College mourns Prof. Robert Sharlet

Publication Date

Colleagues and alumni are mourning the loss of Robert S. “Bob” Sharlet, professor emeritus of political science, whose teaching and research chronicled the dramatic shifts of politics and law in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras.

Sharlet, the Chauncey Winters Research Professor of Political Science Emeritus, passed away Jan. 26, 2019 at 83.

Sharlet taught at Union from 1967 until his retirement in 2003. He also taught courses on Eastern Europe, political justice, human rights and the Vietnam War.

Prof. Robert Sharlet

Prof. Robert Sharlet

He launched his career in Soviet and Eastern European studies in 1956, when he took a break from college for a stint in the Army. Eager to see Europe, he enrolled in the Army school that trained young Americans in languages spoken in areas of military interest. He made the “truly serendipitous” decision to study Czech and joined Army Intelligence in West Germany where he went undercover as a Philco TV salesman, eloped with (but did not marry) a countess and moonlighted as a car racing correspondent, according to the family obituary.

After the Army, he completed a B.A. in American civilization from Brandeis University, and then pursued a master’s and Ph.D. from Indiana University in Soviet studies. He was an exchange fellow at Moscow University Law School, and earned a certificate in Foreign and Comparative Law from Columbia University Law School.

“I found the field absolutely fascinating,” he wrote. “We were in the middle of the Cold War, Stalin had been dead for about 10 years and the Soviet Union was changing.”

Years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sharlet’s scholarship maintained that an undercurrent of social, economic and political dissent would lead to the empire’s disintegration.

Throughout his career, but especially from 1985 to 1991 when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was leading his country through tumultuous changes, Sharlet’s teaching and scholarship required adaptability. Armed with the day’s edition of the New York Times, Sharlet began each class by discussing the implications of the latest developments. He used his computer to check on Soviet news several times a day.

He was a frequent source for major news outlets including the New York Times, U.S. News and World Report, Time, CBS News, NPR, Voice of America and a number of Soviet and European media.

Gorbachev’s resignation and the end of the Soviet Union came in December 1991 while Sharlet was visiting Cairo, Egypt, with his son and daughter. “I was out of position,” he recalled. “I wasn’t home at the computer. I wasn’t near a phone. But it was interesting to say goodbye to the Soviet Union on a small street in Cairo.”

Soviet Constitutional Crisis (1992), his first book after the collapse of the Soviet Union, began simply: “History is strewn with the wreckage of empires.” He published seven other books, notably the widely-cited The New Soviet Constitution of 1977 (1978), and roughly 200 academic articles, chapters and other essays on topics related to his research.

In 1977, he was named chair of the East European Coordination Group for Amnesty International, where he oversaw cases of dissidents who would become leaders of their countries. He served as a research associate at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (1965-67) and Senior Coordinator of the Rule of Law Consortium (1994-96).

He consulted for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the CIA, the U.S. Supreme Court, the State Department; and for the Parliament of the Republic of Georgia, the Constitutional Court of Belarus, and Constitutional Commissions of Russia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

Before his death, he completed a book, Searching for Jeff, a biography of his younger brother, Jeff Sharlet (1942-1969), an early leader of the Vietnam GI anti-war movement and founder of the first underground GI paper, Vietnam GI.

Survivors include his partner, Fiona Burde; daughter, Jocelyn Cordelia Sharlet; and son, Jeffrey Charles Sharlet.

A memorial is planned for June 22 in Saratoga. Details will follow.

The family obituary is posted here.

Contributions may be made to the Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for Veterans, a writing contest at the Iowa Review established by the Sharlet family (