January 6, 2010

Ihor Sevcenko, Byzantine and Slavic Scholar, Dies at 87

Published: January 5, 2010
The New York Times

Ihor Sevcenko, a leading scholar of Byzantine and Slavic history and literature who as a young man persuaded George Orwell to collaborate with him on a Ukrainian translation of “Animal Farm” for distribution to refugees, died at his home in Cambridge, Mass., on Dec. 26. He was 87.

The cause was bone cancer, said his daughter Catherine.

Mr. Sevcenko (pronounced EE-gore Shev-CHEN-ko) was unrivaled among Byzantinists for the breadth of his linguistic expertise and the variety of his interests.

Ukrainian by background and Polish by upbringing, he had command of a dozen Slavic and Western languages in their ancient, medieval and modern forms. His elegantly written essays dealt with, among other topics, late Byzantine intellectual life, early Slavic history and literature, Byzantine saints’ lives and epigraphy (inscriptions), and Byzantine-Slavic cultural relations.

Perhaps his most fascinating, if uncharacteristic, literary contribution came shortly after World War II, when he worked with Ukrainians stranded in camps in Germany for displaced persons.

In April 1946 he sent a letter to Orwell, asking his permission to translate “Animal Farm” into Ukrainian for distribution in the camps. The idea instantly appealed to Orwell, who not only refused to accept any royalties but later agreed to write a preface for the edition. It remains his most detailed, searching discussion of the book.

Ihor Ivanovic Sevcenko was born on Feb. 10, 1922, in the village of Radosc, not far from Warsaw. His parents were Ukrainian nationalists, and his father had served in the interior ministry of the short-lived independent Ukraine created after the Bolshevik revolution.

After graduating from the Adam Mickiewicz Gymnasium and Lyceum in Warsaw, where he began his studies of Greek, Latin and French, Mr. Sevcenko earned a doctorate in classical philology, ancient history and comparative linguistics from the Deutsche Karls-Universität in Prague in 1945, adding German and Czech to his store of languages.

It was on April 11, 1946, that he approached Orwell for the first time. “About the middle of February this year I had the opportunity to read ‘Animal Farm,’ ” he wrote. “I was immediately seized by the idea that a translation of the tale in Ukrainian would be of great value to my countrymen.”

Orwell agreed, and in the special preface he wrote for Mr. Sevcenko, he explained the intentions and political ideas behind “Animal Farm.” He also described the incident — the sight of a local farm boy whipping a horse — that gave him the idea of creating a fictional world in which oppressed animals rise up against their tormentors.

Orwell’s English version of the preface has been lost. It exists today as a retranslation from Mr. Sevcenko’s Ukrainian text.

Mr. Sevcenko, combining his father’s first name and his mother’s maiden name to form the pen name Ivan Cherniatyns’kyi, turned “Animal Farm” into “Kolhosp Tvaryn,” one of the first translations of the book into any foreign language. About 2,000 copies were distributed to Ukrainian readers. The remaining 1,500 copies, to Orwell’s disgust, were handed over by unwitting Americans to Soviet repatriation officers at the camps, who destroyed them immediately.

At the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, Mr. Sevcenko pursued further studies in classical philology and Byzantinology and took part in the renowned seminar in Byzantine history presided over by the great Byzantinist Henri Grégoire. In 1949 he was awarded a doctorate in philosophy and letters.

That year he came to the United States and, after teaching ancient and Byzantine history at the University of California, Berkeley, accepted a post in the department of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Michigan.

He taught from 1957 to 1965 at Columbia University, when he was named a senior scholar at Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, a center of Byzantine studies in the United States.

In 1973 he joined the classics department at Harvard as the Dumbarton Oaks professor of Byzantine history and literature. He retired in 1992.

His three marriages, to Oksana Draj-Xmara, Margaret Bentley and the art historian Nancy Patterson, ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter Catherine, of Alexandria, Va., he is survived by another daughter, Elisabeth, of Brooklyn, and three grandchildren.

Mr. Sevcenko once wrote that historians fell into two categories: “the brightly colored butterfly flitting about over a flower bed” and “the crawling caterpillar whose worm’s-eye view covers the expanse of a single cabbage leaf.”

He was both, a restlessly inquisitive but painstaking scholar whose wide-ranging interests embraced the cultural resurgence of late Byzantium, the literary (as opposed to documentary) qualities of Byzantine saints’ lives, the editing of Byzantine texts, and the history and culture of Ukraine, which he addressed in the book “Ukraine Between East and West” (1996).

His essay collections include “Society and Intellectual Life in Late Byzantium” (1981), “Ideology, Letters and Culture in the Byzantine World” (1982) and “Byzantium and the Slavs in Letters and Culture” (1991). At his death he had completed, after 20 years, a critical edition and translation of “The Life of Emperor Basil I,” the only secular biography in Byzantine literature.

See also this obituary that appeared the day prior to this piece in The Harvard Gazette.