By Dennis E. Brown
The Harvard Crimson
May 1, 1954
One morning nearly five years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, an article headlined “Professor Sorokin” appeared in Pravda. Written by Lenin himself, the article stated that though Sorokin had never agreed with the Bolsheviks, he was a true revolutionary at heart. Russia, Lenin concluded, “needs his mind.”
To the man who had spent weeks in an over-crowded prison in north Russia, this statement meant an unexpected salvation. Each day between the hours of four and twelve, guards had entered his cellblock to read off a list of names. “This was a kindly invitation to be shot,” Sorokin recalls, and he adds that most of the prisoners were almost willing to accept. The prison conditions were bad, food was nearly as limited at space, and disease was a commonplace.
But once freed, Sorokin still refused to collaborate with the Bolsheviks and after several close escapes, managed to smuggle himself out of the country. “What a relief,” he recalls, “to cross the border and know that this time they could not come after me.” Sorokin’s last flight from Russia marked the end of an active, fifteen-year career as a revolutionary and gave him the opportunity to continue his work in sociology. Before leaving Russia in 1922, he had become prominent in both fields.
Sorokin usually attributes his early rise in Russia’s political and educational circles to “mistaken ideas about my ability” and “just plain luck.” To ability and chance, his friends would add firm conviction and a tenacity which has brought him both trouble, in the form of political imprisonment, and fame. “This is my stubbornness,” he says: “I regard it a man’s main duty to tell the truth as he sees it.”
As early as 1905, Professor Sorokin was telling his truths to factory workers and villagers in his own Russian district. The son of an artisan, he understood the working class, and because of his talents as an orator and pamphleteer, he soon became a top leader in the Social Revolutionary Party.
The years of political activity that followed were lessons in the technique of the underground. Police methods under the Tsars were comparatively lenient, he discovered, because the dying regime was old and soft. Often prisons became centers of revolutionary activity. But the “super heated Turkish bath” that followed 1917 was another matter. Sorokin had enjoyed a few months respite under the Kerensky government as secretary to the Prime Minister and editor of the party newspaper. When the Bolsheviks stormed the Petrograd Garrison, however, it meant that the other socialist parties would be again outlawed and persecuted.
Looking back at his experiences with the Bolsheviks, Sorokin remembers some lighter incidents, although he was hunted almost continually by the secret police. On one occasion, he was sentenced to Peter and Paul Prison where he found many of the elite from former regimes and parties. These old political enemies, from Tsarists to Anarchists, decided to issue prison society notes, which began “The social season at Peter and Paul resort opened brilliantly today . . . .”
At other times, it was harder to laugh. During one summer, Sorokin was forced to hide in the forests of northern Russia. Living off whatever food he could find, he remained there until the first snowfall drove him back to the cities.
Throughout the hardships that political activity caused in those times, Sorokin miraculously managed to pursue his studies in sociology. He was a prolific writer, and long before coming to the United States, had published several texts on the subject. In 1923 he came to this country with an invitation to teach at the University of Minnesota. Eight years later, President Lowell asked him to form the first Sociology Department at Harvard. The University had possessed a grant for such a department since 1906, and officials felt that in Sorokin, they at last had a man who could do the job.
His job, as chairman of the new department, lasted fourteen years. Professor Sorokin was only too glad to end what he calls his “Roosevelt term” and devote his time to a project he had long considered. A witness to the revolutions in Russia and two world wars, he had lived with violence and always opposed it. In his mind, the one hope for civilization was the development of man’s creative over his destructive impulses. To study the problem, he has established the Harvard Research Center in Creative Altruism.
Sorokin tackles his new work with the vigor of the young revolutionary who debated with Lenin and Trotsky. He has never lost the ability to support a cause he believes in, and does so in characteristically strong language. To his long list of writings, most of which have been translated into other languages, he has added several new volumes on altruism. Pointing proudly to a bulky, orange book on his desk, he remarked, “They are even writing books about my books now.”
His garden in Winchester is a source of pride almost equal to his literary accomplishments. Each year, nearly ten thousand visitors stop to admire the azaleas which he plants and tends alone. This season, as in the past, he predicts a bad year for the flowers, his last touch with the rural Russia of his youth. Almost unfailingly, however, the plants have survived oppressive frosts, and like their gardener, continue to grow.
— posted by Roger W. Smith