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The Future of Slavic Studies in American Universities

Sergius Yakobson
Former Chief, European Division

(Originally published in The University of Pennsylvania Library Chronicle, Vol.12, No.1, April 1944, pp. 7–17. This article is a work of the U.S. Government and is not subject to copyright protection in the United States.)

Mr. Chairman, Friends of the University of Pennsylvania Library!

I am honored by the invitation to speak here tonight and much indebted to our chairman for this privilege. I am particularly happy to speak in your town and in your University. I vividly remember the inspiring intellectual atmosphere I found at your Library when I came to see Dr. Lingelbach upon my arrival in this country from war-torn England, late summer 1940.

From the earliest days of American-Russian cultural relations, Philadelphia had a special place of honor in the thoughts of a Russian scholar. Already, under Catherine the Great, the first articles translated from the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society were printed in Russian newspapers and magazines. The distant Pennsylvania appeared to the Russians of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as the seat of wisdom, and Philadelphia as the largest and cleanest city in the world.

The personality of the noble Dr. Franklin of Philadelphia appealed particularly to the Russian heart and mind. He was celebrated as a new Prometheus and harbinger of modernity, scholar and world citizen, writer and republican. He was unanimously elected member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. Only the Empress Catherine did not care for this unusual American revolutionary.

It is indeed an honor to have been invited to comment tonight upon the future of Slavic studies in the United States. Yet I am fully aware of my limitations. Our very kind chairman has, to be sure, asked me for predictions of things to come. Here I am, I — an historian, who by inclination, training, and daily work is accustomed to decipher the patterns of the past. Cultural weather-forecasts appear somehow foreign to an orthodox historian. And still the challenge to comment briefly on a vital aspect of postwar education prevailed over the doubts of a narrow-minded specialist. There is wisdom in the few words engraved at the gates of the National Archives in Washington: "What is past — is prologue."

I would like first to say a word about the shortcomings of the early stages of Slavic research in this country, not that we should underestimate the pioneer work done by Professor Noyes of California and Professor Wiener of Harvard in the study of Slavic literature, nor the impetus given to Slavic historical research by Professor Golder at Stanford, and Archibald Coolidge at Harvard, or the interest awakened by Professor Harper of Chicago in the study of Russian institutions. Of course, I do not share the opinion of those who think that historic recollections provide adequate immunity against future mistakes. But past experiences, former omissions and errors can very well serve as a warning, give guidance, and clarify issues. Lord Vansittart is right: "One can learn much from the past if one can smile at it, instead of always girding at it like a progressive or hankering after it like a reactionary."

The first striking feature of the development of Slavic scholarship in the United States is the lag of scholarship behind political and economic developments. We know, for instance, that American-Russian relations have been, since the very beginning, of a friendly nature — at least as far as the two peoples, if not always their governments, were concerned.

The United States of America excited Russian imagination as a land of freedom, as an export market, and as an exotic country in which more people supposedly died from the arrows of the Indians than from natural causes. According to a very early prediction made by a Russian freemason, Novikov, in 1784 — "Freedom expelled from Europe through luxury and corruption will find refuge in the American republic."

The democratic institutions of America — freedom of the press and of speech, civic liberties, voluntary military service — were all regarded by the Russian liberals as patterns worth imitating. In the forties the great Russian democrat Herzen spoke of the United States, though separated by an ocean of salty water from Siberia, as the only likely partner of Russia. And, incidentally, the Frenchman Tocqueville, in the closing words of the first volume of his famous study Democracy in America, printed for the first time more than one hundred years ago, characterized Americans and Russians as the only two truly great nations of the world. "All other nations," he wrote, "seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and they have only to maintain their power; but the Americans and Russians are still in the act of growth. All the others have stopped, or continue to advance with extreme difficulty; these alone are proceeding with ease and celerity along a path to which no limit can be perceived . . . . Their starting point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe."

The Americans reciprocated Russian admiration. The Americans like the Russians personally — though, as it has been rightly observed, they "do not care at all for the governments which the Russians have permitted to rule over them. . . . In casual intercourse, Americans and Russians get on extraordinarily well . . ., but when it comes to the conduct of serious business . . . , Americans and Russians—easily misunderstand each other . . . . Russia presents to America a confusing and fascinating set of contradictions . . . . But their respective positions tend to bring them into friendly cooperation . . . . Each is for the other a potential friend in the rear of potential enemies."

If we turn now from the earlier phases of American-Russian friendship and collaboration based on practical considerations, popular will and sentiment, to the field of serious research and instruction, we note that even Russian studies in America only slowly gained a following of scholars. Until the end of the nineteenth century there have been — I am quoting a colleague at Columbia University — "only two persons, a Yankee character and a German professor's daughter, able in any sense of the word to qualify as forerunners of today's American Slavicists."

The nineteenth century American diplomats accredited to the Court of St. Petersburg who knew Russian had to learn it outside the college — from private teachers and sometimes even "through German, as there was no other way of learning it." The first course in the Russian language was given at Harvard in 1896, and only in the 1930s were Slavic studies accorded full recognition at the American universities and colleges. Until well into the twentieth century, travel books were the main original source of information on Russia. Scholarly Slavic publications were unavailable in America, though — I must say this in fairness to casual American visitors to Russia — their observations were frequently penetrating and discomfortingly correct. Thus, Williams S. Edwards spoke as early as 1902 of an inevitable revolution in Russia. He saw "a discontent so deep-rooted and so intense that when the inevitable hour strikes, as strike it must, the world will then behold in Russia a saturnalia of blood and tears, a squaring of ten centuries' accounts, more fraught with human anguish and human joy than ever dreamed a Marat and a Robespierre, more direful and more glad than yet mankind have known."

I have spoken so far of the tardiness with which Slavic studies took root in this country. A second serious obstacle for a rapid progress of Slavic scholarship in America was the lack of an organic and planned program. Too much was left to chance. Only acute crises generated financial support and promoted interest. The many, and brilliant, American achievements in the Slavic field were until recently primarily the work of a few enthusiasts, and less the result of a constructive policy on the part of American universities and colleges.

The situation was similar to that of the reporting of foreign events in the American press, though in many ways one of the best in the world. Even our leading national papers have not yet established permanent observers in all the vital points of the globe with an assignment to write up political, economical, and cultural developments. Be it civil war in Spain or an earthquake in Turkey, special correspondents are hurried to the scene preceded or followed by volunteers. The "big event" is hardly over, when the correspondents are withdrawn and sent to another place where headlines are being made. The curious readers are left guessing about further developments.

Similarly, with a few notable exceptions, no provisions were made at the American universities and colleges, which would have guaranteed a continuous flow of information on Slavic topics and training of Slavic specialists. The attention given to Slavic studies by the higher educational institutions was unfortunately made too dependent on the difficulties and uncertainties which have characterized the relations between the United States of America and Slavic Europe.

No less disappointing was the often limited scope of Slavic research in America. We wrote and spoke about Slavic studies but usually meant only Russian studies. The study of the minor Slavic countries and peoples was ignored or at least neglected. This is more surprising in view of the large number of Slavic immigrants. Not less than 5 per cent of American citizens have Slavic blood in their veins. Here in Pennsylvania alone, as you know, live over 600,000 persons of Polish and Ukrainian descent. The different Slavic ethnic groups contributed nobly to the common American heritage. But how much do we know about the background and the old countries of these our Slavic fellow citizens?

Now, I think, that from these critical remarks about past experiences, certain lessons for the future can be derived. First of all, we shall need (and I think we can expect) in the near future a definite expansion of Slavic studies in America. The public, in addition to the scholars, is taking at last active interest in questions of Slavic research. Thus it is to be hoped that in the wiser postwar period Slavic teaching and studies will become a constituent part of our university and college curricula. This should be so, and not exclusively in the interest of some rare individuals engaged in esoteric pursuits.

The extension of the curriculum has become imperative for reasons of foreign policy and national interest. For these studies will enrich American cultural life and help us to meet new and expanded responsibilities in the world. We can no longer — with aeroplanes reaching in less than three days every spot on earth — afford to remain insular in our attitudes and ways of thinking. And, as modern population research teaches us, in about twenty years every second European will be a Slav.

"The Americans have the mind to conceive and the physical force to make themselves the English-speaking people," wrote Jeremiah Curtin in the summer of 1900. "The world that extends from the Adriatic eastward to the Pacific Ocean is Slav now by race, and seems likely to be Slav politically in the future not so very remote. The Slav question is the greatest political question in Europe since the rise of the Roman Empire."

Funds will have to be provided for the establishment of permanent chairs and fellowships in the Slavic disciplines, at all the leading American educational institutions. "Universities and colleges must be reminded constantly," — and I am quoting here a private paper prepared by a Slavic scholar now with the Government — "of the importance of making provisions for work in the Slavic field. In some cases assistance from outside in providing teaching and research tools might help to crystallize the interest of administrators and department heads in developing the Slavic field."

For better or worse, — and I for one hope that our relations with the Slavic world will be of an increasingly friendly nature, — it will be the duty of American universities to educate a new generation of experts, able to analyze properly and to interpret correctly the governments and peoples of the Slavic world. The auspices for such an effort seem at present to be particularly favorable. Recent experience has demonstrated beyond any doubt, how dangerously unprepared we were for a sudden crisis, and how narrow was the circle of fully trained Slavicists available for the war effort.

One handicap in the effective pursuit of Slavic studies has been removed — at least temporarily. As long as the Slavic languages, for example Russian, are not taught in the American secondary schools, a good deal of valuable time of the Slavic students will always be spent in the colleges and universities in acquiring the necessary and terrifying linguistic equipment. Lately, however, under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies, quite a few universities have introduced a number of intensive courses in the so-called "unusual" Slavic languages. Instruction in Russian has also been given a prominent place in Army and Navy special training programs. This was an important departure which, thanks to the ingenious teaching methods, bore excellent immediate results.

So it is to be hoped that when, after the war, our men now in the Army and Navy will be given back to civilian life and will return to their scholastic occupations, at least some of them will choose to go on with the Slavic studies, and profit from the knowledge of the one or other Slavic tongues acquired during the war. And, as after the First World War, the teaching staff might also be recruited from the young men at present engaged in war work in the Slavic field at home and abroad.

Simultaneously, the barriers separating the humanities from the social sciences will have to disappear. Adequate regional studies require inter-disciplinary training and a total approach. Thus, it will in future be inadmissible that students should major in history or literature of a Slavic people without any comprehensive knowledge of their civilization. The Slavic student might decide to specialize in a definite field but he must be given an opportunity to become familiar with all the other aspects of Slavic life.

For obvious reasons more attention will be paid in the future to the study of smaller Slavic countries. Three of them — Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia — belong to the United Nations, and the American citizens of Slavic ancestry are nowadays becoming more interested in their national traditions. On the other hand, all area studies provided in a lecture hall are bound to remain incomplete without extensive field work. The latter is of paramount importance — no bookish information can ever convey the local colour of a Slavic milieu. But certainly no one could prophesy today how soon facilities for study and research will be open in postwar Europe to the American student of Slavic affairs.

A further prerequisite for a promising development of Slavic studies here at home is — besides the changes in university teaching — a proper organization of the supply of Slavic books and other source materials. An important and honorable role will have to be performed in this field by our national, state, and especially university libraries. The Slavic holdings of the libraries are neither poor investment, nor fancy collections. Didn't recent events show that even boundary disputes of Eastern Europe are no longer family quarrels of the Slavs between themselves, but that they do affect our own national interests? Only a free and adequate access to the original source materials will facilitate fact-finding and guide our public opinion to a better understanding of the issues at stake. This will in the future safeguard us against a good deal of shocks and embarrassment.

Slavic collections need consistent policies of acquisition, hence expert Slavic librarians. The choice of books cannot be left to the whims of untrained librarians, to the personal taste of donors, and to the chances of book exchanges. We need planning, vision and foresight — qualities as much required in library work as in business. I wish to mention here the experience I had about eight years ago with a leading British educational institution to which I suggested that the flow of Soviet printed materials sent in huge quantities to Germany prior to 1933 be redirected to England. No action was taken for fear of Communist propaganda. I received recently word from the same organization asking for advice and assistance in securing Soviet materials now badly needed for the prosecution of the war and no longer obtainable through the ordinary trade channels. But by then it was too late.

May I, therefore, suggest to my colleagues of the American libraries not to postpone any longer the building up of their Slavic collections, and to secure now the available copies of important Slavic publications both here and abroad. The Slavic book market is rapidly shrinking. Innumerable book collections in the Slavic countries themselves (in Kiev alone up to six million volumes) have been pillaged or destroyed.

As to the selection of new acquisitions I am glad to make here the announcement of a new project undertaken by the Library of Congress with the help of the Rockefeller Foundation. Until lately anyone engaging in Slavic research "was obliged to be his own bibliographer." Now, a group of scholars has been entrusted to work out, under the leadership of Professor Karpovich of Harvard and with my assistance, a basic Russian bibliography of about 20,000 entries, covering such a wide range of subjects as Russian history, literature, philology, economics, religion, geography, regional studies, law, art, and a number of sciences.

This basic bibliography is meant to serve a number of practical purposes, but its primary task is to help librarians in shaping their acquisition policy relating to Russian materials. Secondly, these bibliographical lists, which are going to be checked against the holdings of the leading American libraries, will provide a partial inventory of existing American collections of Russian materials. They will show their deficiencies and, at the same time, they will give an over-all picture of the distribution of Russian materials among the individual American libraries and their particular spheres of interest.

The Library of Congress is particularly strong in Russian regional studies, the New York Public Library in literary criticism and "belles lettres," and the Hoover War Library in publications on recent Russian history and foreign affairs. But what about Chicago, Berkeley, Cleveland — what about your own Library? This information is important if one wishes to avoid duplication of effort. It might also lead some day to the organization of the purchase of Slavic materials on a national basis.

Finally, next to the urgent broadening of Slavic teaching and research at the American universities and colleges, next to the desired enlargement of Slavic book collections in our libraries, the establishment of an independent Slavic clearing house or information center, run and staffed by specialists in the field, seems to me to be essential for the success of Slavic studies in this country.

Our knowledge of the Slavic world before the War was not only insufficient, but often channeled to us second or third hand, and often via Germany. The need for an authoritative clearing house has been badly felt for a long time, both on the West Coast and here in the East. I, from my own experience as Slavic Consultant at the Library of Congress, where I have to answer a great variety of inquiries, can testify to the value of such a center. But, though the idea has often been discussed in professional circles, nothing has been done. The existing organizations have either a definite partisan character or their activities are of a limited scope. I think, for instance, of the newly established valuable American-Soviet Medical Society for the exchange of medical information. Thus the foundation of an all-embracing Slavic clearing house remains an imperative assignment for the future.

Perhaps it is still premature to discuss the postwar world. But I am sure we have not to fear, even after the cessation of hostilities, a slump in the interest of the American people and of responsible quarters for the problems of the Slavic world. Even the unavoidable demand for economy after the War will hardly be able to block the real demand for an aggressive promotion of planned and comprehensive Slavic studies.

At the time of writing this article, Sergius Yakobson was Slavic Consultant at the Library of Congress. He later became Chief of the Slavic, later Slavic and Central European Division (1951–1971).

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