In Memoriam: Professor Svetlana Boym

August 6, 2015
In Memoriam: Professor Svetlana Boym

We are tremendously saddened to inform the community that Svetlana Boym, Curt Hugo Reisinger Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Comparative Literature, passed away yesterday, August 5, after a year-long struggle with cancer. Our memory of her remains of one who was brimming with vitality, brilliance, and wit. Her warm yet fiercely independent personality together with her influential scholarship attracted students and colleagues from around Harvard, and indeed around the world. We will miss her terribly.

 Svetlana Boym was born in Leningrad and studied Spanish and English at the Herzen Institute. She emigrated to the United States and received her Master’s Degree at Boston University in Hispanic Literatures before enrolling in Harvard’s PhD program in Comparative Literature, where she received her degree in 1988. She was hired first as an Assistant Professor in History and Literature and Comparative Literature, and she joined the Slavic Department upon her promotion to Professor in 1995. She was awarded several prizes during her career, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Bunting Fellowship, and an award for her mentoring of students at Harvard.

 Svetlana was a prolific scholar. Her many academic publications include: Death in Quotation Marks, Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia, The Future of Nostalgia, and Another Freedom: The Alternative History of an Idea. She gave very many scholarly talks around the world. But she was famous at Harvard for her courses on literature, art, and visual culture in the Soviet era. She spoke passionately to students about writers and thinkers such as Viktor Shklovsky, Vladimir Nabokov, and Hanna Arendt, who shaped and inspired her. Svetlana was a formidable and incisive presence among her colleagues in Departmental and University meetings, where she frequently championed the causes of graduate students. Her independence and passion were almost always accompanied by great wit and laughter. One looked forward to spending time at an academic talk, conference, or meeting with Svetlana.

 As much as she was a devoted to academia, Svetlana was also a longtime artist and author. In the past several years, in particular, her photography became more important. She had numerous exhibitions and participated in the 5th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art in 2013. She wrote a play, The Woman Who Shot Lenin, and a novel, Ninochka. And in the last year she was immersed in many projects, including autobiographical work and plans for a film, not to mention several academic projects. Her personal website,, reflects the great diversity of her interests.

 A funeral service for Svetlana took place on Friday, August 7 at the Levine Chapels in Brookline, MA, at 470 Harvard Street.

The Harvard Comparative Literature Department and the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures are planning a joint event in her memory to take place in the coming year. We will announce the details of that event as they become available. 

Please take a moment to read the following tributes to Svetlana, written by her colleagues and friends:

"In Memoriam: Professor Svetlana Boym," published by the Department of Comparative Literature

"Postcript: Svetlana Boym, 1959–2015," by Masha Gessen, published in The New Yorker

"In Memoriam: Svetlana Boym," by Sasha Senderovich, published in Tablet Magazine

"A Walk With(out) Svetlana," by Cristina Vatulescu, published by the NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia

"Svetlana Boym, at 56; Harvard professor, author, essayist, photographer, and filmmaker," by Bryan Marquard, published in The Boston Globe

"Svetlana Boym, 56, Scholar of Myth and Memory, Dies," by Margalit Fox, published in The New York Times

"Svetlana Boym (1959 - 2015)," by Giuliana Bruno, published in Art Forum