Instruction in Slavic languages and literatures at Harvard traces its beginnings to October 1896, when Russian-Jewish translator and researcher Leo Wiener was hired to teach Russian, Polish, and Old Church Slavonic. The emergence of Czechoslovakia after the war prompted him to introduce "Bohemian" in 1920. His appointment as Instructor in Slavic Languages was the first of its kind in the United States. Reputed to speak thirty languages well, Wiener was an eccentric character remembered by one colleague as "an iconoclast spreading light and havoc." He served generations of American students by compiling a two-volume Anthology of Russian Literature in English translation (1902-03) and by translating the complete works of Tolstoy (1904-05). He retired in 1930.
Wiener was succeeded by Samuel Hazzard Cross, his star pupil. Cross established the concentration in Slavic Languages and Literatures in 1933, introducing Serbo-Croatian in three-year rotation with Polish and Bohemian (now "Czechish"). He added Ukrainian (called Ruthenian) in 1939. After the outbreak of World War II, Cross began to employ East European scholars fleeing the Nazis.
Following Cross' untimely death in 1946, Renato Poggioli, himself a refugee from Fascist Italy, accepted a joint appointment in Comparative Literature and Slavic. Michael Karpovich, Harvard professor of Russian history, agreed to head the program in 1948. The Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures was established as a separate department of the University under the Division of Modern Languages and Literatures by a vote of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on January 4, 1949. Professor Michael Karpovich was appointed chair of the department. In the same year, through the devotion and generosity of Professor Cross’s classmate, Mr. Curt Reisinger, the Samuel Hazzard Cross Professorship of Slavic Languages and Literatures was established, and Karpovich persuaded Russian émigré Roman Jakobson, a brilliant philologist and linguist, to come to Harvard and accept the Professorship. Jakobson brought fourteen of his Columbia graduate students with him, together with a core faculty for the new Department: Horace G. Lunt (Slavic linguistics and philology), Svatava Pírková-Jakobson (Czech literature, Slavic folklore), and Dmitrij Ciževskij(medieval and comparative Slavic literature).
In 1954, the Curt Hugo Reisinger Professorship of Slavic Languages and Literatures was created, with Professor Michael Karpovich as first incumbent.
By 1963, the Harvard Slavic Department had added Albert Lord (South Slavic languages and literatures, oral epic tradition), Wiktor Weintraub (Polish literature), Vsevolod Setchkarev (modern Russian prose), and Kiril Taranovsky (Russian poetry, metrics) to its faculty. With an emphasis on the structural interdependence of language and culture, the Harvard Slavic Department trained Slavic graduate students, who in turn contributed to the flourishing of Slavic studies in America. Jakobson's retirement from Harvard in 1967 marked the end of a remarkable period of growth in the field.
The Alfred Jurzykowski Professorship of Polish Language and Literature was activated in 1971, and held first by Professor Wiktor Weintraub. Chairs in Ukrainian Philology and in Ukrainian Literature were endowed in 1973.
Russian literature specialists Donald Fanger (1968) and Jurij Striedter (1977), who were appointed jointly with Comparative Literature, and Polish specialist Stanislaw Baranczak (1981) launched a new era of Slavic studies at Harvard, engaging with the intellectual culture of the American research university well beyond the Slavic Department.
First ensconced in two offices of old Holyoke House (razed in 1961), the Slavic Department moved to the third floor of Boylston Hall in 1958. It has occupied its present quarters on the third floor of the Barker Center since 1997.
The current Slavic Department faculty includes Jonathan Bolton (Czech literature, history, and culture), Julie Buckler (eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Russian literature, drama, opera), George Grabowicz (Ukrainian and Polish literatures), Darya Khitrova (Golden- and Silver-Age Russian poetry, dance, film, cultural theory), Aleksandra Kremer (Polish literature), Stephanie Sandler (modern and contemporary Russian poetry, gender studies), William Todd (nineteenth-century Russian literature and culture, literary theory), and Justin Weir (nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian prose, film).
Linguistics and philology are represented by Michael Flier (Slavic linguistics, medieval Slavic culture), and Steven Clancy (Slavic linguistics, language pedagogy).
Slavic languages are taught by Natalia Chirkov, Veronika Egorova, Natalia Pokrovsky, Oksana Willis, and Steven Clancy (Russian); Veronika Tuckerova (Czech); Anna Barańczak (Polish); and Volodymyr Dibrova (Ukrainian).