Ihor Ivanovich Sevcenko

By Grabar, Oleg | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Ihor Ivanovich Sevcenko


Grabar, Oleg, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


10 FEBRUARY 1922 * 26 DECEMBER 2009

PROFESSOR IHOR IVANOVICH SEVCENKO died on 26 December 2009, a few weeks short of his eighty-eighth birthday, after several months of suffering from a crippling bone cancer. He had been married three times and is survived by two daughters and three grandchildren.

He will be remembered in three related, if independent, ways: as a striking personality, as a brilliant contributor to the scholarship dealing with the Byzantine world, and as a vital participant in the revival of Ukrainian studies.

Ihor was born in Radocz, Poland, in 1922, the son of actively patriotic Ukrainian parents who had emigrated there after the Russian Revolution. He was a brilliant student at the Adam Mickiewicz Gymnasium and Lyceum in Warsaw, from which he graduated in 1939. He acquired there his taste for Greek and Latin and discovered an unusual capacity for languages, which became eventually one of his trademarks. He was one of very few individuals who could speak Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian like a native. He became fluent in English, German, French, Italian, modern Greek, and Turkish, as well as in most Slavic languages, often after just a few days of residence or travel in the country. He enjoyed impressing his audiences with his linguistic prowess and was usually a favorite of international meetings and organizations because he did not need interpreters. He loved to communicate with all available people, great politicians or scholars as well as beginning students or anyone else he encountered. He was always ready to help answer queries from anyone and willing to understand anyone's tortuous path of thinking, especially when he could also set it straight.

In 1940 he moved to Prague in order to study in the German university there as well as in the Free Ukrainian University, which had found a temporary home there. In 1945, he obtained a doctorate in classical philology. During the following year of painful wandering through the ruins of Germany and Central Europe, he survived in part by writing and selling a Ukrainian-English dictionary of some 750 basic words to help other refugees in dealing with American and British occupiers and in organizing their own future. This is also the time when he published a Ukrainian translation of George Orwell's Animal Farm with an original preface (the first, English, version of the preface had disappeared) by Orwell himself, which thus came out in Ukrainian before English.

He ended up in Belgium in 1946 to study with the brilliant historian Henri Grégoire and in 1948 he obtained a second doctorate, this time in Byzantine history and civilization with a thesis on the great fourteenth-century patron and theologian Theodore Metochites. The thesis was published eventually in Brussels in 1962. He came to the United States as a fellow at Dumbarton Oaks in 1949, then moved to a first teaching position at Berkeley, where he met Ernst Kantorowicz, who remained until his death one of Ihor's closest intellectual partners. He then taught at the University of Michigan and at Columbia and, after a stint of pure research at Dumbarton Oaks, finally at Harvard, where he became the first Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Byzantine Studies in the Department of Classics. Tall and dashing, he dominated most academic groups and had an idiosyncratic way, well known to those who regularly attend APS meetings, of rising after almost all talks and saying slowly, "I have a question." Then, often with much humor and always with enormous learning, he would criticize constructively or expand artfully whatever the speaker had said. He had strong and articulate views on scholarly matters and in fact on all the issues of governance or of policy that emerge in faculty gatherings, as his curiosity about everything was boundless and his memory bottomless, and as the university became his home.

There was a curious dichotomy in his academic opinions. On the one hand, they could involve the broadest and vaguest topics; on the other, he stuck religiously in most of his scholarly writing to a position he had himself defined rather early in life. …

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