Michael Kaser (Emeritus Fellow) 1926 – 2021

Professor Archie Brown remembers illustrious Russian Centre Fellow Michael Kaser, 1926 – 2021

With the death of Michael Kaser on 15 November 2021, at the age of 95, St Antony’s lost one of its most eminent, loyal, and long-serving Fellows. Michael was successively a Research Fellow in 1960, Faculty Fellow (from 1963), Professorial Fellow (after his appointment to a University Readership in Economics in 1972) until his retirement in 1993, and Emeritus Fellow.

Michael was a good citizen in every sense. Although extremely active in University administration, he was assiduous also in his attention to College business. He served for six years on the University’s General Board of Faculties, chaired the Social Studies Board, and was an active member of numerous University committees, including the Inter-Faculty Committee for Slavonic Studies and the Europaeum Committee. Within St Antony’s Michael was Sub-Warden, 1986-87, a member for many years of the editorial board of the St Antony’s/Macmillan book series, a member of the committee for the South-East Europe Programme, and, of course, a pillar of the Russian and East European Centre (as the Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre was known prior to the fall of Communism in Europe).

He accepted a vast range of invitations to serve on Councils and committees in the wider world, often as Chair or Convenor. Michael’s collegiality and consensus-seeking style, combined with his immense industry and enthusiasm, made him the obvious choice, and there seemed to be no limit to his ability and willingness to take on another task. His Who’s Who entry is conspicuously large, occupying well over half a column. In the days when letters were dictated by Fellows to secretaries rather than typed by themselves on computers, Michael generated more correspondence than all the other Fellows in the Russian and East European Centre put together. Fortunately, his talents included an ability to attract substantial grants from Foundations for large-scale, collaborative research projects, and they invariably provided him with funding for full-time secretarial help to the understandable relief of successive Russian Centre secretaries.

Michael’s collaborative projects were of immense value to the College and University. He was an economist of a traditional style, concerned with the real world rather than mathematical models, but with an excellent knowledge and understanding of statistical sources. With his wide-ranging expertise on the economies and economic history of the Soviet Union and the whole of Eastern Europe, he became Britain’s leading specialist on Comecon, the co-ordinating economic organization of the European Communist states. Michael’s first book, published in 1965, was Comecon: Integration Problems of the Planned Economies. His large research projects, especially a multi-volume Economic History of Eastern Europe, 1919-1975, of which he was General Editor, brought to St Antony’s many of the most eminent economists and historians from the Central and East European Communist states at a time when such travel was restricted. Michael’s own travels to Eastern Europe were extensive and included even Enver Hoxha’s Albania, then the most closed society on the European continent.

It was through Michael’s efforts that the eminent Polish economist Włodzimierz Brus came to Oxford as a Senior Research Fellow on a Leverhulme grant Michael obtained; subsequently Brus was appointed to a University professorship in his own right. Other notable scholars from Communist countries who made several extended visits to St Antony’s to work in collaboration with Michael included the Hungarian economic historians, George Ranki and Ivan Berend, both of them influential reformers in their own country. (The latter was President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, 1985-1990.)

A strong advocate for Soviet, Russian, and East European studies, Michael was a leading figure in national inter-university networks. He was the first Convenor and Chairman of the National Association for Soviet and East European Studies (NASEES) from 1965 to 1973. Later, following a merger between that organization of social scientists working in the Soviet and East European field with their counterparts in the humanities, he was from 1988 to 1991 President of the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies (BASEES).

Michael’s international, as well as national, scholarly connections were extensive, especially across Europe. He served on the Steering Committee of the Königswinter Anglo-German Conference, 1969-1990, chaired the Standing Committee on Eastern Europe of the European Economic Association, 1990-1993, and he lectured regularly at the international business school, INSEAD, at Fontainebleau from 1959 to 1992. He was also a recurrent academic visitor to the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. For over twenty years (1986-2007) he was the General Editor of the publications of the International Economic Association. Though Michael’s North American contacts were less extensive than his European, he was a Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan in 1966.

No-one could have been less of an ivory-tower recluse than Michael. He had a keen interest in policy and politics and was often consulted by the Foreign Office and other British ministries as well as by several UN agencies, the European Commission, the IMF, the EBRD and NATO. He served on the Council of the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House) from 1979 to 1985, and from 1985 to 1987 he was a Specialist Adviser to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.

Michael’s most important opportunity to influence government, however, came when he was a prominent member of a group of eight academics invited to write papers for, and answer questions from, the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe and Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine at a day-long Chequers seminar on 8 September 1983. When Cabinet Office and FCO papers were declassified in the present century, it transpired that the meeting produced what the Prime Minister’s Private Secretary described as ‘a change of policy’ (which would not be publicly announced) to one of engagement with Communist Europe. One result of that seminar (in which I was also a participant) was an invitation the following year to Mikhail Gorbachev to visit the UK at a time when he was not yet Soviet leader. Michael was one of four academics (as was I) invited to 10 Downing Street the night before Gorbachev’s arrival in December 1984 to brief the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary. The Thatcher-Gorbachev meeting turned out to be a great success (for both principals) and led to the ‘Iron Lady’ famously remarking, ‘I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together’.

To the steady stream of foreign scholars Michael welcomed to the College, he always seemed to be quintessentially English. He was, in fact, half-Swiss. His father, Charles Kaser (1898-1983), was a French-speaking Swiss who settled in Britain and married an English woman, Mabel Blunden (1891-1976) who had worked on the staff of the UK Delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference. In outlook, and in his everyday practice, Michael was very much an internationalist. A fluent French speaker from his youth, he later added Russian and a working knowledge of an impressive range of East European languages.  

Michael always went out of his way to make welcome new members of the College. Courteous, kind and thoughtful, he combined a political liberalism, with both a small l and capital L (he joined the British Liberal Party in 1945), with conservatism in dress and in his regard for British traditions, not least those of Oxford and Cambridge colleges. (He was also a member of the Reform Club.) From childhood and throughout his life, he was a practising Catholic. He took an interest in the Keston Institute (formerly Keston College), originally set up to study the plight of religion in Communist countries, chairing its Council, 1994-2002. He was a Governor (1968-1995) of Plater College, a predominantly Catholic workers’ college in Oxford, which was founded in 1922 but closed its doors permanently in 2005.

Born in London on 2 May 1926, Michael Charles Kaser attended Gunnersbury Catholic Grammar School and Wimbledon College before becoming an undergraduate at King’s College, Cambridge, where he completed the Economics Tripos in 1945. His entry into university teaching was indirect. His first job was in the Economics Section of the Ministry of Works, but in 1947 he joined the Foreign Office, working on economic research and serving in London and Moscow (where he was Second Secretary in the Commercial section) until 1951. His colleague both in the Foreign Office and, subsequently, at St Antony’s, Harry Willetts once recalled his first encounter with Michael. Serving in the British Embassy in Moscow at the time, he was deputed to meet the latest newcomer when he arrived in Moscow by train after the long and tedious rail journey from London. Most people, after that journey to Stalin’s Russia, arrived looking somewhat bedraggled and apprehensive, but Willetts recalled his surprise when a dapper young man stepped out cheerfully as if, said Harry, he had ‘just emerged from Savile Row’.

A paper on Soviet price reform Michael published in the Economic Journal In 1950 led to an invitation to join the research staff of the UN Economic Commission for Europe in Geneva. This he accepted, and Geneva remained his base from 1951 to 1963 when he moved permanently to Oxford as a Fellow of St Antony’s (having already, in 1960-61, held a Research Fellowship at the College) and University Lecturer in Soviet Economics. During his Geneva years, Michael visited the Soviet Union several times (taking in five of its fifteen republics) as well as travelling to every Central and East European country.

It was in Geneva that Michael met his wife, Elizabeth Piggford, who was working as a technical editor at the World Health Organization. They were married in 1954. They went on to bring up a family of five children, four boys and a girl. Sadly, the eldest son Gregory (Greg) predeceased Michael by just under a year, a victim of Covid. Michael is survived by his widow Elizabeth and by Matthew, Benet, Thomas and Lucy, and by nine grandchildren. The immense range of commitments he took on notwithstanding, Michael was a devoted family man, and his wife and children were devoted to him.

I first heard Michael speak when he gave a paper at Leonard Schapiro’s seminar at LSE around 1963. Then in his late thirties, he looked much more youthful, and he kept the facility for the rest of his life of looking at least a decade younger than his chronological age. He also retained to the end his innate courtesy and, in spite of everything, his optimism.

Michael was a prolific author. He published some 370 journal articles and more than twenty books as author, co-author or editor/co-editor. He and I were co-editors and part-authors of four of those books, and there was never a cross word between us. Collegiality and co-operation seemed to come naturally to him. His work was widely recognized. He was awarded an Oxford DLitt in 1993 and he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Birmingham where he also held an Honorary Professorship after retiring from Oxford. His contribution to adult education at Plater College was recognized by the Catholic Church when he was awarded a Papal Knighthood in the Order of St Gregory the Great by the Holy See in 1990. The Berisha government of Albania gave him the Order of Naim Frashëri in 1995, and from the Polish government he was awarded the Knight’s Cross, Order of Merit, in 1999. He is fondly remembered by his surviving colleagues, as he will be by generations of students, for whom he was always an approachable and encouraging mentor.

Archie Brown

Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre

Where next?