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Uri Ra’anan, Tufts and BU scholar of the Soviet Union, dies at 94

Uri Ra'anan was an international relations expert with deep ties to Tufts and BU.Handout

In a different era, Uri Ra’anan had this to say about Russia:

“Clearly the failure of the West to respond to Russia’s previous departures from accepted international norms has created a certain climate of disdain in Moscow and has left members of the democratic movement out on a limb,” he wrote in a Globe op-ed in February 1994.

A renowned scholar who helped develop international studies programs at Tufts University and Boston University, Professor Ra’anan died Aug. 10. He was 94 and in retirement had moved to Bethesda, Md., to live closer to his son.

During his years with the Fletcher School at Tufts, Professor Ra’anan developed and led the International Security Studies Program.


“His knowledge was encyclopedic and sweeping in its depth and scope,” the program said in an online tribute. “Whether in the classroom or in less formal circumstances, his command of the subject matter was both eloquent and elegant in substance and style. This included the ability to draw from memory detailed maps that provided geographic context for the points that he was making.”

The graduate program was among the first in the United States to focus on international security studies.

In 1988, he became a university professor at BU “and was among the founding faculty of the department of international relations,” the school said in a tribute.

That department is now known as the Pardee School, and Professor Ra’anan also went on to direct BU’s Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology and Policy.

“Admired for his expertise in the field of Soviet studies, Uri Ra’anan inspired also by his wide intellectual repertoire,” Igor Lukes, a professor of international relations and history at the Pardee School, said in a statement.

“Those who knew him joyfully confirm that he was a connoisseur of Mozart’s music, knew about Bismark’s attitude toward the Ottoman empire and the Civil War, followed debates in the field of philosophy of science, and knew the Bible better than many a professional theologian,” Lukes added.


Professor Ra’anan’s life story, including his name, was just as varied and wide-ranging.

An only child, he was born on June 10, 1926, in Vienna, with the birth name Heinz F. Frischwasser. By his teenage years in Liverpool, England, he was called Harry.

While living in Israel in the 1950s, he changed his name to Uri Ra’anan. "Uri means ‘my light.’ Ra’anan means ‘fresh,’ " his son, Michael of Potomac, Md., noted in a biographical sketch.

Professor Ra’anan’s father, Markus Frischwasser, owned a grocery store in Vienna, made parts for British warplanes when the family lived in England, and worked for a toy company after emigrating to the United States. His mother, Blima Ettinger, who was known as Bertha, had worked in a shoe factory in Poland before marrying.

After Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Nazis captured and tortured Markus. When he was released, the family used forged documents to escape to Switzerland, and then moved to England, eventually settling in Liverpool.

Studying history at Wadham College at Oxford University, he received an undergraduate degree, a master’s, and what was known as a BLitt, a specialized degree.

While attending a Zionist youth meeting in Liverpool in 1947, he met Estelle Khan. They married two years later and he worked for the BBC before they moved to Israel, where he initially worked in radio and for the Jerusalem Post.


His work as diplomatic correspondent for the publication Haaretz led Moshe Sharett, foreign minister and one-time prime minister of Israel, to offer Professor Ra’anan a post at the Israeli consulate in New York City.

He became counselor for the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., in the early 1960s, his son said, then was recruited by Zbigniew Brzezinski to become a senior fellow at Columbia University.

From there Professor Ra’anan went to the Fletcher School. In addition to teaching at Tufts and BU, he had been a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an associate of MIT’s Center for International Studies, and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University.

As a leader of the University Professors program at BU, Professor Ra’anan “was a towering figure,” Adil Najam, dean of the Pardee School, said in a statement, adding that along with being a valued mentor to students, he was “a role model to look up to for so many in the faculty — including myself when I first joined Boston University.”

Because of his expertise in Soviet Union studies, Professor Ra’anan testified before Congress several times, and Democratic and Republican candidates sought his advice and counsel. He was part of the foreign policy team during Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign.

Professor Ra’anan wrote, contributed to, and edited books, and was interviewed for numerous radio and TV news programs. In addition to penning op-eds for the Globe, he wrote essays and articles for other publications.


Among the books he edited was “Flawed Succession,” which Simon Sebag Montefiore praised in a 2009 New York Times op-ed.

Montefiore noted that in writing about the Russian succession of leadership during the 20th century, Professor Ra’anan explained that in the “absence of a transparent, consistently implemented, non-arbitrary transfer of power mechanism,” power was “transferred inevitably by coups, whether through covert opaque manipulations ... or physical elimination.”

Montefiore wrote that “without such a mechanism, ‘a democracy cannot be established,’ nor can rule of law or a civic society.”

Professor Ra’anan’s wife, Estelle, died in 2017, and their other son, Gavriel, who also was a scholar and academic, died of cancer in 1983.

A service has been held for Professor Ra’anan, who in addition to his son, Michael, leaves two grandchildren.

“He was a scholar, a diplomat, a journalist and pretty exceptional at each endeavor,” Michael said in a eulogy. “He was also a man of values. He was one of the early believers in a western human rights movement, especially as it regarded freedom for the Jews of the Soviet Union."

Equally at home intellectually in and out of his academic field, Professor Ra’anan’s love and knowledge of music ran so deep that he presented a lecture on Mozart for WBUR.

“He had a brilliant and detailed knowledge of European history and politics, a remarkable ability to draw precise, freehand, maps, a broad cultural hinterland, and a love in particular of Mozart,” Erik Goldstein, a professor of international relations and history at the Pardee School, said in a statement.


“He would always arrive with a pile of notes for his lectures, and then speak with clarity and precision for the session without ever having to consult them,” Goldstein added. “He was one of the pillars in building an academic program in international relations at BU.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at