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Taking history by the hand

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SEVERAL years ago I received this inquiry from Radcliffe College: Did I know of someone who might write an entry about my mother, Vera Micheles Dean, for the publication ``Notable American Women''? I offered to do the piece myself. Radcliffe turned down my offer, telling me that family members were not considered to be dispassionate observers. Thus forewarned, dear reader, let me try to sum up my mother's professional achievements.

As writer, editor, lecturer, and teacher, she informed Americans about the complex, and at times, dangerous world they had become part of following the post-World War I emergence of the United States as a major power. She sought to place the Soviet Union in a historical and political context, contributing to rational debate in place of hysteria.

In the final phase of her career, she stressed the need for Americans to be informed about Asia, Africa, and Latin America. These activities she under-took in her work at the Foreign Policy Association, and later, at Smith College, the University of Rochester, and New York University.

To her work she brought special qualities. First, a phenomenal knowledge of history and literature. Strindberg, in a play of his, has a character comment on the desirability of knowing how other people think and feel. Useful advice in one's relations with family and friends. Essential advice in relations among nations.

Through the prism of history and literature, she gained special insights; for example, an understanding of Russia's deep sense of insecurity. The US, protected by oceans to the west and east, with neighbors to the north and south who pose no threat to its security, over the centuries has been able to develop in relative tranquillity, our greatest national tragedy being a self-inflicted wound - the Civil War.

Contrast this to Russia's exposed position with powerful neighbors on all sides. Russia's artistic masterpieces portray the country's vulnerability: the destruction of Moscow by the French in 1812 is described in Tolstoy's ``War and Peace''; the overthrow of Czar Boris by the Poles, in Mussorgsky's opera ``Boris Godunov''; the invasion from Asia of the Polovtsy, in the opera ``Prince Igor'' by Borodin; and the invasions of the Mongols from the east and Knights of the Teutonic Order from the west in Sergei Eisenstein's film epic ``Alexander Nevsky.'' As well they might, the tall towers around the Kremlin remind former Yugoslav diplomat Veljko Micunovic ``almost of military camps and invading hordes.''

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