Eminent Byzantinist Dies, Leaves Legacy of Open-Minded Scholarship

Ihor Ševčenko once said that some historians, in their compulsion to ponder the same questions repeatedly, were like mindless dogs who urinated on the same tree in a forest—leaving other trees unexplored for no specific reason. But according to one colleague, this metaphor—called Ševčenko's law—did not apply to Ševčenko himself, who never sought to follow just one trail, both as a historian and a man.

After battling illness for eight months, Ševčenko, the renowned scholar and professor emeritus of Byzantine history and literature, died in his home on Dec. 26, 2009. He was 87.

Born in Poland to Ukranian parents, Ševčenko began translating texts when he was a teenager and eventually mastered French, English, Czech, German, and the Classical languages—in addition to Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian, his native languages. He later published the Ukrainian translation of "Animal Farm."

At the beginning of the 1950s, Ševčenko relocated to the United States to work as a lecturer on ancient and Byzantine history at the University of California at Berkeley.

In 1973, Ševcenko moved to Cambridge to become a professor at Harvard in the Classics department, where he taught and lectured on medieval Greek and Byzantine literature. He was also an active member of the Harvard Ukranian Research Institute until his retirement in 1992.


"He was extremely erudite—he knew a lot about the world," said Michael S. Flier, director of the HURI and a Ukrainian philology professor. "[When speaking to him,] you knew you were around an expert. You had to make sure you were accurate."

Ševčenko's approach to life, according to Flier, could be summed up as "complete devotion to knowledge." Unlike the close-minded historians described in his law of the dog and the forest, Ševčenko was curious about everything, according to Flier.

"What did Caesar ever know about Rome?" Ševčenko would say, suggesting that Caesar did not know much about his own people, according to his daughter, Elisabeth A. Ševčenko, director of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.

Ihor Ševčenko, a dedicated subscriber to Rolling Stone magazine, was fascinated by popular culture, according to Elisabeth.

"I remember when I was younger, he took my 'Thriller' album that I had just gotten and said, 'I need this thing! I need to understand this Michael Jackson person,'" Elisabeth recalled. "After listening to the album three times, he came down from the attic and joked, 'I don't understand why Michael Jackson is such a big deal.'"

Ševčenko's unique sense of humor reverberated both in his personal life and work, according to Elisabeth and Flier.

"He made really bad puns," Elisabeth said. "They were really terrible, [but other times] sophisticated—from very high brow to low brow."

His lightness was also sometimes reflected in his written works. In 1969, Ševčenko published "Two Varieties of Historical Writing," an article that differentiated between two types of historians: "vivid" historians, whom he compared to butterflies, and "technical" historians, whom he compared to caterpillars.

This highly nuanced sense of history, Elisabeth said, also permitted her father a nuanced grasp of politics: "While he had a very strong sense of right and wrong," she said, "nothing was black and white."

Flier, who had known Ševčenko since 1991, said that Ševčenko was not the kind of scholar who spent all of his time isolated in his study, absorbed in his own work—instead, he was a generous and approachable professor who often invited students to lunch. The world of historical scholarship, Flier said, will miss Ševčenko as someone who had great command of the field—but Flier added that he will remember his friend best for his warmth and grace.

"He was down to earth, but he was about 6-foot-4, so you looked up to him in every way," Flier said. "He was a man of great stature."

—Staff writer Xi Yu can be reached at