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Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Department History

The teaching of Russian language and literature at UIUC owes its beginnings in the 1940s to Professor Frances (Marshak) Sobotka, who taught the few Russian courses then available under the auspices of the French department. After historian Ralph T. Fisher Jr. launched the Russian and East European Center in 1958, federal support in substantial quantities made it possible to attract some new faculty members and librarians to join Professor Sobotka, as student demand rapidly increased. In the early 1960s, Russian became a separate department, later renamed Slavic Languages and Literatures. Among that new faculty cohort were Tatjana Cizevska (daughter of Dmitrii Tschijewsky), Kurt Klein, Victor Terras, and eventually Ralph Matlaw, who succeeded the retired Professor Sobotka as head of the new department. Joining those pioneers in the early 1960s were Temira Pachmuss, Stephen P. Hill, Frank Y. Gladney, and Rado Lencek. Soon thereafter they in turn were joined by Rasio Dunatov and Evelyn Bristol.

Professor Matlaw, after two or three years at the headship, surprised everyone by leaving for the University of Chicago, and was replaced by Lew R. Micklesen. Perhaps not surprisingly, in that turbulent decade of incessant "faculty raids," Professor Micklesen in his turn departed for the University of Washington after a couple of years, and we were again headless. By the end of those turbulent years we’d said goodbye to Professors Matlaw, Micklesen, Cizevska, Lencek, and Terras, as well as newcomers like Albert Kaspin, Zbigniew Folejewski, Paul Trensky, Theodore Lightner, Constantine Ushinsky, Kenneth Brostrom, Nicholas Rzhevsky. (They went on to hold positions at other universities.) With the hiring of Clayton L. Dawson to succeed Professor Micklesen, we found a long-term department head and later a new premises, on the 3rd floor-northwest corridor of the newly constructed Foreign Language Building (opened 1970). Prior to 1970 we had been housed in venerable Lincoln Hall, nos. 261 and 361. Eventually Professor Dawson returned to full-time teaching and, starting in 1976, was replaced for many years by Maurice Friedberg as the new head.

After initially offering only the B.A. and M.A., we eventually gained approval to offer the Ph.D. as well. These were booming years for Russian studies all over the country. Our contingent of graduate students reached a peak over 60 in the early 1970s. Everyone was overworked. Most full-time faculty taught six courses per year, at times even seven courses. At the Russian 101 level we had ten or twelve large sections. We also had a considerable number of students in the "teacher training" program, supervised by Professor Klein, who went on to teach high-school and community-college Russian all around Illinois and elsewhere. One of those trainees, Ruth Edelman, now in New Jersey, recently won an award there as high-school teacher of the year.

Graduate students who completed Ph.D. degrees starting in the 1970s went on to faculty positions in universities from Connecticut to California (UCLA), from Canada (Ottawa) to Oklahoma, from Alabama to Alaska, from New Mexico to New York (Cornell and SUNY-Stony Brook), Florida, Maryland, Missouri, South Korea, and, most recently, Texas at Austin. (See our list of alumni.) A small contingent of our graduate students over the decades added to their dossiers a second area of specialization, library-information science, and went on to pursue careers as librarians/archivists here and elsewhere. Among them were Mary Stuart (now History-Newspaper Librarian at UIUC), Jan Adamczyk (Slavic Library), and Kalyna Pomirko (now executive secretary of the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, Chicago).

The face of the department continued to change through retirements and new hires. Professors Klein and Dawson retired, while Richard Tempest, Natalia Pervukhin and Dmitrii Bobyshev joined the department in the 1980s. Faculty members gained international prominence, such as Evelyn Bristol (Russian verse), Clayton Dawson (a widely required basic Russian textbook), Maurice Friedberg (Soviet literature and censorship) and Temira Pachmuss (emigre literature, Dostoevskii). Dmitry Bobyshev, who together with Joseph Brodsky had belonged to the famous group of Leningrad poets known as “Akhmatova’s orphans,” put our department on the map of contemporary Russian literature. Frank Gladney for five years served as editor-in-chief of the Slavic and East European Journal. The author of this small memoir for seven years was executive secretary of Phi Beta Kappa at UIUC. In more recent times, as more of the older generation began to retire (Professors Dunatov, Pachmuss, Friedberg, Bristol, Bobyshev, Gladney), we have added a number of new faculty members who continue the tradition of excellence and international reputation. This next generation of faculty includes Harriet Murav (new department head in the 21st century), Lilya Kaganovsky, Valeria Sobol, Michael Finke, David L. Cooper, and George Gasyna, with areas of expertise ranging from Dostoevskii, Chekhov, and literature and medicine to Yiddish, Czech, and Polish literatures and Russian film. In the past several years Slavic faculty have been awarded one Guggenheim fellowship, two Mellon fellowships, and three Center for Advanced Study fellowships. We continue as a department to offer our students cutting-edge training in Slavic languages, literatures, and cultures.

Steven P. Hill,
Full-time faculty member from September 1961 until his passing in June 2010.
Written March 26, 2008.