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Svetlana Boym, Professor Whose Work ‘Transformed,’ Dies at 56

By Jalin P. Cunningham, Crimson Staff Writer

Svetlana Boym, a Slavic and Comparative Literature professor whom colleagues remember as an avid writer and artist whose work was known around the world for its transformative power, died Aug. 5 after a battle with cancer. She was 56.

Boym, who was born in the former Soviet Union and studied Hispanic languages and literatures at the Leningrad’s Herzen Pedagogical Institute, went on to receive a master’s degree and Ph.D. from Boston University and Harvard, respectively. As a member of Harvard’s Faculty, Boym specialized in Russian and comparative literature, with a focus on aesthetics, philosophy, and literature.

In addition to her work teaching at Harvard, Boym was a prolific scholar and artist, such as through her work as a photographer and playwright. Her work has been featured across the world, from Ljubljana, Slovenia, to Cambridge, with a recent project displayed at the Venice Architectural Biennial in 2010.

“She was known around the world,” said Justin M. Weir, the chair of Harvard’s Slavic Languages and Literatures department.

Julie A. Buckler, a professor who taught both Slavic and comparative literature alongside Boym,

said her late colleague’s work “transformed humanity.”

“I admired the way she combined academic and artistic interests,” Buckler said. “It was a marker of how deeply creative she was.”

“She produced so much work, and so much of it so distinctive and important,” she added.

During her tenure at Harvard, Boym received Guggenheim and American Academy in Berlin fellowships, as well as the Everett Mendelsohn Excellence in Mentoring Award in 2009. Former students remember the late professor as an empathetic role model.

Boym’s work and mentorship, former graduate student Julia Vaingurt said, inspired students to follow and admire her like “groupies.”

“Sometimes, a sense of mastery over an area or a subject propels one to approach it from the position of distance and superiority,” said Vaingurt, who studied under Boym. “Svetlana never fell into this trap... She was always generous to the objects of her study, illuminating their thought and work in the most caressing light.”

Boym’s legacy, colleagues say, will go far. “She left us way too soon, but she left a very significant legacy,” Buckler said. “She has already influenced many people, and I’m sure that her work will continue to be important and influential for a long time.”

Boym is survived by her husband, Dana Villa.

Boym was remembered at a memorial service for in Brookline last week. Harvard’s Slavic and Comparative Literature departments plan to hold another memorial during the school year.

—Staff writer Jalin P. Cunningham can be reached at jalincunningham@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter @JalinCunningham.

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FASHumanities DivisionLiteratureObituaryFacultySlavic Languages and LitFaculty News