Campus & Community

Ihor Ševčenko

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Longtime Harvard professor and Byzantine specialist dies at 87

Ihor Ševčenko, the eminent Byzantinist and Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Byzantine History and Literature, Emeritus, died peacefully at his Cambridge home on Dec. 26 after eight months of failing health, just short of his 88th birthday.

At Harvard he was a member of the Department of the Classics from 1973 to 1992, and associate director of the Ukrainian Research Institute from 1973 to 1989. A master of many Slavic and Western languages in their ancient, medieval, and modern forms, Ševčenko was known as a brilliant researcher in history, philology, and literature. Over a distinguished academic career, he held teaching or research appointments at 15 institutions, ranging from the University of California, Berkeley, to the University of Michigan in the United States, and from the Central European University of Budapest to the University of Oxford in Europe.

Ševčenko was born of Ukrainian parents in early 1922 in Radość, a village in east-central Poland, not far from Warsaw. His father and mother, Ivan Ivanović and Maria Czerniatyńska Ševčenko, before emigrating to Warsaw, had been active in the Ukrainian national movement, and Ivan had been a department head in the Interior Ministry. In the Polish capital, the young Ševčenko attended the Adam Mickiewicz Gymnasium and Lycaeum, where he studied classical languages and probably others. Already as a teenager he had translated into Polish an extract from one of Voltaire’s works for a student journal.

His first university studies were at the Deutsche Karlsuniversität in Prague, where he mastered Czech and German, and in 1945 he was granted a doctorate of philosophy in classical philology, ancient history, and comparative linguistics. During this period, he published a translation of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” into Ukrainian. For that translation, intended for ordinary Ukrainians, including literate peasants, living in the camps for displaced persons in Germany following World War II, he was able to persuade Orwell to contribute an account of his own personal history and the backdrop to the dystopian novel.

Ševčenko then migrated to Belgium, where he spent four years at the Université Catholique de Louvain, studying classical philology and Byzantinology. He received a degree as “docteur en philosophie et lettres” in 1949. He also participated in the seminar in Byzantine history presided over by Henri Grégoire in Brussels. Grégoire, the prodigiously productive and charismatic leader of Byzantine studies in Belgium, was to have a lasting impact on Ševčenko the scholar. Years later, he recalled that Grégoire’s seminars remained for him “among the most exciting of my intellectual experiences.” He also felt an undying gratitude toward the older man for having extended a hospitable hand in a time of need, to himself and others — “the homeless flotsam,” in Ševčenko’s words, left adrift in the aftermath of World War II.

Ševčenko moved to the United States at the beginning of the 1950s as the result of an invitation from the famous medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz, and was given his first academic employment by the University of California, Berkeley, lecturing on ancient and Byzantine history. There, he met his first wife, Margaret Bentley. Following two years of fellowship and research in Washington, D.C., and Cambridge, Mass., he became an instructor in Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Michigan. The appointment soon turned into a professorial position from 1954 to ’57, for which his teaching duties included Slavic languages, old Russian literature, and Byzantine history. His next post was at Columbia University where, as an associate and then a full professor, he taught a spectrum of Byzantine and Slavic studies. Some of his first doctoral students came out of the Columbia years, 1957 to ’65.

After a stint in 1960 as visiting scholar at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., the mecca for Byzantine studies in North America, he began a close association with the Harvard institution that was to last the rest of his life. In 1965 he was invited to join the resident senior scholars there, and he spent the next eight years in the idyllic Georgetown setting, with a glorious library at his fingertips, and surrounded each year by different coteries of researchers on fellowships, as well as by a succession of the most distinguished Byzantinists visiting from Europe. His stay there overlapped for a number of years with the residency of Cyril Mango, another giant of Byzantinology. Here the two friends presided over the center’s intellectual life, sometimes daunting but generally dazzling the junior fellows in particular. On the down-to-earth side, Ševčenko and his second wife, the art historian Nancy Patterson Ševčenko, provided the relaxing highlight of each week by hosting on Wednesday evenings an open house party for the Dumbarton Oaks community.

In 1973, Ševčenko made his last major academic move, from Washington to Cambridge, to become the Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Byzantine History and Literature at Harvard, as a member of the Department of the Classics. He taught medieval Greek courses, offered seminars on Byzantine literature and paleography, and trained graduate students. He was co-editor of “Harvard Ukrainian Studies,” which he helped to found. And he was an active member of the Ukrainian Research Institute, which he helped to establish in 1973, until his retirement in 1992.

As a scholar, Ševčenko shared an unusual number of similarities — some hardly accidental — with his intellectual mentor, Grégoire: expertise in a remarkable range of Western and Slavic languages; a scholar’s basis in classical philology; student wanderings to several countries; exploratory travels for manuscripts in libraries and inscriptions on site; and a gift for astute, off-the-cuff ideas and conjectures.

Mango, one of the most astute readers of Ševčenko, in his comparison of Grégoire and Ševčenko included “a multiplicity of enthusiasms that have prevented both men from writing big books.” On the occasion of the 1984 Festschrift for his one-time colleague at Dumbarton Oaks, Mango expressed the wish for “a book on Byzantium and the Slavs, and perhaps another on Byzantine hagiography, or a least a long and thoughtful article on each.” Over the course of Ševčenko’s career, no book-length narratives were produced, but in rich compensation there were large collected volumes containing a wealth of important articles, some long, all thoughtful, and each an eye-opener for the thoroughness of the scholarship and the vividness of its presentation.

For extensive studies there was, at the beginning, the doctoral monograph on two 14th century statesmen and literati, Theodore Metochites and Nikephoros Choumnos, finally published in 1962; and at the end, almost ready for the printer after more than 20 years of careful preparation, there was a critical edition and translation of a seminal biography composed in the 10th century, “The Life of Emperor Basil I.” Among the articles and essays were many standouts. For instance, there was the enlightening and entertaining essay on “Two Varieties of Historical Writing” in which a magisterial Ševčenko compared the “vivid” and the “technical” historian, or, using his more colorful terms, the “butterfly” and the “caterpillar.” There was the widely read and appreciated “The Decline of Byzantium Seen Through the Eyes of Its Intellectuals,” in the Dumbarton Oaks Papers of 1961. In the same journal in 1971, there was the stunning piece of detective work, “The Date and Author of the So-Called Fragments of Toparcha Gothicus,” in which he surgically unmasked scholarly fraud perpetrated by a 19th century Hellenist and paleographer, the Franco-German Karl Benedikt Hase. There is an impressive 1995 overview of studies in one of his favorite genres, biographies of saints, titled “Observations on the Study of Byzantine Hagiography in the Last Half-Century, or Two Looks Back and One Look Forward.” His collected Byzantine papers were issued in two volumes, while his contributions over a lifetime to Byzantino-Slavic and Ukrainian cultural and historical matters were likewise published in two volumes.

Ševčenko was president of the Association Internationale des Études Byzantines from 1986 to ’96, and the breadth of his scholarship and accomplishments received further recognition in multiple honorary doctorates, as well as membership in numerous learned societies. Research and literary prizes came his way from Germany (the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung) and Ukraine (L’viv and Kyiv). The title of the first of two Festschriften produced in his honor, “Okeanos” (1984), captured the vastness of his learning. (Appropriately, it borrowed the sobriquet of a very large manuscript, called “The Ocean,” in a monastery on Mt. Athos containing an encyclopedic collection of texts dealing with the sciences, literature, philosophy, and theology.) In his written self-presentation, he liked to end the long list of his achievements and honors with the modest notice, at once heartfelt and humorous, “His hobby is trout fishing.” In the epitaph, which he composed in Latin a few years ago, he said of himself: “Over a long life he witnessed very many deaths; his own, therefore, he did not fear.”

He is survived by his two daughters, Catherine and Elisabeth; three grandchildren; former wives Oksana Draj-Xmara Asher and Nancy Patterson Ševčenko; and numerous students, colleagues, and friends.

Interment took place during a private service at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. Plans are pending for a public memorial service to be held at Harvard in early February. In lieu of flowers, donations are being accepted to establish an endowment in his name to award travel grants to students in Byzantine and premodern Slavic studies. (For details, visit


Written by John Duffy, Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Byzantine Philology and Literature and chair of the Department of the Classics at Harvard University.