Ukraine at Harvard

Omeljan Pritsak
Ihor Ševčenko
Roman Szporluk

In the 20th century, North America became home to a huge Ukrainian community. This group mostly came from the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and especially from Eastern Galicia. Most of these Ukrainians migrated to Canada but the US also became one of world’s key centers for the Ukrainian intellectual elite. The Ukrainian diaspora in the US played a considerable role in the development of their home country’s modern culture and national identity. At the same time, the group also left its mark on American civilization. Many Ukrainian historians, cultural anthropologists, linguists, literature researchers, political scientists, and sociologists based in the US often acted as a bridge between America and Ukraine. These intellectuals helped to dramatically increase knowledge about Ukrainian history and culture in the country. However, they were also praised for their scientific achievements in human sciences beyond issues related to Ukraine. Many in this group helped establish the most significant Ukrainian research center in the world: the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI). HURI emerged from the Ukrainian studies program that was established at Harvard University on January 22nd 1968, the 50th anniversary of Ukraine’s first declaration of independence. HURI maintains one of the largest collections of Ukrainian books and other media available in the world. Alongside various books, the institute publishes the Harvard Ukrainian Studies journal, which was founded in 1977. HURI was formally founded in 1973 by Omeljan Pritsak (1919-2006) and Ihor Ševčenko (1922-2009). Pritsak became the first director of HURI. He was born in Eastern Galicia and graduated from Lviv University, where he mastered the languages of the Middle East. He settled in the US in 1960. Pritsak was recognized as one of the most prominent Turkologists in the world. On the other hand, Ševčenko was a son of Ukranian political refugees. His parents established an asylum in Poland after the fall of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the first modern national state in Ukraine’s history (1918-1920). His parents came from Central and Eastern Ukraine. He was born close to Warsaw and lived in Poland until the Second World War. He moved to the US in 1949. He worked for many years as a Byzantinist and professor of classical philology at Harvard University. His legacy is particularly valued within Byzantine studies. He is also famous for the “law of the dog and the forest”. According to him, the herd instinct of historians to repeat thoughtlessly the work of previous researchers represents a serious challenge to the field. He compares this situation to a dog’s experience in a forest. A dog picks a tree in a forest at random and urinates against it. Despite the tree being essentially identical to the others in the forest, other dogs will subsequently be inclined to urinate against the same tree.

Harvard University, Source: Shutterstock

Roman Szporluk is a professor emeritus at Harvard University. He was the director of HURI for almost 25 years (1991-2004). Szporluk was born in Poland in 1933 near Ternopil, Eastern Galicia and studied in Lublin after the Second World War. He migrated to the US in the 1960s. From 1965 until 1991, he worked at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor as a professor of history. Apart from Ukrainian history, Szporluk’s expertise extends to Marxism, as well as nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe. He is renowned as one of the most important authorities in these fields.