston about whom we otherwise would not have heard. On the whole, children of Russian extraction and Russian names were rather curiosities to Winchesterites of those days, and no one had ever heard of the Komis.
Introducing us to a local woman, mother said, “This is Peter, and this is Sergei.” “Sir Gay!” she exclaimed. “Does that kid have a title?”
Father had seen the Second World War coming for many years and so was not surprised at its outbreak in Europe in September, 1939, and the entry of the United States in December, 1941. The oceans still protected the United States in those days, and since none of us were of an age for military service, the little hardships we suffered during the war were as nothing compared to the catastrophes facing people caught in the fighting. For father its main effect was as a watershed for his creative work. The terrible events of those years drove him ultimately to focus his knowledge and experience as an analyst of social and cultural forces towards understanding the real causes of human conflict and to formulate a blueprint for preventing future conflicts and wars. Through such books as Man and Society in Calamity, Russia and the United States, and The Reconstruction of Humanity he drew closer to the studies on altruism that were to engage his main attention in the decade after 1948.
Complementing these deep philosophical concerns of Pitirim, Elena made many practical contributions to the war effort. She received training as an air raid warden and studied first aid. After June, 1941, when the Soviet Union was invaded by the German army, uncoordinated private and group efforts to assist Russia began to come together into a national organization called Russian War Relief, later was a member of the Executive Committee of the Massachusetts branch from its inception and together with Mrs. Samoiloff helped to set up the Winchester committee during the first months of 1942. Nevertheless she preferred to be directly involved in efforts to help the Russian people. These included collecting clothing, knitting sweaters, mittens, and caps, and sewing outfits for infants. She used her imagination to devise novel ways to raise money for the cause, and she also found a way to increase the efficiency with which donated garments were sorted and mended at the central depot in Boston. It occurred to her that these tasks might be performed more smoothly by teams of volunteers who already knew each other, and she reminded the higher authorities that many such individuals could be recruited from among the local Russian church parishes. Up to that time no one had even thought to ask them for help!
Elena’s most significant personal contribution to Russian War Relief probably lay in the numerous talks she gave to social and religious organizations throughout eastern Massachusetts in 1942, 1943, and 1944. In the illustration [figure 21] she addresses an audience in Lowell, Massachusetts. Speaking on topics like “Russia,” “Russia Fights a Common Enemy,” and “Russians and Americans,” she not only raised money but also promoted understanding of the significance of the Soviet war effort and sympathy with the terrible hardships imposed on the people.
As for the children, this was one of the few periods in my life when I felt that everyone was working together for a common cause, and that was inspiriting. Together with our friends we participated in scrap metal and paper drives from time to time, pulling our little wagons behind us as we canvassed the neighborhood for donations. These were then taken to a central collection site or picked up by town trucks. In a gesture of solidarity, one friend’s family regularly arranged for British sailors on leave to stay with them, and so they sometimes played in our Sunday afternoon football scrimmages. Russian sailors stopped in Boston more rarely. Mother served as interpreter for one group, showing them around the city and then bringing them to Winchester for a banquet held in their honor. At home we grew vegetables, and mother preserved the surplus for use in the winter. Once in awhile Peter and I fussed over the food. Supper one evening was only leftover wheat cereal heated up in pork fat “Eat it,” father ordered. “In England King George would be glad to have it for his supper!”
The overlapping University and Winchester school calendars generally left a little over two months each summer for an extended vacation. With departmental duties and frequently a new book finished by the first week in June, father was ready for a complete change of scene and pace. Shortly after Peter and I were born, our parents began looking for a place in the country. It was to be simple, a foil to our regular suburban life. A few acres in a picturesque setting beside a lake and a solid roof over our heads, instead of the camping tent of Minnesota days, were what they had in mind. It also had to be within a day’s drive from Winchester, and the fishing had to be good. Accordingly, in successive years they rented cottages on various lakes in New Hampshire and Maine and ventured as far west as Lake George and Lake Champlain in New York and Vermont, reconnecting these areas.
Children often remember best little events affecting them at particular places. I recall that our cabin on Lake George was on rather sodden ground near Saratoga Springs and that rowboats provided for the clientele were sunk along the shore, half-full of water. The Koussevitzkys were staying nearby at a grand white resort hotel with rocking chairs on the wide veranda, and when they came down to meet us they had to be careful not to get their feet wet. The high point came that evening after Papa Krestny hired a motor launch to take us all for a ride and stepped aboard carrying a large bag of cherries. The lake was calm, the sunset beautiful, and there were all the cherries one could eat. What more could a little boy wish for?
The search for our dacha was put off during 1937, when father accepted an invitation to teach in the summer session at the University of California at Los Angeles as a way to finance a family trip to see the country. As he describes in A Long Journey, we traveled by train from Boston to Salt Lake City and westward from there by car, stopping at several National Parks on the way. Peter and I were thrilled to ride on the then state-of-the-art streamlined Burlington Zephyr, where everything seemed to be made of stainless steel, even the holders for eating com-on-the-cob. Shortly after we returned from California father sailed off alone to Paris to preside over the International Congress of Sociology.
A Canadian Retreat
The following summer we discovered Lake Memphremagog on the Vermont-Quebec border, at the northern limit of our range. A narrow glacial lake extending north-south for some 30 miles among hills and low mountains, it was an excursion point for American families summering in New Hampshire resort hotels during the late 19th century. En route by motorboat to inspect an island for sale, our pilot mentioned that his place on the western shore was also available, and finding that it met all our requirements, father soon concluded the bargain. It was for a simple farmhouse without interior walls or central heat on a fourteen-acre sloping strip of wooded land along the edge of the lake a mile beyond the Canadian border. Beautiful but plain. There was no electricity nor phone, but running water was available from a good spring above the house. The lake had all kinds of fish including landlocked salmon which survived hot summers by migrating to its deepest part where Mount Owl’s Head met the water. At the time very few other lakeside cottages existed for a mile in either direction, so that it was very peaceful and quiet there, and the woods were full of birds and small mammals.
Away from the lake the countryside is hilly with a sweeping view of the Sutton range which continues the line of Vermont’s Green Mountains into Canada. During the Depression and well into the war years’, few fulltime residents in the region were prosperous. It was also technologically underdeveloped, for except near town and along the main routes, electricity was not generally available, and the roads were unpaved. Although many farms were still being worked, few were on good land, and people were moving away. The overall aspect is rural even today, but many of the old farmhouses have been converted to vacation homes, and new ones have been built. The roads near us are improved but remain unpaved. The woods have grown back, and larger mammals like moose and bear are being seen once more. Peter and I still own the place, and it retains its original character, a time-capsule from the 19th century.
In the fall of 1938, father suffered a severe bout with pneumococcal pneumonia which he narrowly survived. Nonetheless, by the late spring of 1939 a very thin Pitirim had recovered sufficiently to take up the challenge of widening the clearing and landscaping about our new summer residence, while mother set the interior to rights. Thereafter we all turned to painting the exterior, with Tetia Olia arriving to help. Pitirim’s boyhood in northern Russia had given him the skills needed to maintain the new place, and this tangibly added to its attractions. Peter and I had our first lessons in house painting from a past master; and although we improved considerably in later years, father remained the most skillful among us and always took on the most difficult assignments himself.
Our new place proved so popular that until Pitirim’s last year we spent a good part of even-summer together there, six or more weeks while the children were growing up and whatever could be managed once we had entered our professions. Life was slower paced than in town, but since we provided wood for the kitchen stove and maintained the grounds ourselves, there was never a lack of things to do. In father’s time our days were fairly well structured. Most chores were done in the morning. Pitirim usually arose first, started the stove, squeezed the oranges, and percolated the coffee: and if mother had got up by then she usually took over, perhaps making cereal, pancakes, or French toast. After breakfast he might take the rowboat and his fishing lines out for an hour or so before returning to spend the rest of the morning working on the land, trying to extend the grassy clearing about the house and keep it from growing up to brush and trees-struggling-with the jungle, he called it. Meanwhile, mother might start some bread or a stew, if that was on the menu, and then together with the boys walk uphill to fetch milk from the neighboring farmer who lived a little more than a mile away. Along the way we picked up letters and the paper from our mail box, or if we were early, waited patiently for the sound of downshifting as the mailman descended a steep hill and his ancient Chevrolet jolted into sight. Since they carried little traffic the unpaved country roads made good walking trails. There always were interesting plants to find or berries to pick by the roadside. And once in awhile we packed a picnic lunch, and all climbed to the top of Owl’s Head.
Afternoons were freer. We all read a great deal: father’s reading was purposely low brow, mainly detective stories. As small children, Peter and I found plenty to interest us on the little gravel beach in front of the house, among the rocks further along the shore, or in the stream at our boundary where we found leeches and crawfish. After we learned to swim we were permitted to take the rowboat out on calm days. It was interesting just to lean out over the bow and watch fish suspended in the clear water beneath while the boat drifted along. As Peter grew older he took on much of the responsibility for supplying firewood, whereas I tried to raise a few vegetables, or scavenged under the veranda for scrap boards to make into tables and chairs. Mother sometimes worked at hooking rugs, and she taught us how to make jam from the different kinds of berries growing in the clearings. Frequently the whole family went fishing together, extending several lines from the boat in hopes of catching a good-sized pike or black bass for supper. After father had purchased an outboard motor, we often ventured further down the lake to the salmon fishing grounds beneath the mountain, where we trolled back and forth using a copper line and spinner or casting spoon in preference to still fishing.
During the war years one had to conserve gasoline, and it was not feasible to drive to town more than once a week for supplies. Fortunately, we had a local source of milk; and thanks to our increased efforts with rod and reel, as well as to the mailman who delivered essential items from the grocer, we managed tolerably well those summers eating lots of fish and dishes made with milk or curds, like vatrushki.
A pioneering boat trip to the southern end of the lake in 1945 provided uneasy moments when we met rough waters that threatened to capsize us as we were crossing a wide and windswept bay. Peter commemorated the adventure a few days later in a drawing. Not long afterwards the motor seized while we were coming back from fishing. It seems father didn’t really understand the critical importance of mixing sufficient oil with the fuel for two-cycle gasoline engines. The consequence was that the connecting rods snapped and tore open the crankcase. The damaged motor was given to Peter to repair if he could, and this proved very educational for him. These experiences convinced father mat for family trips we needed a more stable boat, and as it proved, a new motor as well. Both were obtained by 1950. Whereas the old boat and motor barely could keep up with the aging lake steamer Anlhemis, our new craft, now fueled by a scrupulously correct gas-oil mixture, could easily outrun it; and with that accomplished we quit the “horsepower race.”
I have lingered over my recollections of our Canadian retreat because it was there that, having no professional duties or schoolwork to distract us, we lived more closely together than at any other time of the year. I remember those summers as sunny, filled with wonder at life and secure in our love for each other. For Pitirim our place was a kind of substitute for the country of his boyhood and fondly remembered Komi relatives, to whom he could never return.
While he was on vacation, father’s correspondence was limited to brief letters handwritten or typed on the veranda or at the dining table indoors. When Peter and I were older and kept away by work, he sometimes wrote to us or added a few lines to mother’s more regular letters, giving news of the day, all homely and personal, inquiring how soon we could be expected, and reminding us what to bring. We had relatively few visitors. As it turned out, only Tetia Olia ever came to vacation while my parents were there, and school friends rarely stayed longer than overnight. During our first season in 1939, Koussevitzky came to look the place over, walking down from the meadow above our house because our new road was still too soft to support his heavy Packard limousine. He found our view over the lake so enchanting that he contemplated building a cottage next to ours. Other notable visitors included the Leontiefs who had their own dacha not far away in northern Vermont; sociologist George Homans and members of his family, who drove over for a swim and lunch from the civilized Anglophone community about Lake Massawippi, a little to the east of Memphremagog; two colleagues of the physiologist Lawrence J. Henderson who paddled across in a canoe; and two reporters from Newsweek magazine, who came through the rain in 1964 to interview Pitirim, as they stated, “on the porch of his austere two-story house” after he was installed as president of the American Sociological Association.
The end of the war also brought about an end to Pitirim’s tenure as head of the Sociology Department which became incorporated into a new Department of Social Relations (1946) intended to promote interdisciplinary research and teaching of sociology, social and clinical psychology, and cultural anthropology. It was in youthful flourish during the 1950s when Peter and I were undergraduates at Harvard. As concentrators in the natural sciences we had other primary interests, and each took just one course in Social Relations. Neither these nor apparently any other departmental course provided an integrated survey of the field, a defect that did not escape Pitirim’s critical notice. As it proved, the groundwork for integrative social science was never laid effectively; sociology broke away in 1970, and the name Social Relations disappeared from the Harvard catalog in 1977.
Pitirim continued to receive honors, especially from foreign universities. Freed from administrative duties, he increasingly turned his attention to factors underlying altruistic behavior. He found a powerful ally in Eli Lilly, philanthropist and head of a large Indianapolis pharmaceutical company, who became the principal backer of the Harvard Research Center in Creative Altruism, established under father’s direction in February 1949. Initially sited in Emerson Hall, the Center’s office was moved to our home after father retired from teaching. The Center existed about ten years. Its findings were published in some ten volumes, which today are seen as seminal studies in the field of Amitology. At the time, however, few American social scientists were interested, for as father ruefully commented, they deemed abnormal or deviant personalities legitimate subjects for study but considered any investigation of altruistic persons “just preaching.” The Center’s work nevertheless gained the attention of many outside the American sociological establishment, including religious thinkers, psychologists, social scientists from Europe, Latin America and Asiatic countries, as well as educated lay people.
During the 1950s a wide national audience tuned in regularly to a series of Sunday evening telecasts by the Jesuit Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who skillfully delivered rather high-toned monologues on topics of religious philosophy, ethics, and morals. One evening he drew attention to Pitirim’s analysis of the multi-dimensional aspects of love, as given in The Ways and Power of Love. The next day a man came to the house to read our electric meter. “Sorokin? By any chance is this where Professor Sorokin of Harvard University lives?” Being told so, he explained that he had heard Bishop Sheen’s telecast. As he was about to descend the cellar stairs, he looked up adding, “It is a great privilege to be here in the home of such colossi!”
Life continued its outwardly quiet way in my parents’ later years. For father there was no abrupt point at which he retired from professional activity. He reduced his teaching load to half-time for six years. On his retirement from active teaching in May 1955 Pitirim received a letter of appreciation signed by 28 departmental colleagues, who acknowledged that his work had won him “a secure place in the annals of scholarship and humane service.” They added:
We confess that you have sometimes startled us by your vigorous castigation of the errors of our age and of our own errors as social scientists. But the vigor of your scolding does not deceive us for we know that at heart you are a creative musician – one of those rare creators who compose simultaneously both fortissimo and conamore.”
Father spent the next four-and-a-half years as scholar-in-residence, becoming Professor Emeritus on December 31 1959. He continued his studies on creative altruism, giving them international scope in fulfillment of a wish his colleagues had also expressed in their letter. It probably did not surprise them that he also continued a severe critic of what he saw as false directions being taken by current research in the social sciences. The more acerbic critique Fads and Foibles in Modern Sociology and Related Sciences, came out in 1956 and his last book Sociological Theories of Today, which discussed both the good and the bad, appeared ten years later.
During this interval father had to accept disappointment at the failure of efforts to expand the work of the Research Center in Creative Altruism into a wider-based movement involving scholars and lay people alike. Furthermore, with his brand of “prophetic sociology,” a sizable number of sociologists considered him out of the professional mainstream. I also remember him turning pages of his Dynamics and Contemporary Sociological Theories, observing wistfully that he no longer could maintain the level of argument shown in these earlier works. These negatives took their toll on a person with strong feelings and an insatiable creative urge, and his spirits reached a low point during 1962 and the winter of 1963. This never left him incapacitated, though it made him difficult to deal with at times. A substantial measure of relief came later that year from thoughtful colleagues and former students who organized a write-in campaign to elect him president of the American Sociological Association. Such campaigns rarely are successful. However, in this election, where father ran against two “official” candidates, he ended up with 65% of the vote. Looking over the correspondence between the organizers and the Association members contacted, I see that Pitirim was held in great respect by many rank-and-file members, some of whom were surprised to hear that he had not been president before then, and highly critical of what appeared to be a deliberate effort by certain persons in the Association’s ruling group to control the nominating process and thereby prevent his name from appearing on the ballot.
How Pitirim’s Writings Were Perceived by American Sociologists
In America the prevalent view of sociologists has been that Pitirim’s work can be divided into distinct phases, an early one influenced by the behavioristic physiology of Ivan Pavlov and represented by Hunger as a Factor in Human Affairs and The Sociology of Revolution; a second of purely objective social science, represented by Social Mobility, Contemporary Sociological Theories, and the rural sociology volumes of Minnesota years; and a third of value-judged sociology, ushered in by Social and Cultural Dynamics and followed by popular works based on these volumes. These in rum led to the studies on altruism, with only Man and Society in Calamity and Society, Culture, and Personality, written in the 1940s, and his last book Sociological Theories of Today, substantially reverting to the “scientific” mode. On the other hand, those familiar with the production of Pitirim’s Russian years know that it included both objective, theoretical works like System of Sociology as well as many articles charged with value-judgments. From the beginning, Pitirim recognized that “scientific” sociology must be objective but that value-judgments are appropriate to “applied” sociology. Thus in addition to scientific works intended for scholars, in 1917 Pitirim addressed the general public through articles in the newspaper Volya naroda. These were short essays in applied sociology intended to bring his insight as specialist to bear on social and political problems that plagued the populace. In these he revealed the deep social consciousness that characterized his own personality just as it has characterized personalities of many eminent Russian thinkers and writers before and after his time. Of the first two books published in the United States, the autobiographical Leaves from a Russian Diary (1924) was entirely subjective, but even the essentially objective Sociology of Revolution (1925) continued to reflect a social conscience aroused by catastrophic upheavals during the Russian Revolution.
To my mind, the subject matter of Social and Cultural Dynamics makes it a special case. The study began with the hypothesis that all sociocultural systems have their own logical consistency but differ from one another when they grow out of dissimilar premises, the most important of these being the nature of reality. At two extremes, if true reality is considered perceptible only through our sense organs, the sociocultural system built up from this (Sensate culture) will embrace a radically different set of values from a system based on the idea that true reality is nonmaterial, otherworldly, or spiritual (Ideational culture). The study then examined sociocultural fluctuations over time, looking for the extent to which Sensate or Ideational characteristics were expressed in all main areas of human endeavor (art, truth, ethics, law, social relationships) in different civilizations at various times in their history. These data were then correlated with historical events, to see how shifts in the prevalence of Ideational or Sensate culture mentalities might be involved. Pitirim used a single-blind method to compile this information, which made it distinctly objective: those asked to gather the data were not told why. Analysis showed (1) that shifts in the way reality is perceived are major determinants of sociocultural change, (2) that civilizations tend to fluctuate between predominantly-Sensate and predominantly-Ideational cultures, and as to our own time, (3) that Western society was in a declining phase of Sensate culture. Thus, the study found that values were the critical underpinnings of sociological phenomena. However well based, this conclusion did not go down well with some American sociologists at the time, since they were trying to model their research after the natural sciences, which are value-neutral, and naively or not, considered their own work to be free from judgmental bias. Furthermore, others did not like Pitirim’s application of the findings to our time, dismissing as mere preaching his recommendation that society move away from Sensate values towards more Ideational ones in order to escape the perils besetting it.
Thus both objective and applied works number among publications from all periods of Pitirim’s professional life and include several that to a variable degree incorporate both elements. I think he moved easily between the two because he always retained a sense of objectivity even in “prophetic” books like S.O.S. The Meaning of Our Crisis, with its high-flying rhetoric. One can compare Pitirim to a research physician who discovers that cells in the body can be shielded from viral infection by blocking certain receptors on the cell surface. If the same physician, having worked out the details, then recommends that his discovery be given clinical trial, is the physician any less a scientist for suggesting how it may be used to control the disease? Or for caring about the patient?
Throughout the years of Pitirim’s life in the United States, most American sociologists were not aware of the range and character, let alone the content of his writings in Russian, because these works were not available to them, and very few could even read the language. Fortunately, more recent times have seen publication of a partially-annotated bibliography of Pitirim’s Russian writings (Johnston et al., 1994), the appearance of a few early articles in English translation (Sorokin. 1998), and specific discussion of the Volya naroda articles in the foregoing context (Nichols, 1999); and this should help to dispel the older American view.
How Pitirim’s Views Were Seen by a Larger Public
Throughout his career in the United States, Pitirim received more attention from the press and radio than most faculty members in American universities. I think that he drew on old Russian intellectual traditions, seeing it as a duty to take a more active role in public affairs than was the custom for American professors. Besides, the increased visibility would improve his standing and help him obtain employment in the new country. No doubt he benefited from his experience as a newspaper editor in Russia to gain easy access to the press. His name was not unknown to readers of Russian and Ukrainian-language papers even before he arrived in New York on 3 November. 1923, since his views had preceded him. In any event, before the end of the year, the New York Evening Post had carried a substantial article giving Pitirim’s impression that Russian intellectuals were now more hopeful for the future than in 1918-20 but had also become more pragmatic and retained little sense of duty to “their smaller brothers,” the people. He had also published letters in the Christian Advocate and The New York Times. In the former, Methodist church authorities were warned against approaching the Russian people through the door of the so-called “Living Church,” which he said was nothing more than an arm of the Bolshevik government created for the sake of suppressing Christian religions in the Soviet Union. Pitirim had sailed to America in response to an invitation from the Universities of Illinois and Wisconsin to deliver a series of lectures on the Russian Revolution. In preparing for these and to improve his English he took advantage of contacts made with influential Russian émigrés and the hospitality of Vassar College president Henry Noble MacCracken and his family, giving talks at Vassar and nearby colleges and at businessmen’s clubs, and writing pieces related to the Revolution for popular journals. The press continued to cover the lectures delivered in the Midwest. The response to these was varied because at that time the opinion of American intellectuals was divided between approval of the first five years of communism in the Soviet Union as “the great socialist experiment” and bitter opposition to it. Father candidly discussed the destructiveness of these years during the lectures; consequently many located him politically at the far right. Pitirim’s views on the Russian Revolution continued to interest the press well into the Minnesota years, but by then he was drawing attention as well from presentations at sociological meetings. This was largely attributable to his scholarship, assisted nonetheless by vigorous delivery and use of imaginative turns of phrase. And The Minnesota Alumni Weekly dropped in on him from time to time to see what he was doing.
In its issues of 7 and 8 October 1930, The Harvard Crimson hailed Pitirim’s appointment as marking an important addition to the instruction in sociology available at the school, where previous efforts had been hampered by a “lack of definite leadership.” Over the years this famous undergraduate newspaper was to quote Pitirim many times, and because its columns were regularly scanned by reporters on East-coast city papers and the news services, many passing remarks made during lectures obtained widespread coverage. Once, discussing whom to select for education as leaders, Pitirim stressed that moral qualities were just as important as mental ability and jokingly suggested that aspiring youths be screened for the former by exposure to temptations. The Crimson picked this up, and the next day five reporters were waiting for him at his office. Elena later wrote,
So the story that Sorokin advocates an entrance examination test with girls and wine went through all the papers, and even the radio commentators got hold of it. I heard Lowell Thomas commenting. Then [film producer] Cecil B. DeMille was offended for Hollywood, and nightclub owner Billy Rose offered his girls for the test, nude dancers offered their services, etc. In spite of all this, there were numerous letters from leaders of education, clergymen, bishops and others who got the essential idea of stressing the moral side of the problem. But it was all very funny.”Father continued to make news at the annual sociology meetings. Reporting on the December 1935 meetings (under the aegis of the American Statistical Association), the New York Herald Tribune recorded Pitirim’s election to honorary membership in Pi Gamma Mu, a national honor society for social scientists, and devoted a column to the address he delivered afterwards. He was the third American to be chosen, joining sociologists Charles A. Ellwood and Edward A. Ross. In the talk Pitirim criticized current emphasis on training students for fact-finding with little attention being given to basic, logical and methodological principles involved in social phenomena. This stifled thought and creative imagination, he contended. In the paper’s continued coverage of the conference two days later, he received most of the attention; otherwise only Chicago sociologist Robert E. Park’s proposal to study the place of newspapers in society drew a few lines. Father characterized as absurd the procedure of having 30 section meetings often running concurrently at these meetings, finding it much better to have just one paper presented, with the bulk of the time used for discussion of one social problem rather than several dozen.
Increasingly throughout the 1930s Pitirim brooded over “the gathering storm,” as Winston Churchill called it, and like him, “evoked the indignation of the pacifists and believers in progress and “bigger and better world.” Returning from Europe in 1937, he remarked to The Boston Evening Transcript that opportunity for creative work in sociology now lay in America because established European scholars increasingly were being silenced or supplanted by apologists for the totalitarian regimes then in power. Publication of the first three volumes of Dynamics drew a great deal of attention from scholars as well as from the lay press, and gradually the terms “Ideational,” Idealistic,” and “Sensate” cultures became familiar if not exactly household words. According to rumor, father was scheduled to appear on the cover of Time magazine to celebrate publication of the Dynamics but was displaced by Man O’War, a racehorse that had just won the Triple Crown.  He often laughed about this afterwards.
The most prestigious of father’s prewar public appearances was for a series of eight Lowell Institute lectures entitled, “The Twilight of Sensate Culture,” which he delivered in the Boston Public Library during February 1941. These interpreted the times in terms of concepts developed in the Dynamics and were soon published as The Crisis of Our Age, which is still in print.
During the Second World War Pitirim gave a number of talks on Russia and the United States. In the late summer of 1943 a substantial article on the same topic appeared in several Russian émigré papers, and a book soon followed (1944). As stated in the preface, he thought that it might serve the interests of both nations as well as the cause of a lasting peace. The book was timely and drew favorable press notices. Its thesis, that the two nations were actually converging economically and politically toward a similar type of organization, was something he returned to in later years. Our copies of both the first and second editions (1950) bulge with his own jottings and numerous clippings containing updated comparative information on the two countries. By now the press services were turning to Pitirim for expert opinion on a number of social issues, which were then distributed nationally under his by-line. In one of these related to the war, he outlined reasons for opposing the drafting of fathers except as a last resort.
In 1949 Pitirim gave an interview to Chicago Tribune reporter Eugene Griffin in which he criticized a tough American policy against the Soviet Union in the light of his analysis of these countries and also disapproved of the investigations into “communist front” organizations then being held by the congressional committee on un-American activities. He added:
The Tribune is too anti-communist. I hold my head when I read about Russia and the communists in that paper. The Communist party is unimportant in the United States at the present time, and it would be better for all of us to be less anti-communist and more friendly to Russia.”
By then Pitirim was in his postwar mood, seeing it as his social duty to warn against political actions that raise world tensions. He did not hesitate to add his name to protests against attempts to repress dissent in the United States and was outspoken in favor of nuclear disarmament. But in the “McCarthy era” that gripped the nation during the presidencies of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, this transformed his press image from an ultra-conservative to an ultra-liberal figure. One self-styled patriot made up a list of REDucators and put him on it; and later on, when some professors from the Soviet Union met him for lunch at the Hotel Kenmore in Boston, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was at a nearby table listening in. Their agents came to see him about this afterwards, but he gave them “what for” and refused to be intimidated.
With the war in Korea, and especially in Vietnam, he felt that American anti-communist hysteria had gone too far. At the Sunday dinner table we became inured to hearing him denounce the United States as “the most imperialistic nation in the world,” but to certain guests this view was eye-opening, especially when backed up by the evidence he always seemed to have on hand. The Vietnamese war would exact a toll far beyond the loss of individual lives, he predicted. It would also affect morality and social stability in America-and this certainly came to pass. These anti-war views were most cogently expressed in articles Pitirim wrote for liberal magazines, where there was space for a well-reasoned presentation, but they were also well covered by student newspapers at colleges where he had come to lecture. In the form of brief quotations they also reached the daily papers from time to time. As the Vietnam War wore on, “teach-ins” or anti-war rallies became common on university campuses. During one at Harvard in 1966, he electrified a new generation of students who had never heard him speak before.
Publications resulting from studies on altruism naturally generated much interest from religious organizations, so that Pitirim was often invited to talk on related themes at sectarian schools and seminaries, and excerpts or condensations of some writings were made for classroom use. Articles were also carried by religious journals of various Christian and non-Christian denominations and by journals advocating moral and social reform (such as civil rights) by non-violent means. The secular press also gave this work some attention. Under “The Talk of the Town,” The New Yorker ran a sympathetic interview with Pitirim in 1958, a third of it turning on studies of the Research Center in Creative Altruism. At a simpler level, studies of the Center and one or two of its conclusions were mentioned by newspaper columnists from time to time and by writers for both religious and secular digest magazines. In this way some of the findings reached the consciousness of many who otherwise would never have heard about them. In 1953 Pitirim also recorded a short statement on what he had learned about the power of altruistic love for the CBS radio network series, “This I Believe,” which broadcast encapsulated philosophies of prominent individuals from different walks of life. According to its producers the program had an audience of millions, in spite of media coverage, the greater part of the American public remained indifferent to altruism, although to judge from letters father received at the time, the subject still appealed to a large number of ordinary people. Forty years later we occasionally receive requests for information about the Center and its activities and publications.
Pitirim was outspoken about the concentration of political power in democracies by a “power elite” and about an increase in sexual license, both of which he regarded as manifestations of a decaying society in the Western world. Only the liberal press gave heed to the former, but his views on the latter generated much interest and controversy. Early in 1954, This Week, a magazine distributed with Sunday editions of many newspapers in the United States, published a popular article presenting Pitirim’s arguments against unlimited sex freedom.  This ran counter to prevailing attitudes; nevertheless it aroused such a positive response tliat a small book on the topic followed. In the ensuing years this served as basis for many short articles published in newspapers and in religious periodicals from several countries including India, where an abridged version of the book was serialized. 
More frequently, however, scholarly papers read at professional meetings were the source of abbreviated or popular articles on related topics. For several years after the war, Pitirim did not attend meetings in the social sciences, but in Nurnberg for the 18th International Congress of Sociology in 1958, in Mexico City for the 19th in 1960 and in Salzburg for the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations in 1961, he presented addresses at the plenary sessions that drew popular attention on the one hand, and formed most of the material for The Basic Trends of Our Times (1964), on the other. The publicity from the Mexico meeting resounded through Central and South America and produced from Venezuela a challenge to Pitirim’s thesis of mutual convergence between the United States and U.S.S.R. This was published under banner headlines on two full pages in the tabloid Central University Bulletin. Father responded with a one-page detailed rebuttal in the same paper. The exchange drew the attention of the American embassy in Caracas, where the idea of inviting Pitirim to lecture at Central was favored because “your presence would have an extremely positive impact on the intellectual life of this country.” If the United States Foreign Service was saying this, it certainly signified that father’s political stance was now considered less radical than a few years earlier!
Throughout Pitirim’s years in America, it seems that the media’s political image of hirn moved all the way from extreme conservatism to radical leftist and then back to a more centrist position. He believed that America, and not he, had moved In reality the aggregate of press coverage shows that father was widely recognized as one who could speak with authority about many issues—social, political, moral, and strictly sociological. He emerges as well-informed, passionately concerned with humankind, and skilled in debate.
Pitirim never lacked invitations to lecture at different colleges and universities. He accepted these more frequently after giving up teaching at Harvard, and thereafter was often accompanied by Elena. He also was a house guest of Eli Lilly in Indianapolis, and the visit helped to cement their friendship. There even was talk of a return to Russia, but it never came to pass.
Pitirim’s appearances as guest lecturer were never dull affairs. One comment by sociologist Robert Eichhorn of Purdue University (1963) gives the flavor:
Sorokin was the guest of the department a couple of years ago. He would give several lectures each day, wear out the faculty in the daylight hours that remained, then retreat to a beer joint with the graduate students to talk half the night. The man possesses wit, energy, intelligence and a sense of humanity in superabundance. “
In the summer of 1955, at the end of my first year in medical school, I went with Pitirim and Elena to Eugene, Oregon, where father had agreed to teach at the summer session of the University. This was reminiscent of the trip the family had taken to California in 1937, but Peter was busy in graduate school and all of us of course were older. The idea to see the country once more had been under discussion for some time, and we planned to drive all the way to the west coast and back. So when father decided to buy a new car in February, Peter and I conspired to influence his choice. We favored the most road-worthy American car of its day, the Hudson Hornet Special, a few of which remained unsold after the end of production in 1954. Father thought the interior “funereal” and preferred a Chrysler, but we put the parents in the back seat and drove both cars swiftly over the same twisty road. Conceding that he had been much less tossed about in the Hudson, father agreed to our choice. This incident confirmed what we already knew, that however strong his opinion, it could always be changed by the light of reason.
On our way west we stopped near Chicago to visit friends from Minnesota days and then continued through Iowa and over the badlands and the Black Hills of South Dakota, heading for Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming; thence across Idaho and into Oregon. Mother and I found things to do while father was teaching, and on weekends the three of us made excursions to places like the lava fields in the Cascade Mountains, Crater Lake, and the seacoast, sometimes hosted by people from the university and sometimes on our own. Returning from Oregon, we took a northerly route along the Columbia River. The highlight of this journey was a visit to Glacier Park in Montana, with its majestic peaks and alpine meadows bright with wild flowers. Thereafter we continued east through a great variety of landscapes, but in the late summer many were arid and brown, so that as we reached New York State and headed for our summer place the refreshing greenness and more human scale of the countryside impressed us nearly as much as anything seen previously on the trip. It was good to be home.
During the postwar years social engagements of Pitirim and Elena were less Harvard-associated than formerly. The deaths of the Rostovtzeffs and Koussevitzky, as the loss of best friends, left a gap never to be filled. We began to see foreign scholars at home with increased frequency, including a number from the Soviet Union They came for lunch and often stayed for conversations lasting well into the afternoon Apart from social scientists, these visitors included people interested in the Center’s studies on altruism as well as in historico-cultural, philosophical, aesthetic, and moral questions, things outside the range of ordinary sociologists but things about which father had much to say. In Boston, my parents met Albert Schweitzer and Pandit Nehru, and religious and cultural leaders from India were not strangers in Winchester. During this time Peter and I heard a great deal about moral and ethical themes common to the world’s great religions, and this helped to expand our intellectual horizons.
Interesting new acquaintances and loyal friends made up a roster of well over a hundred persons or families with whom Pitirim and Elena kept in touch. Both father and mother wrote personal notes and letters with some frequency and sent them off “warts and all” in all directions – that is, with typing mistakes and handwritten corrections or second thoughts added. A number of letters written to Minnesota friends as far back as the early 1930s were saved and later returned to us, so that more information is available on our family during that period than I would have been able to remember; some of them have been quoted here. In my parents’ time it was a more common practice than now to send Christmas greeting cards, and our family was conventional in that respect. From 1960 onwards, after Peter and I had already entered our professions, I began to draw our annual family card so as to make it more personal. It always centered about a nativity or seasonally appropriate scene but sometimes contained encrypted information about current family activities as well, which a few of the recipients enjoyed puzzling out.
Limited contacts were also maintained between father’s and mother’s relatives in the Soviet Union. To judge from surviving letters, more extensive correspondence was held with mother’s side of the family. They lived in Tambov during their later years: her father was a surgeon and her stepmother a nurse. She also had a younger sister who had emigrated to Chile. The contacts with Russia were lost after the Second World War upon the death of Elena’s stepmother; Elena’s father had died in 1938 and her half-brother Kolya during the war. As to father’s relatives, a number of letters and photos, at first from Velikiy Ustyug and later from Archangel, were received during the years prior to the war but nothing afterwards.
From their first years in Winchester, both father and mother participated in shaping the landscape about our house. Initially they planted some evergreens and roses, but soon father became interested in azaleas and rhododendrons, having admired plantings of this kind in our neighbor’s garden. As he moved around the yard dressed in old working clothes, Pitirim was a familiar figure in the neighborhood. Although we helped him in little ways, as by bringing him compost or pails of water when he was planting, the azalea garden was essentially his doing. One day a young man came up the front steps and rang the doorbell. Receiving no answer, he looked out and saw father digging among the bushes.
“Hey there!” he called out.
“Is your boss at home?” Being answered in the negative, he approached the foreign gardener.
“Well. I’m working my way through college selling magazines. I’ve got Life, Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and Reader’s Digest. Which would you like?”
“Thank you, none of them.”
“Why not? These are the most popular magazines, and they’re much cheaper by subscription than at the newstand.”
Father looked abashed. “You must excuse me. I’m illiterate.”
“I can’t read.”
“Oh! Er…Sorry.” Confused, the young man withdrew.
The azalea garden grew in scale over the years and spread up the rocky hill behind our house, eventually numbering some 600 plants, and it flourished to the point of attracting many visitors at blooming time in the spring. In a good year it was striking, even flamboyant, and in 1956 Pitirim was informed that at its October meeting the Trustees of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society voted to award him the Society’s Gold Medal. The citation read:
Professor Pitirim Sorokin, Winchester. A flaming mass of azalea and rhododendron climbing a cliff crowned by a cascade of wisteria; the 22 year work of a sociologist who finds in horticulture fulfillment of the spirit.”
We have kept up the garden to this day as Pitirim’s legacy to the neighborhood and to garden lovers from a wider circle who come to see it every year. In father’s day pictures of it appeared in several horticultural magazines, and they still crop up on greeting cards and calendars.
Journey ‘s End
Throughout his life Pitirim was physically robust and into his 77th year was able to tend the garden and to mow the fields in Canada with his scythe. In 1966, however, he was diagnosed as having emphysema and lung cancer. He elected not to receive chemotherapy. During the spring of 1967 he still could walk about the yard fairly easily, and our celebration of Pitirim and Elena’s fiftieth wedding anniversary in May was only half-sad. That summer, however, it proved too difficult for him to stay in Canada, and during the fall he weakened further but still wrote a little at his typewriter and was up and about for Christmas. Mother’s constant attendance during these last months enabled him to remain at home where he died in the early morning of February 10, 1968.
A Russian Orthodox service was held at home for the family, followed by an eclectic memorial service held in the Memorial Church at Harvard on February 15. It reflected many sides of his character, convictions, and interests. During his Harvard career he had from time to time delivered short sermons in the same church for students’ Morning Prayers, and so the customary Anglican order of service was not out of place. There was an organ prelude with compositions by Dufay, Bach, and Brahms, as well as a little organ piece from home; sentences, readings, and prayers by the Harvard preacher, and memorial addresses by departmental colleagues Talcott Parsons and Freed Bales. A final section of Orthodox church music was sung by an invisible choir, so that the music just seemed to float up before the altar. The service reached its unforgettable climax when the elderly Father Chepeleff who had been sitting quietly, suddenly stood up and intoned Viechnaya pamyat’ (Eternal memory) over supplications by the choir.
Elena’s loyalty to Pitirim’s memory continued to the end of her life. As one of her last gestures, she translated Hunger as a Factor in Human Affairs which father had written in Russia during the great famine of 1919-1921. This was edited by T. Lynn Smith, a former student from Minnesota years; and because its publication was supported as a memorial tribute by Eli Lilly, mother added some reminiscences of the time, and we included a section of photographs pertaining to Pitirim’s life. She died in September, 1975, just after completing her corrections of the page proofs. Both Pitirim and Elena would have liked to revisit Russia; in any event they would have been gratified at the renewal of interest in his works that has occurred in their homeland, and I came, symbolically, to present their thanks.
1. I did not open my eyes until a few days after birth. When father first visited the hospital they were still closed. Pointing to me, he asked the nurse. ‘Is it normal?” She laughed. “If you don’t want him. Ill take him home!”
2. Carle C. Zimmerman, Sociological Theories of Pitirim A. Sorokin (Bombay, Thacker and Co. limited, 1973), p. 31.
3. Mount Elbert (4399 m) is the tallest of the Rocky Mountains and the third highest peak in North America, being exceeded by Alaska’s Mt. McKinley (6194 m) and only slightly by California’s Mt. Whitney (4416 m). It can be ascended without special rock-climbing equipment.
4. Barry V. Johnston. Pitirim A. Sorokin. An Intellectual Biography (Lawrence. KA, University Press of Kansas. 1995). Harvard politics are thoroughly discussed in Chapters 4 and 5.
5. Zimmerman left Minnesota for Harvard beginning with the academic year 1931-32 and was one of the original members of its new Department of Sociology. In the first years Pitirim and Zimmerman carried out the bulk of the teaching. In later years the influence of other department members, notably Talcott Parsons, blocked Zim’s promotion to a full professorship and succession as chairman of the department. A well-respected rural sociologist and writer on the family, Zim was bitter that some of those who had befriended him initially turned against him after they had risen in rank. He gave little heed to mannerisms and polish expected of east-coast “Ivy League” intellectuals, considering them affectations, and in our childhood he seemed gruff, although we later realized kindness and understanding lay deeper. He came into his own after retiring from Harvard in 1963, spending a year in Turkey, three years as Distinguished Professor at North Dakota State University, a year at the University of Saskatchewan, and a further period at the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur. Zimmerman knew Pitirim for 44 years and was next-door neighbor for 33 of them; consequently he had the opportunity to observe him, as he said, “from many angles and under many conditions.” His assessments can be found in the book cited above, as well as in a similar, shorter work entitled, Sorokin, The World’s Greatest Sociologist (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, University of Saskatchewan. 1968).
6. By the time Peter and I became aware of the record collection it included compositions from almost all periods of Western music, predominantly pieces from what musicologists call the common practice period—Bach to Tchaikovsky—as well as examples of Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony, symphonies of Sibelius, early works of Stravinsky, Russian church music, and a limited number of folk songs. Mrs. Wassily Leontief had observed if children are exposed to Beethoven before the age of five, they will be fans for life. And so it was for Peter and me. The collection included symphonies, concertos, and other orchestral pieces, choral works but relatively little opera, and much solo instrumental and chamber music. Gradually more pieces written before 1700 and after 1900 were added. We got to know the string quartets of Beethoven through lucid, smooth-flowing performances by the Lener Quartet, were charmed by Monteclair’s Les Plaisirs champetres. and after Koussevitzky, commenting on symphonists, said “First Beethoven, then Shostakovich!” we began to pay more attention to 20th century music, especially of the Russian and English schools.
7. After receiving her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, Elena was given a small amount of funding to continue research in the Department of Botany. She also taught part-time in nearby Hamline University. In 1927, however, she was offered a full-time teaching position at Hamline, which meant leaving the research environment at the state university if she accepted. As letters in the archives of Minnesota’s Botany Department show, an effort was made to counter the offer by securing Elena a faculty position in the Department. One stated. “Anyone who has had anything to do with Mrs. Sorokin knows that she has a brilliant mind. But those of us who know her botanical work also realize that she must have had very unusual training and that her ability to grasp and judge the meaning of results obtained is of an extremely high order… It is a fact that she has carried on research under the most brilliant cytological experts of Europe and America, for her teachers were Nemec, Gurwitsch, Allen and Harper.” (Letter of Josephine E. Tilden to J. Arthur Harris, Head, Botany Department. March 19. 1927). Writing to the Dean of the College. Professor Harris reminded him of the Department’s futile 3-year effort to recruit a first-rate Cytologist, adding that “Mrs. Sorokin probably has as great ability and certainly more thorough training in the field of Cytology than either of the two men whom we considered for professorships in this Department.” He proposed trying to get around the University policy against employing both husband and wife on grounds that Pitirim’s appointment was for 60% not full time, and deplored the idea that Hamline, “this small neighboring college has actually a better trained Cytologist than we are able to bring to the University.” (Letter of J. Arthur Harris to J. B. Johnston, March 22, 1927). Later work continued to justify the high opinion expressed by Elena’s Minnesota colleagues. For example, studies demonstrating the existence of mitochondria (cellular “batteries”) in living cells of the higher plants, and how they can be distinguished from other small particulates in the cytoplasm, were both original and influential in their time (H[elen] Sorokin, Am. J. Bot., 25:28-33, 1938, and 28:476-485. 1941). I am grateful to Lawrence T. Nichols for copies of the Minnesota correspondence.
8. Reported in Harvard University Alumni Gazette, summer 1994.
9. “Proper Bostonians” were members of old mercantile families of Puritan stock and high social standing who constituted the ruling oligarchy of Boston until displaced in the late 19th century by populist politicians representing the tide of Irish immigrants. Proper Bostonians retained their influence over cultural institutions well into the first half of the 20th century. Abbot Lawrence Lowell was President of Harvard University until 1933, and Godfrey Cabot was a member of the Now and Then Club until its dissolution during the Second World War.
10. Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety. (New York, Random House, 1987), pp. 203-204.
11. Father never displayed these honors but kept the diplomas rolled up in the tubes used to mail them. A partial list includes: Correspondent to the German Sociological Society, the International Institute of Sociology at Paris (both 1923), the International Institute of Sociology and Social Politics in Turin, the Ukrainian Sociological Society, and the Czechoslovakian Agricultural Academy (by 1927); Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Boston (1931): Correspondent. Italian Committee for the Study of Population Problems. Rome (1932); Fellow. American Association for the Advancement of Science (1932); Corresponding member, the Masaryk Sociological Society of Czechoslovakia (1934); Vice-President (1935) and President (1937), International Institute of Sociology; Honorary member. Royal Rumanian Academy (1938); Honorary member. Eugene Field Society. Missouri (1942): Associate. Section of moral and political sciences. Royal Academy of Belgium (1945); Doctor honoris causa University of Mexico (400th anniversary, 1951); Fellow, American Sociological Association (1959); Honorary Fellow, International Academy of Philosophy, Ahmedabad. India (1961); President, International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations (1961): Honorary member, Institute de Estudios Politicos, Madrid (1961); President, American Sociological Association (1964): Fellow Member, World Academy of Art and Science (1964); honors from several organizations concerned with world peace and fraternity (1954, 1957, I960. 1961).
12. Pitirim wrote to Mr. and Mrs. John A. Lucey on the evening of 25 December 1930. “We spent last night with the Koussevitzkys’ family circle. Went there to 8 o’clock and returned about two. There was the best Russian dinner I ate in this country for 7 years (they have their Russian cook); plenty of good wine (including champagne) and the most joyous atmosphere. You had to see how Mr. Koussevitzky behaved himself like a small boy. and myself also was far from being scholarly and serious. We did all kinds of silly things, including even masquerading their dog. In brief, the evening was delightful and exceedingly informal. (The public who knows him on his conductor’s stand, can hardly imagine how different he (and his wife also) can be.) There was also a young brilliant Spanish pianist M Sanroma (just played with orchestra in Stravinsky’s Capriccio). He out-tricked all of us.”
13. Newsweek, 7 September 1964, pp. 80-81. Although the interviewers did not dispute Pitirim’s claim to a pastoral soul, they found that at the age of 75 “his mind is still strikingly cosmopolitan and about as calm as a typhoon.” Father hoped one of us would become a social scientist but left the choice of professions entirely up to us. “Whatever the field, you should have little trouble becoming Assistant Professors,” he judged. “The rest is up to you.”
14. Johnston, op. cit., pp. 221-226; Lawrence T. Nichols, “Social Relations Undone: Disciplinary Divergence and Departmental Politics at Harvard, 1946-1970.” The American Sociologist. 29:83-107, 1998.
15. Letter to Pitirim A. Sorokin from The Department of Social Relations, Harvard University, 25 May 1955. Anyone who has read Pitirim’s writings knows that he could be a very stringent critic of the work of fellow social scientists, but all that lay within his rules for intellectual engagement, and he rather liked the stimulation of being answered in the same way. At home Peter and I were subjected to father’s tongue-lashings from time to time, but we still knew that he loved us. Apparently it took awhile for some of his colleagues to realize this. I remember George Homans saying that because Pitirim tore some of his ideas to shreds, he assumed that Pitirim hated him, and was later surprised to discover this was not so. Pitirim had little tolerance for flippant criticism or underhanded moves to discredit scholarly work, whether his or somebody else’s, nor did he soon forget if anyone who dismissed his ideas later published similar ones without naming the source. When Khrushchev banged his shoe on the counter at the United Nations, we thought it an effective way to make a point and did not share the anxiety of news analysts who shuddered. “Does this mean war?”
16. B.V. Johnston, N. Mandelbaum, and N.E. Pokrovsky, “Commentary on some of the Russian writings of Pitirim A. Sorokin.” Jour. History of the Behavioral Sciences. 30:28-42. 1994. P.A. Sorokin, On the Practice of Sociology. B.V. Johnston ed. (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998). L. T. Nichols. “Science, politics and moral activism: Sorokin’s integralism reconsidered.” Proceedings Int. Sympos. Pitirim Sorokin and Sociocultural Tendencies of Our Times, Moscow, 1999.
17. For example, ‘Pro moral’ v radyanskii federatsii,” in The Ukrainian Daily News. 9 February 1923. Pitirim continued to receive attention from articles and book reviews in native-language émigré newspapers published in Europe and the United States as well as in scholarly journals, so that he always had a following in these quarters. For example, in 1929 he published a series of “letters to friends” in the Parisian journal Bor’ba za Rossiyu (La Lutte pour la Russie), and many years later wrote an article on Dostoyevsky for a New York-based Russian language periodical.
18. Letter dated 7 November 1923. in The Christian Advocate. “Changes in Russian intelligentsia,” in Afew York Evening Post, 18 December, 1923. “Borah’s injury to Russia.
19. Identifying the people with soviet government makes matters worse,” a letter dated 31 December 1923, in The New York Times.
20. Pitirim’s stay at Vassar was well publicized, and the lectures he delivered on ‘The Sociology of Revolution” in Rockefeller Hall on January 8, 9, and 11 continued to draw comment in the local papers for several days afterwards. “End banishment of Russian educator. Professor Sorokin, now at Vassar, will not return, however, he states.” and “Sorokin is reluctant to accept soviet call. Russia’s famous cultural and political leader to remain in Poughkeepsie—’watchful waiting.’” These articles respectively appeared in Poughkeepsie Evening Star and Poughkeepsie Courier, 18 January 1924. Pitirim Sorokine, ‘The passing of Lenin.” The Current History Magazine, March, 1924, pp. 1013-1017. “Was Lenin a failure? — a debate. Pitirim Sorokin, I-Lenin the destroyer. Anna Louise Strong, II -The greatest man of our time.” The Forum. 71: 417-428. 1924.
21. Pitirim nevertheless remained of interest to the press mainly for his views on Russia. “Sees peasant rule redeeming Russia.” The New York Times, 27 July 1924. At a Foreign Policy Association meeting in St. Louis in the summer of 1926, he debated Hugh L. Cooper, a hydroelectric engineer who had just been to the Soviet Union. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported little agreement. Cooper represented capital seeking new markets and considered recognition of the Soviet Union necessary for this. Pitirim opposed recognition as conducive to the breakup of the Soviets. At a similar debate in Philadelphia on 8 January 1927, a city newspaper reported, “When Prof. Sorokin rose to speak, it was manifest that there was blood on the moon, and that he was going to ask for no quarter.” Other clippings show attention was paid to Pitirim’s views on other topics. His participation in the .American Sociological Society’s 1929 meeting was headlined in The Chicago Daily News (27 December) as, “Religious slump is laid to cities. Sociologist asserts large centers are ‘de-Christianizing’ farm ranks.” And the Minneapolis Journal (27 December) devoted most of its coverage of the meeting to him: “Babbits are needed, says U. Sociologist. Tells Chicago convention they should be mixed 1.000 to 1 with Menckens and George Bernard Sliaws.” (Babbit is the self-satisfied hero of Sinclair Lewis’s novel, personifying acceptance of ordinary middle-class and business standards of respectability.) In a get-acquainted interview m December 1924, the Alumni Weekly solicited Pitirim’s opinions about post-revolutionary Russia. An article followed in June 1925, describing differences between Russian and American universities, and a third in May 1927, reporting progress in his work and election to the Czechoslovakian Academy.
22. Letter of Elena Sorokin to Mr. and Mrs. John A. Lucey, December 1940. The 2 December 1940 issue of Life magazine reported, “Dismayed by today’s soft living and moral laxity, Professor Sorokin last week proposed a search for young “incorruptibles”, who would be trained to be political leaders… in a university where they would lead a monastic life… Most revolutionary part of the university would be the entrance exams. Taking them, the candidate would be placed in a suite of luxuriously furnished rooms filled with soft lounges, rich foods and scantily clad girls from Hollywood. The candidate would stay there for three days. If during that time he had not succumbed to food or females, he would be able to enter the university. Presumably the passing grade in this temptations test would be 100%.”
23. “Creative social studies stifled, says Sorokin.” New York Herald Tribune 28 December 1935. “Social sciences lack direction, Sorokin holds.” Ibid 30 December 1935.
24. Letter of Elena Sorokin to Mr. and Mrs. John A. Lucey, 24 May 1940.
25. One of the lamentable characteristics of rank-and-file American citizenry is its low estimate of the value of superior intellectual attainments. This was already noted by native author Hugh Brackenridge in the satire Modern Chivalry (1792). In the popular mind of today a racehorse may be less important than in the 1930s, but an outstanding scholar still is nothing compared to a good basketball player. One of the factors contributing to the ease with which our universities currently are being restructured and the faculty disenfranchised by corporate managers is a pervasive anti-intellectualism that erodes self-esteem among the professors.
26. Novoye Russkoye Slovo (New York) 29 August 1943, Russkaya Zhizn (San Francisco) 1 September 1943, and Russkoye Obozreniye (Chicago) 4 September 1943. “Many values the same in United States. Russia.” The Daily Collegian (Wayne State University) 12 February 1959. Totalitarianism up here, down in USSR, says sociologist.” Chicago’s American 30 August 1965.
27. “Drafting dads will bring disaster to weak families.” The Boston Globe 26 August 1943.
28. “Russian exile softens in his hatred of Reds. Harvard’s Sorokin hits at ‘tough’ policy.” Chicago Sunday Tribune 3 April 1949.
29. “46 faculty members attack Mundt-Nixon anti-red bill.” Crimson 22 May 1948. Pitirim Sorokin, “No real peace policy. Noble declarations—and ignoble policies.” Liberation Z-ll-13, 1956.
30. Pitirim A. Sorokin, “The social boomerang of the Vietnamese ‘police action.’” The Minority of One 9: 9-11, 1967. ‘Harvard’s Sorokin says: ‘Love is society’s obligation.”‘ Connecticut Sunday Herald 5 December 1965.
31. An abridged edition of The Crisis of Our Age was prepared for use in the Methodist Student Movement, and two chapters on monastic techniques from The Ways and Power of Love were separately printed for use by the Benedictines in training persons for a monastic life. Father’s account of work of the Center for Creative Altruism appeared in the April and May 1956 issues of Fellowship, a publication of the peace movement. Other articles appeared in Vedanta and the West and other religious publications intended for the laity. “Longevity Recipe,” in The New Yorker 4 January 1958, pp. 16-17: It appears as if the interviewer intended to talk about altruism but became fascinated by Pitirim’s life story. Eventually “this nostalgic multiple jailbird passed us the sugar, and we pressed him for a further word on creative altruism,” which followed. ‘”Good neighbors’ are much needed.” appeared in a syndicated column in The Washington Star, 25 May 1958, whereas “Energy of love held power for humanity,” Hartford Independent Democrat, 25 April 1958, reported on a lecture given by Pitirim at the Hartford Seminary Foundation. These examples typify the range of articles based on the Center’s work that reached out to persons of different backgrounds.
32. New York Herald Tribune 3 January 1954.
33. Pitirim A. Sorokin. “Demoralization of youth.” Christianity Today 3:3-5, 1959. “The depth of the sex crisis.” Ibid 4:3-5, 1960. “Call for sane sex order.” Bhavan’s Journal5 (beginning with no. 12): 49-53. 1959.
34. “Bedeutet ‘Synopsis’ ein Schielen nach links? Ueberraschung auf Salzburger Kulturkongress: Ex-Russe Prof. Sorokin sprach fiir Ostblock-Politik.” SalzburgerNachrichten 13 Oktober 1961.
35. Rodolfo Quintero, “Convergencia mutua de los Estados Unidos y la U.R.S.S. Una emulacion pacifica que no significa sistema mixto.” Universidad Central (Caracas) 1 November 1962. Pitirim A. Sorokin, “Replica a los ‘comentarios criticos’ del Profesor R. Quintero.”Ibid, 24 January 1963. Letter of Warren Obluck. Assistant Cultural Attache”, American Embassy, Caracas, to Pitirim Sorokin, 9 May 1963.
36. Letter of Robert L. Eichhorn to Charles Loomis (Michigan State University), 26 February 1963.
Author: Roger W. Smith
Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; classical music; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin. View all posts by Roger W. Smith