Michael Luther, a longtime Russian History professor at Hunter College whose dissertation, “The Birth of Soviet Ukraine,” uncovered important insights about the extension of totalitarian control in Eastern Europe, died on Nov. 28 in New York City. He was 97.
An expert on Soviet foreign policy, he earned his BA, MA and PhD in history from Columbia University, taught at Hunter beginning in 1960, chairing the Russian Area Studies Program and serving on many committees. He retired from Hunter in 2010 at 85, having instructed thousands of students over 50 years.
“Michael Luther was the consummate Hunter professor — loved by his students and colleagues and a determined researcher who brought to light findings about Soviet imperialism that reverberate even today, as we enter a new ‘Cold War’ with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” said Hunter President Jennifer J. Raab. “We will miss him greatly, and extend our deepest condolences to his family.”
The Brooklyn native attended Cornell University with the hopes of becoming a doctor. Realizing that his true aptitude was for languages, he quit college for an intensive Russian-language program offered by the State Department. He worked as a translator for the State Department during World War II. In 1951, he was part of a Harvard team that interviewed 700 refugees from across the Soviet Union, giving the West its first in-depth look at conditions in the Stalinist lands.
Returning to his studies, he worked at Columbia Press by day and took classes at night to finish his degrees. Later, that experience gave him special kinship with his Hunter students — many of whom he taught at night.
''It’s tough to be a night student,” he told the New York Times in 1982. “To work all day and then come to class — you really have to know what you want.”
His students appreciated his skills as an educator.
“Professor Luther is by far my favorite professor because of his deep knowledge of the subject, years of expertise in Russian and European history, his teaching style and his sense of humor,” said one.
Luther’s love of books and learning remained with him to the end, according to his family.
He is survived by his wife, Vilma, daughter Meg (Matthew) and two grandchildren, Nicholas and Lucia.