Looming retirement after 43 years at the University of Calgary, coupled with the request to provide musings on life after graduate studies in Slavic Languages & Literatures at Yale has, inevitably, inspired reflection. If I had to define my career in the minimum number of words, I would choose two: serendipity and context.
I came to Yale in 1966, knowing that Ivan Turgenev was “my man” — and I have remained true to him to this day (and beyond). I wrote my dissertation on Turgenev and he has been at the center of my research interests ever since. So, where does serendipity fit in? Chance encounters at conferences (it is this value of conferences that is all too often underestimated) have led to collaborations; in one instance, it was actually coming across the name of the one and the same colleague in successive archival folders that led to personal contact and a soon-to-be-published joint project. The fortuitous finding of a reference in a library catalogue one dark wintery Friday afternoon (while avoiding more “serious” work) led to the discovery of an unknown original text (Turgenev’s libretto for «Le Dernier Sorcier», one of the operettas he wrote together with Pauline Viardot) that led to other related manuscripts in 3 different countries that eventually led to a performing edition that was produced not only here in Calgary, but also in the US and France. This in turn inspired articles exploring the intellectual exchanges between Turgenev and Louis and Pauline Viardot more generally. The arbitrary choice of a session devoted to digitization of Early Slavic manuscripts at an international conference eventually led to my current project that is intended to see me kept out of mischief for at least 10 years in retirement: an on-line edition of the more than 120 translations in which Turgenev was personally involved (ranging from student translations from Greek and Latin to complete works by his great predecessors in Russian literature, as well as his own works). Most of these are unknown even to Turgenev specialists! I would estimate that far and away the vast majority of my published works stemmed either directly or as part of a chain reaction from something serendipitous.
One of the things that teaching at a university without a graduate program in Russian made me realize that while there is a link between teaching and research, there is equally a “disconnect.” It did not take long to realize that those to whom one was “teaching” Russian literature were not, with the rarest exception, nascent “Slavists” or “Russianists” (which, given job prospects, was a wise choice). For them, therefore, Russian literature has to have a direct and immediate relevance; it has to address issues that are no less important to them than they had been to the contemporaries of those works. Fortunately, Russian literature has no shortage of works that address fundamental issues of human existence and interaction, ones that can spark the most dynamic — and occasionally heated — of discussions. So where does “context” come in? For me it was vital to try and understand the personal and intellectual elements that contributed to the mindset that produced the works that my students and I were reading. Consequently, the majority of my own research and publications — however serendipitous their origins — stemmed from the effort to try and understand those elements in ever-widening and deepening circles. What were the historical, intellectual, social and educational influences on the authors we read? This required broader reading, often outside Russian literature. For the early 20th century, it required attention to other art forms beyond literature. Nor was the process in language classes significantly different. A course on contemporary Russian in the 1990s led to the exploration of a rich body of work by women authors, concerned with daily reality. Today, Beginners’ Russian involves the exploration of on-line shops in Russia with students’ buying new wardrobes and/or equipping themselves for spending 6 months in Russia in an unfurnished apartment within a limited budget. Etc., etc., etc.
Last but not least I would like to reflect on what has been probably the greatest change that I have witnessed over my professional life. As a non-American without access to IREX, I was among the last generation for whom study in Russia/the Soviet Union was not a possibility as a student. Formal exchanges during the early years of my career made research trips possible, but extremely circumscribed. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, not only contacts, but even cooperation and collaboration with Russian colleagues became increasingly possible. My interest in Turgenev’s close friend and literary adviser Pavel Annenkov serves as a telling example. For my first research trip to Moscow in 1978, I was initially denied access to the then TsGALI, which had the largest collection of his materials; even when that decision was (astonishingly) reversed (my “minder” would stand up when I entered the room after that reversal —“just in case” — because it was unprecedented in his experience!), the archivists decided what material I was issued (I did not see the “catalogue” until the early 2000s). Some years later, I was denied an exchange visit to Pushkinskii dom, because someone within PD was working on the Annenkov–Turgenev correspondence that I was interested in. By the mid-1990s that individual (the late Nataliia Mostovskaia) and I were working on a joint edition of those letters, eventually published in 2005 in the Literaturnye pamiatniki series. And five years after that I was appointed by the Academy of Sciences to the Editorial Board of their Turgenev edition! Indeed, much of my recent work has been published in Russia, and many of my major projects have been undertaken in collaboration with Russian colleagues. Not even in my wildest dreams as a graduate student at Yale could I have envisaged such changes!