Karen Dawisha was the author of "Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia." She died April 11 of lung cancer, according to her family. She was 68.
Photo: CONTRIBUTED/MIAMI UNIVERSITY
Photo: CONTRIBUTED/MIAMI UNIVERSITY

Son recalls another side of his mother, a Miami professor who traced corruption in Russia

To her son, Emile, she was mom.

Karen Dawisha died April 11 of lung cancer, according to her family. She was 68.

“I learned more about mom’s sphere of influence later in life. I did not know much as a kid,” Emile Dawisha told the Journal-News. “She was and active, warm, caring mom. I do not know how she had the time to be such a force in her professional life and be a mom, shuttling my sister and me everywhere and organizing a closet late at night.”

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Karen Dawisha and her husband, Adeed Dawisha, distinguished professor of political science at Miami, both retired from Miami in 2016 and she was diagnosed with cancer later that year, in October. Also surviving are their son, Emile, and a daughter, Nadia, both Miami University graduates.

Aside from her very busy professional life and shuttling her son and daughter to various activities, Emile Dawisha recalls genuine interest in those activities.

“We were involved in drastically different things. Nadia was involved in theater. Mom learned to play show tunes on the piano to help her practice. I was in sports. She genuinely wanted to be active in all our extracurriculars,” Emile Dawisha said. “My sister said she was like a Mary Poppins type mother. She cooked, she kept things tidy. She was an incredible mom.”

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Born Karen Hurst in Colorado Springs, the daughter of a school teacher and jazz pianist, Karen Dawisha earned a bachelor’s degree in politics and Russian from the University of Lancaster, England in 1971 and a doctoral degree in economics from the London School of Economics in 1975.

She taught at a number of British and American universities before coming to Miami in 2000 as the first Walter E. Havighurst Professor of Political Science in the Department of Political Science at Miami and was the founding Director of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies. In addition, she did research and taught in the areas of post-communist transitions and Russian politics.

During her tenure as director, the Havighurst Center became a nationally and internationally recognized institution. Dawisha established, among other initiatives, the postdoctoral fellows program, the colloquium lecture series, the annual Young Researchers Conference and the undergraduate fellows program.

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She was the author of six books, the last of which was Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (Simon & Schuster 2014), which chronicles the rise of Vladimir Putin during his time in St. Petersburg in the 1990s. With painstaking research to support her claims, Dr. Dawisha exposed how Putin's friends and coworkers from his formative years have accumulated mass amounts of wealth and power.

She turned to Simon & Schuster after Cambridge University Press refused to publish the book out of fear of a lawsuit by Putin, according to a memorial of her published in the New York Times, which also noted she was consulted by both Congress and the State Department after release of the book.

Dawisha researched and taught about postcommunist transitions and Russian politics. In addition to authoring six books, she was editor of eight others and author of numerous journal articles, including "The West Is Ignoring Some Unpleasant Truths About Putin" for The Moscow Times, Feb. 26, 2015; and "Bad-Mannered Russians in the West" in The New York Times Dec. 4, 2014. 

One of the projects she most enjoyed at the Havighurst Center was the Silk Road Project. Dr. Dawisha was the Principal Investigator for two grants from the Department of Education and Fulbright-Hays for the development of new courses that extended the reach of Middle East, East Asian and Eurasian Studies at Miami University into Central Asia. As part of that curricular development, she organized a seven-week trip for 15 faculty from western China through Central Asia to Turkey.

Emile Dawisha said he became more aware of her mother’s professional accomplishments while a student at Miami. She was still “mom” when he moved to the campus begin his college career after graduating from Talawanda High School.

“My parents moved me into my dorm at Miami and on the drive home, she cried. We kidded her about that. It was a sweet thing but it was, like, five minutes home. I would still be home for laundry and to have home-cooked meals,” he said, adding it was always interesting to meet other students from her classes. “She was beloved by Russia and post-Soviet students. She had a cult following of Russia-philes.”

With the cancer diagnosis coming soon after her retirement, Karen Dawisha showed another side of herself to her son.

“She was a brilliant woman. Tough,” Emile Dawisha said. “Mom never pouted. For a year-and-a-half, she was quite a tough lady. It was never, ‘Woe is me.’ I did not know her tough side.”

A memorial for Karen Dawisha is scheduled for 11 a.m. May 5 at St. Mary Catholic Church, 111 E. High St. in Oxford.

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