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Reginald Zelnik, prominent UC Berkeley professor of Russian history, dies at age 68

– Professor Reginald Zelnik, a distinguished scholar in Russian and Soviet history at the University of California, Berkeley, who courageously defended students during the tumultuous Free Speech Movement and mentored countless young Russian history scholars, died on Monday (May 17) at age 68. He was killed when a delivery truck accidentally backed into him as he was walking on campus.

Reginald Zelnik on Sproul Plaza
Reginald Zelnik on Sproul Plaza, where the Free Speech Movement ignited in 1964. (Bonnie Azab Powell photo)

As faculty, students and campus staff struggle with the loss, they are remembering him as a teacher who was beloved by students, a scholar who was among the best in his field and a steadfast supporter of his colleagues and friends.

"This is a terrible tragedy for the campus that has left us greatly saddened," said Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl. "Reggie Zelnik was an extraordinarily popular professor for over 40 years and a personal friend of mine. He will be terribly missed by the entire community."

Zelnik first joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1964. A junior faculty member at the time, he supported student rights and defended the activists leading the Free Speech Movement. Support for students remained a constant throughout his career. Colleague Yuri Slezkine, a Soviet history professor at UC Berkeley, noted that many Russian historians consider themselves students of Zelnik - whether they received their graduate degree under his supervision or came to UC Berkeley from other colleges and universities to take one of his classes.

"He devoted much of life to nurturing and teaching students," said Slezkine. "He has an incredibly large and an incredibly devoted following. A lot of people teaching Russian history in America today are Reggie's students or people who consider themselves Reggie's students. There are dozens and dozens of grateful students all over the world. He was really an unbelievable person."

Zelnik was a pioneer in the field of Russian labor history who produced numerous books in that genre. His 1971 book, "Labor and Society in Tsarist Russia: The Factory Workers of St. Petersburg, 1855- 1870," was extremely influential among scholars in the then-emerging field. His 1999 book, "Law and Disorder on the Narova River: The Kreenholm Strike of 1872," used that incident to analyze Russian social history in general and the life stories of Russian workers in particular. He continued researching and writing until his death.

Born May 8, 1936, in New York City, Zelnik received his bachelor's degree from Princeton University in 1956. After a two-year stint in the U.S. Navy, he began graduate studies at Stanford University, receiving a master's degree there in 1961 and his doctorate in 1966.

Friends and colleagues said Zelnik was an optimistic soul who enjoyed playing the mandolin; singing in German, Russian, and French; and following baseball.

Many of them recalled his integrity and generosity. When called on to assist with an assignment or help solve a problem, he rarely declined. Zelnik served as chair of the History Department in the College of Letters and Science from 1994 to 1997 and also as vice chair and acting chair during the 1980s and 1990s. In the late 1970s, he was chair of the campus's Center for Slavic and East European Studies.

 Reginald Zelnik addresses a 1966 Vietnam War debate
In the spring of 1966, Reginald Zelnik chairs a UC Berkeley campus debate on the Vietnam War, attended by an estimated seven thousand students in a packed Harmon Gym. At the debate's end, students voted almost unanimously to condemn the war. (Photo courtesy University of California Press)

During the 1960s, Zelnik, as a young assistant professor, was part of a group of faculty members known as the "Committee of 200." In support of UC Berkeley students, the professors advocated broader free speech rights - in opposition to campus administrators, many senior faculty and the UC Board of Regents.

In 2002, Zelnik co-edited with Robert Cohen of New York University a collection of essays on the movement, "The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s" (University of California Press). Zelnik included his own essay on student leader Mario Savio, who became Zelnik's lifelong friend, and another on the role that Zelnik and other faculty members played during the movement. He titled that essay "On the Side of the Angels: The Berkeley Faculty and the FSM."

The Free Speech Movement marked an important episode in the life of the UC Berkeley campus and in Zelnik's own life, colleagues said. Zelnik is survived by his wife, Elaine Zelnik; daughter, Pamela Zelnik; son, Michael Zelnik; son-in-law, Mark Stuhr; and grandson, Jaxon Zelnik-Stuhr, all of Berkeley. He also leaves a brother, Martin Zelnik, of New York City. Services are pending.

Related story: Book by UC Berkeley, NYU professors offers fresh, behind-the-scenes look at Free Speech Movement August 2002