Some Memories of Alex Shtromas

Professor Alexander Shtromas

December 18, 2002 (PWPA Foundation Day)((PWPA-International was Founded, Seoul, Korea, Dec. 18, 1983))

December 18 is the anniversary of the founding of PWPA International. One stalwart member of PWPA involved in its founding was Alexander Shtromas. Professor Shtromas passed away in June 1999. This memory was written in his honor on PWPA Foundation Day 2002.

The first discussions with Alex Shtromas that I remember were in Chicago in November of 1983. The occasion was the formation of International Journal on World Peace at a meeting that was attached to the prestigious International Conference of the Unity of the Sciences (ICUS), which was chaired by Professor Morton A. Kaplan, a distinguished professor of political science at the University of Chicago. About 20 peace scholars and members of the Professors World Peace Academy (PWPA) chapters in the United States and Europe had gathered together with a New York graphic designer to discuss the format of the new journal to be published by PWPA-USA.

Alex had been a member of PWPA in the UK since some time in the 1970s after he had emigrated from the USSR to join his sister’s family there. In 1974 he began working as a research associate and lecturer in peace studies at the University of Bradford where Peter van den Dungen also worked. Van den Dungen, a rising star in peace history, was also at the meeting in Chicago. I have a paper Alex wrote titled “Strategy for Peace in a Changing World Order” that he presented at an International Cultural Foundation Conference in London in April of 1977. The conference was organized by Brian Wijeratne, who was attached to Cambridge University. Through meetings sponsored by the International Cultural Foundation, Alex met Professor Kaplan and Kaplan arranged for the appointment of Alex as a visiting professor at the University of Chicago in the Spring Quarter of 1982.

In 1983, I was working on my Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate School in California, but I had begun attending meetings of PWPA in the United States about 1980. Alex and I were destined to become close friends and work on dozens of projects together for the rest of his life. I have boxes of papers in storage related to PWPA events we worked on together and will not be able to do justice to any of the details in this short reminiscence.

After the Chicago conference, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the founder of the International Cultural Foundation, and a staunch South Korean anti-communist, called 70 scholars from around the world to join him in Korea. The purpose was two-fold; to speak out about the dangers of communism to the South Korean people, and to organize Professors World Peace Academy International. Alex Shtromas delivered a speech “To Fight Communism: Why and How?” advocating a fight against communism in the West and outside the Soviet Union on an ideological level. He urged the West to switch “its policies from supporting the status quo to the support of change in the USSR and its dependencies.” The speech was printed as a booklet and used as an article in the first issue of International Journal on World Peace, which appeared in September 1984.

On December 18, 1983, Reverend Moon invited the 70 international scholars to his home where the founding documents of PWPA International were signed. Alex Shtromas was one of the founding signatories at the First International Congress of PWPA. The Reverend Moon promised the scholars that he would provide financial support for this new international peace movement, which would take the rhetoric of peace away from the seeming exclusive dominion the communists held over the term in those days.

In January 1984, I was hired to work for the International Cultural Foundation as the Secretary General of PWPA-USA, to assist Professor Panos Bardis, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Toledo in Ohio with the production of International Journal on World Peace, and to help organize further activities of PWPA International. It wasn’t long before I was communicating with Professor Shtromas on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

After the PWPA Congress in Korea and subsequent discussions with Professors Kaplan and Shtromas, Professor Alexis Rannit, a prominent Estonian Emigre teaching at Yale University, sent a proposal to PWPA for a large International Congress to be held on “The Fall of the Soviet Empire.” In the proposal, Rannit stated that all empires are destined to fall, and that the Soviet Union, the last big empire, would fall as well. The world should come together to prepare for the impending collapse and insure that it happens peacefully. Professor Kaplan, now President of PWPA International, took the proposal to Reverend Moon, who agreed to fund a large international academic event to study and predict “The Fall of the Soviet Empire.” Kaplan, Shtromas, and Rannit had been asked to organize the scholars to attend the Second International Congress of PWPA on the theme “The Fall of the Soviet Empire.” I was to head the conference secretariat to support them. The Congress was scheduled for August 1985.

Alex Shtromas was in the United States as a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution during the Spring of 1984. Although Alex was widely read and knew the names and theories of hundreds of sovietologists, political scientists, and international legal scholars, it was a chance for him to become better acquainted with some of the most prominent scholars on communism and the Soviet Union in the United States. Among them was Sidney Hook, who was also at the Hoover Institution, and knew Professor Kaplan through their mutual work with The Society for Rational Alternatives in New York. Professor Shtromas received a comment from Professor Hook, for the first issue of International Journal on World Peace. Later in 1984, Professor Hook was awarded the Presidential Freedom Award from President Ronald Reagan.

While a child, Alexandras Shtromas and his family, Lithuanians, were imprisoned by the Nazis. After the war, a prominent Lithuanian communist who had been a friend of his father, took him in, finished raising him, and had got him a top education at the University of Moscow. Indeed, he owed a lot to this communist leader. Frequently, when he was interviewed at PWPA conferences, Alex would say, “I was the last believing Marxist in Russia, and I quit believing by 1957—it is the system that has kept everyone going, but it is a non-viable system.”

I had visited a number of hotels and chose the Inter·Continental Hotel in Geneva, Switzerland to serve as the venue. Then we printed up letterhead for the Congress titled “The Fall of the Soviet Empire.” We began sending out invitations to scholars. Some of the more famous scholars (I particularly remember Robert Conquest and Sidney Hook) had a problem with the title. I received a call from Sidney Hook after he received his invitation in the mail. He told me that he had been planning to attend the conference and give glowing praise for Reverend Moon, Kaplan, and Shtromas, but he could not attend a conference with that title. “I would be made a laughingstock,” he told me, “because scholars study facts, and the fall of the Soviet Union is not a fact.” Scholars would be discredited if they acted as soothsayers. He was very disappointed that Kaplan and Shtromas had agreed to such a title.

With such feedback and in order to keep such leading sovietologists on board, without consulting Reverend Moon, we changed the title on the conference letterhead to “The Soviet Union and the Challenge of the Future.” In September 1984, we held a planning meeting off the ICUS conference at the J.W. Marriot Hotel in Washington, DC. I had been asking Alex to write a complete conference program outline with potential speakers for several months. He still hadn’t drawn up a plan by the time he arrived in Washington, so I called a temporary stenographer (who by coincidence had taken a class from Professor Kaplan in Chicago several years earlier) and told Alex, “Sit here with this secretary all day if you need to. Let’s get an outline worked out.”

It was then that I became aware of the massive amount of knowledge Alex Shtromas carried around in his head. No less than three hundred names of experts on the Soviet Union, social scientists and lawyers, together with the names of their Universities and departments, were recited from memory. He gave not only names of people in the UK, at Chicago, the Hoover Institute, or Harvard, but the list included scholars in other countries, including Germany, Holland, Spain, Israel, Australia. By the end of the day, working with Professors Kaplan and Rannit, we had a conference outline: Part 1: The Coming Crisis and Part 2: The Alternative. Each part had plenary sessions with world-famous speakers like Michael Voslensky, Richard Lowenthal, and Edward Shils. Each part had six panels chaired by highly accomplished scholars. For each panel, Professor Shtromas suggested about six paper presenters and the titles of the papers they would write. Then he suggested an additional eight to ten discussants for each panel. He came with enough information in his head for us to track most of these people down and send them invitations.

Morton Kaplan went to visit Reverend Moon in December of 1984 to give a report on the upcoming conference. Reverend Moon was surprised by the new title on the conference letterhead he told Professor Kaplan, “I promised support for a conference on ‘The Fall of the Soviet Empire’, not what you have on this letterhead.” Kaplan told a gathering of 30 PWPA members in New York on December 18 that we were changing the name back, with the final result being “The Fall of the Soviet Empire: Prospects for Transition to a Post Soviet World.” It was the last time I saw Professor Rannit. He died suddenly from a heart attack a week later. His wife Tina took on his role as her mission and followed up on all of his contacts and attended the conference.

Sidney Hook and Robert Conquest did not attend, but in August 1985, 95 papers were presented to a group of 300 sovietologists and national PWPA leaders. The event was perhaps the largest assembly of such experts ever to gather. In addition, we had newspaper reporters as well as government intelligence agents coming to find out what was going on. Violetta Shtromas entertained us with songs in five languages after dinner one evening. It was truly a memorable event.

The event was not only a high mark in the life of Alex Shtromas, it was a turning point in world history. Something changed in the hearts and minds of those who attended. Before the conference, nearly all sovietologists, as all other people in the West, felt that the Soviet Union was a power that would never collapse. People acted as if it would last forever. emigres acted as if they would never return home. This conference laid out the weaknesses inherent in the system, the ethnic strife, pollution and the reality of discontented youth. Much of this had been kept from the rest of the world by Soviet censorship and propaganda. Shtromas made it clear that he believed that the system could change from within, without triggering a nuclear holocaust. By the end of the conference, others had been persuaded. It was as if a large dark cloud had been lifted, and people who had come with pessimism, went home with the hope for change. They began talking of change, and that hope made a real effect on the views of others.

A video tape on “The Soviet Union and the Challenge of the Future” was produced. Four thick books, edited by Shtromas and Kaplan, were produced with the most complete analysis of the Soviet System ever to appear in one place.

In 1989, when the Soviet system collapsed and the Berlin Wall was torn down, much of the world was taken by surprise, but those who had attended the Geneva conference knew it was coming. In 1990, I had a conversation with a man who had attended the Geneva conference as an undercover agent for the CIA. He told me, “Not only did that conference accurately predict the nature of the collapse of the Soviet Empire, it may well have provided the blueprint.”

The Soviet Bloc was still intact in 1986, but Alex Shtromas and I attended numerous PWPA meetings in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. We created opportunities for him to speak to seasoned communists outside of Russia, where he was still persona non grata. I remember some feisty exchanges that took place at a conference in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia organized by our PWPA chapter in Greece in October of 1987. Participants from Eastern Europe, for the most part, had to defend the official state views on issues of ideology and history. There was a participant from Czechoslovakia who was explaining how the communists took control of some state in Eastern Europe after World War II. Alex, who was a fastidious student of East European history and spoke most East European languages, knew the details of the history that had been re-written, and set all of us straight about what really happened. When we toured Dubrovnik, even though he knew the language, he spoke in English so as not to endure the wrath of Yugoslavs who hated Russians and their occupation of Eastern Europe.

My first trip to Russia was in October 1989. I went as a PanAm tourist and stayed on one of the PanAm floors in the Hotel Ukraina in Moscow. Alex supplied me with names of friends I should visit to get a real tour. These included: Victoria Chalikova, a literary author whose father had been dragged of to a gulag for wrapping up a fish in a newspaper that had Stalin’s picture on the front. She took me to a community theater where a play about Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag” was being shown publicly for the first time. G.S. Pomerantz, a philosopher who had survived the gulag and written a book titled Rose of the World, in which he spoke about the unification of the world’s great religions. Leonid Volkov, who was legally running for parliament on an opposition ticket for the first time, came to Professor Pomerantz’s apartment to meet me. And, Jacob Berger, an expert on China, a good social scientist with a Jewish background, who was never promoted in the Institute for Social Sciences because loyal ideologues were always given those positions, gave me an inside tour of the buildings of the Academy of Social Sciences in Moscow. I went back to Russia many times in the next few years, but must thank Alex Shtromas for the introduction to his friends who gave me a look at Russia few other PanAm tourists ever received.

In 1989, Alex Shtromas was back in the United States teaching at Boston College and then moved to his final home at Hillsdale College in 1990. Morton Kaplan was undoubtedly helpful in getting him a tenured position there. With the collapse of the Soviet System, PWPA had moved on to conferences on the future of democracy and Alex proved that he knew as much about Western political theory as he did about the Soviet system.

The Fourth International Congress of PWPA, held in London in August 1989, was chaired by Edward Shils, founder of the Institute for Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and his former student, Roger Michener, who was teaching at Princeton University. Shils had been impressed by the Geneva meeting, and it was undoubtedly the success of that meeting that led to his acceptance to organize for PWPA a similar international event on “Liberal Democratic Societies: Their Present State and Future Prospects.” Professor Shtromas was asked to organize a panel for this conference on “World Order and Liberal Democracy.” His main concern was how to reconcile the right of nations to self-determination with the management and institutionalization of supra-national and global institutions. He advocated a global commonwealth that would enhance and protect the sovereignty of nations, much along the lines outline by Immanuel Kant in his Perpetual Peace.

He developed and elaborated on this theme at PWPA meetings and in articles for International Journal on World Peace the following years. Occasionally we disagreed on whether homogeneous nation-states were desirable, or even possible, in our heterogeneous global society, but our discussions always increased my understanding of the issues and my respect for the commitment Alex Shtromas had made to the creation of a free and peaceful world.

In 1991, the Professors World Peace Academy made a proposal to the University of Bridgeport to establish a relationship that would make a world-class university focused on training young men and women for the 21st century. Alex came, along with others, to encourage the university to accept the proposal. That year, now able to return to Russia, he traveled with me to a conference in Moscow on “Culture and Religion,” where he presented a paper on “The Unification of the Contemporary World and Contemporary Values.”

One final thing that I will say about Alex Shtromas is that he treasured good friends and good conversation. At conferences, like the one in Dubrovnik, Alex would always be in the center of the conversation and inevitably have the newest soviet jokes to tell. On my first trip to Russia, I met many of his good friends there, with whom he had had many good conversations. While I lived in New Jersey, Alex occasionally stayed at my home. In 1992, when I moved from New Jersey to Minnesota, our family stayed for a day with Alex and Violetta in Hillsdale. His house was always open to friends. We stayed up late at night discussing the issues of the world. In 1996, PWPA was asked to help inaugurate the World University Federation in Montevideo, Uruguay. As usual Alex responded to the invitation quickly, for he always considered himself a “foot soldier” for PWPA. Again, when the meetings were over, I went to his hotel room where we reminisced and philosophized until about 3 A.M.

The last PWPA meeting Alex Shtromas attended, and the last time I saw him face to face, was in Seoul, Korea, in February 1999. The occasion was a conference on “Family Ethics and World Peace.” He attended with Violetta. Alex looked physically weakened since the last time I had seen him, but he never complained and never let on that he was battling cancer. In April 1999 I received a package of photos from him in the mail. Most of them were of him and me in various parts of the world. A handwritten note said, “I believe friends should keep such things.” Alex Shtromas was a philosopher, a historian, a political scientist, a linguist and a teacher. We worked together to reform the communist system, establish better democracies, and better university education. But, that note, written when he knew his days were numbered, summarized for me what he felt was most important about life on earth: friendship. And, I am happy to remember him most as friend.

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Some Memories of Alex Shtromas — 3 Comments

    • Alex Shtromas was teaching at Hillsdale College when he passed away, but I don’t know where his papers are or whether there was a library created for him. I have copies of some of the publications he produced for Professors World Peace Academy, but they are not available online at this time.

  1. There is an Aleksandras Stromas Fund (his archive) in the Lithuanian Emigration Institute of Vytautas Magnus University (VMU) in Kaunas.
    I visited it not long after his papers were received there.

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