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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

George Grabowicz is sixty

14 October, 2003 - 00:00

The history of Ukrainian studies in the West is inseparably linked with the name of George G. (Yury Yuliyanovych) Grabowicz, first and so far only Dmytro Chyzhevsky Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University. After studying literary Ukrainian at Connecticut State University George went on to graduate school at Harvard, where he studied with some of the leading Slavicists of our time, was appointed to the chair he now holds, and became director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, which he remolded in his own image. His best known works, Toward a History of Ukrainian Literature (1977) and The Poet as Mythmaker: A study of Symbolic Meaning in Taras Sevcenko (1982 — translated by Solomiya Pavlychko, Kyiv, 1991) have influenced a generation of Ukrainian intellectuals and his former students have come to virtually dominate the field of Ukrainian language and literature in North America. He continues to influence intellectual life in Ukraine as editor-in-chief of the journal Krytyka, aided by his gifted and sedulous deputy, Mykola Riabchuk.

George’s works are controversial. Toward a History of Ukrainian Literature was essentially a running polemic with the History of Ukrainian Literature written by the earlier Harvard professor for whom his chair was named. His work on Shevchenko — more his article in the Festschrift to Omeljan Pritsak than his monograph — has drawn criticism for its drawing from Shevchenko’s texts implications about the Bard’s sexual orientation that seem to some more in line with the fashion in American academia to try to demonstrate that all truly creative individuals were at least latent homosexuals than with Shevchenko’s actual biography, which indicates that the man who created the “myth” of the modern Ukrainian had a decided fancy for the fair sex. His monograph is more in the spirit of fill-in-the-blanks post-modernism. As with all things in the perpetual discourse of academic life, time will sort these things out as new generations of scholars deal with the legacy of those who came before.

Prof. Grabowicz had also made his mark on Ukrainian studies worldwide as one of the founders of the International Association of Ukrainian Studies (elected president at its first congress in 1990) and of the American Association of Ukrainian Studies. One of the first Western Ukrainianists invited to the former Soviet Union at a time when most of the field were banned as bourgeois nationalists, and his lectures on Ukrainian literature in emigration were clearly tailored to the sensibilities of his hosts, but this placed him in an excellent position to make the required agreements with the necessary “instances” in the then Ukrainian SSR. His tenure as president of the International Association was marked by putting the main workload on his vice president, Mykola Zhulynsky, and his role in the American one led to a split whereby his supporters on the board split the organization in two by expelling the elected president, Prof. John Fizer of Rutgers, who was nevertheless able to rally the support of most American scholars in the field. Still, the rift was healed, the organization put back together, and the only lesson learned seems to have been that scholars in Ukrainian studies are no less factious than the nation they study.

A controversial but productive figure, George Grabowicz has made his mark on Ukrainian studies throughout the world and will surely continue to do so.

By Prof. James Mace, Consultant to The Day