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Jan Triska, political science professor emeritus, dead at 81
Jan F. Triska, an expert in communist Eastern Europe respected for keeping his research free from the orthodox ideological battles of the Cold War, died Feb. 27 at his home on campus. He was 81.
Plans for a memorial service are pending.
Colleagues recalled Triska as a scholar and an outdoorsman who was well liked in the Department of Political Science. "He never had a hidden agenda," said Professor Emeritus Hubert Marshall. "He was affable, tolerant and never had a feud with anyone."
Despite fleeing from communist Czechoslovakia in 1948, Triska kept his research free from ideology. "That was unique for students of communist affairs at the time," said David D. Finley, a professor emeritus at Colorado College, who was Triska's research assistant at Stanford in the 1960s. "What characterized his approach was to look at [communism] as an interconnected system and infer generalizations and theories about what was happening rather than make moralistic judgments."
Triska was born Jan. 26, 1922, in Prague, Czechoslovakia, the son of a cabinetmaker. In 1939, he interrupted his law studies when Nazi authorities closed Charles University in Prague. During World War II, Triska was deported to a Nazi labor camp in Germany but was liberated by Gen. George Patton's U.S. Third Army in 1945.
After the war, Triska returned to Prague and completed his law degree just before the communist coup d'etat in 1948. As a student leader with connections to western organizations, he was in danger of being arrested, Triska's widow, Carmel, said; consequently, he fled from Czechoslovakia across the border to the American occupation zone in Germany. "He and a good friend left together," she said. "He was carrying two suitcases and wearing three coats when he fell into a stream during the escape. They could have been apprehended but the border was somewhat porous and they made it through." Triska was granted a U.S. immigration visa as a political refugee and went on to earn degrees from Yale Law School in 1950 and 1952. He also earned a doctorate in political science from Harvard in 1957.
Triska authored 14 books, more than 60 articles and two monograph series. His last book, The Great War's Forgotten Front (1998), was based on his father's battlefield diary as a conscripted Austrian soldier in World War I. At the time of his death, Triska was writing his memoirs. "He wrote every morning," Carmel said. "He was very disciplined in his habits." The previous summer, Triska had undergone bypass surgery. Carmel said that his death came as a shock because he had fully recovered.
Triska first came to campus in 1956 to the Hoover Institution, where he co-authored with Robert M. Slusser A Calendar of Soviet Treaties, 1917-1957 and The Theory, Law and Policy of Soviet Treaties. Stanford University Press published the research in 1959 and 1962, respectively.
Triska taught at the University of California-Berkeley and Cornell before joining Stanford's Department of Political Science in 1960. During the 1960s, he headed the Stanford Studies of the Communist System. Triska served as chairman of the Department of Political Science four times and co-chaired the International Relations Program from 1983 to 1987.
At Stanford, Triska taught courses in international law, international relations, the politics of the communist system and Soviet foreign policy. "He maintained a good balance between research and teaching," Marshall said. "He took undergraduate teaching seriously."
Michael McFaul, associate professor of political science, recalled being influenced as an undergraduate by Triska. "The message of his teaching was that you can't group the communist countries and treat them in the same way," he said. "Czechoslovakia was a radically different place from the Soviet Union. He was the first person to make me realize the difference."
Describing himself when he entered Stanford "as a country bumpkin from Montana," McFaul said Triska's support was also important on a personal level. "He told me, 'Michael, you're a very special person -- you're going to go far,'" McFaul said. "He gave me the kind of confidence I so needed then. We professors should be as supportive of our students as he was. He was a great man."
In 1968, Triska wrote Soviet Foreign Policy with Finley from Colorado College and edited Constitutions of the Communist Party States. His other books include Political Development in Eastern Europe (1977) and The World of Superpower (1985), which he co-authored with Nobutaka Ike and Robert North. Another book, Dominant Powers and Subordinate States: The United States in Latin America and the USSR in Eastern Europe (1986), compared and contrasted the two superpowers and their spheres of influence. "This was a good book," Marshall said. "[Triska] saw a parallel between the U.S. domination of the Western Hemisphere and ... Soviet tactics in Eastern Europe. He tried to understand that Soviet domination of Eastern Europe -- while not good -- was not unique."
During the 1980s, Triska ran the Overseas Study program in Poland and, according to McFaul, took credit for helping recruit former Provost Condoleezza Rice to Stanford. Rice had written her doctoral thesis on the Czechoslovak military at the University of Denver under the mentorship of Joseph Korbel, an exiled Czech diplomat who knew Triska.
Triska retired from Stanford in 1989, but he remained active in Czech émigré intellectual circles and went on to assist his homeland following the Velvet Revolution the same year.
"This gave him a new lease on life," said David Holloway, director of Stanford's Institute for International Studies. "He became active in a way that was not possible during the Cold War."
In 1990, Triska and other academics from the United States and Europe organized a seminar in modern political science at Palacky University in Czechoslovakia for professors schooled in Marxism-Leninism. A year later, he took part in an international committee in Austria charged with helping the new democracies of Eastern Europe identify and solve problems involved in transforming their national systems of education and research. In 1994, he helped bring Czech President Vaclav Havel to Stanford to receive the Law School's prestigious Jackson H. Ralston Prize. The recipient of many awards, Triska received his final honor last summer in Washington, D.C., when Havel bestowed on him the Medal of Merit, First Grade, for "meritorious services" to the Czech Republic.
Unlike many other people forced to flee their homeland during the Cold War, Triska never became a fanatic, Marshall said. "What impressed me about his work was that he was a refugee from communism, but he had an incredible understanding of the system," he said. "He would never defend these [communist] regimes, but he knew they were stable and why their citizens didn't want to be free -- many were afraid of the dog-eat-dog competition in the West. What I admired so much was this balance in understanding what these regimes did for people even though they were totalitarian."
McFaul said Triska was always looking for a "third way" to understand communism. "Other people were radically anti-communist or soft on communism," he said. "[Triska] tried to bridge gaps." Carmel said her husband had no patience with people who made up their minds before studying the issues. "Jan wasn't going to buy ideology; he was really going to find out what was going on," she said.
Triska is survived by Carmel, his wife of 51 years; his sister, Bozena Rehakova, of the Czech Republic; his sons, Mark of Arcata, Calif., and John of Livermore, Calif., their spouses and four granddaughters.
The family has requested that donations designated "In Memory of Professor Jan F. Triska" for a scholarship fund can be sent to Memorial Gifts, 326 Galvez St., Stanford, CA 94305-6105.
By Lisa Trei