Passing of Judge Stephen Williams

Robert Weinberg's picture

Stephen Fain Williams, 1936-2020


Judge Stephen F. Williams died from complications of the coronavirus on August 7, 2020.  He was 83. Steve came to the field of Russian history late in life.  He had an illustrious career as an attorney and taught law at the University of Colorado before Ronald Reagan appointed him to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, where he heard cases for the better part of three decades. A well-respected jurist, Williams was praised by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John G. Roberts, Jr. as “one of the shining jewels of the Federal Judiciary” and as “a grand colleague” with “integrity” by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginzburg


Of his many noteworthy decisions, the one that has resonance for scholars of Russian Jewish history concerns the Brooklyn-based Lubavitch Hasidim’s claim that they are the rightful owner of the tens of thousands of books, pamphlets, and manuscripts that had come into the possession of the Russian State Library (formerly the Lenin Library) after World War I.  Steve and his fellow judges ruled in 2010 that the rare materials belonged to the Lubavitchers and ordered repatriation of the rare collection which, to the best of my knowledge, has not yet occurred.


In the early 1990s Steve decided to learn Russian (he took classes—free, I might add--at the Department of Agriculture) so he could conduct research on the historical foundations of private property in post-communist Russia.  Building upon his long-standing interest in the rule of law, particularly when it concerned the carceral state, Steve immersed himself in the study of property rights in the immediate post-1905 era when Petr Stolypin set out to restructure agrarian Russia. The result was Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime: The Creation of Private Property in Russia, 1906-1915 (2006). His next book, entitled The Reformer: How One Liberal Fought to Preempt the Russian Revolution (2017), was a biography of Vasilii Maklakov, a trial lawer and prominent Kadet who advocated for the rule of law in tsarist Russia. The common thread in both books is Williams’s belief that the unrest that engulfed Russia after 1914 disrupted Russia’s embrace of promising liberal developments that emerged, however tentatively, at the beginning of the twentieth century.


I had the very good fortune to make his acquaintance because our interests converged: Maklakov helped defend Mendel Beilis, whose trial for ritual murder in 1913 was the subject of my research. He regularly attended the annual ASEEES convention and conferences devoted to revolutionary Russia. I will miss his good cheer and incisive questions and comments when we met once or twice a year for a meal. His intellectual curiosity and moral compass imbued all his endeavors.


Williams is survived by his wife Faith; his daughters Susan and Sarah; three sons, Geoffrey, Timothy, and Nicholas; nine grandchildren; and his sisters Joan Farr and Honor Ishida.


Bob Weinberg

Swarthmore College

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