Princeton University first began to offer courses in Russian language and literature in the late 1940s, largely due to the efforts of Professor John Turkevich, an eminent chemist, and his wife Ludmila Turkevich (who became one of the first Russian language teachers). They were joined by Dr. Alia Bill , author of a book on Chekhov. These were modest beginnings, and Russian was considered sufficiently peripheral in those early days to be housed in Romance Languages as a subsidiary of French.
In 1961, Russian became a separate program. Richard Burgi , a promising young scholar with a book on the Russian hexameter (still consulted by poetry specialists), joined the faculty in 1962. He was an inspiring teacher who chaired the department until 1970 and retired in 1992.
The faculty expansion continued with the acquisition of George Krugovoy, a Ph.D. from the University of Salzburg (Austria), who had taught in a US Government language program at Syracuse University. A scholar with an abiding interest in philosophic issues, he joined the department in 1963 and taught various level language and literature courses, notably on Dostoevsky, until 1968. Krugovoy then moved on to Swarthmore College, where he spent the remainder of his career and published his best known academic work, "The Gnostic Novel of Mikhail Bulgakov."
Also in 1964, Princeton initiated a graduate program in Russian literature and Slavic linguistics. Nina Berberova , a major writer of the first wave of Russian emigration, had by then joined the faculty. She supervised many of the literature dissertations, urging students to work on the largely unexplored “Silver Age.” From his vantage point in the Department of Comparative Literature, Joseph Frank also served as an advisor and advocate of the Ph.D. program.
The linguistics part of the program was manned largely by Charles E. Townsend , who joined the faculty in 1966. He had written his dissertation at Harvard and taught there first as Instructor and then as Assistant Professor. He became Chair of Princeton’s Slavic Department in 1970, a post he held until his retirement in 2002. In the course of his years at Princeton, Professor Townsend published numerous books on Russian language and linguistics, but gradually shifted his focus to Czech, beginning a serious Czech language program that continues to the present day.
Professor Townsend also taught Polish for many years and, very occasionally, Bulgarian as well. In summer 2003, Professor Townsend (who still teaches as an emeritus adjunct in the department) donated a collection of approximately 1,000 works (dictionaries, grammars, monographs, and much more), which form the core of the present Departmental Library.
This first era of graduate studies in Russian literature and Slavic linguistics produced fourteen PhDs, including Ellen Chances, who was tenured in the department and continues to teach today (her fields of interest are 19th century prose and late Soviet and post-Soviet literature and film). Other graduates of this first program also went on to teach at major institutions, and at least four are still teaching at Harvard University, the University of California at Los Angeles, Indiana University and Florida State University . Despite its academic success, the program ran into hard times. Severe budget cuts due to curtailment of government support were a major factor, and in 1971 the graduate program was suspended.
However dark the time for the Slavic Department, Princeton continued to be a place that attracted Russians. The composer Artur Lur’e lived his last years in Princeton (in a house given to him by Jacques Maritain, much to the consternation of his wife Raissa), as did the religious thinker Georgii Florovsky, who briefly served as a visiting professor in the Slavic Department and whose personal archive is now housed in the manuscript division of the University Library. Finally, Svetlana Allilueva, daughter of Joseph Stalin, spent some years in Princeton, even doing occasional Russian language tutoring in the Department! (Her memoirs attest to fond memories of Richard Burgi.)
If Sputnik and the Cold War helped create the first graduate program, “perestroika” allowed for its reconstitution. In 1987, Professor Caryl Emerson left Cornell to join the faculty. With her advocacy (complemented by the longstanding efforts of Charles Townsend), the graduate program was reinstated. Michael Wachtel (a Harvard Ph.D. in Comparative Literature) came to the Department in 1990, the first junior hire in almost two decades. Leonard Babby, who had taught briefly in the first graduate program, returned from Cornell in 1991. Under his influence, the Ph.D. program in Slavic and Theoretical Linguistics was founded. Olga Hasty, who had been teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, joined the faculty in 1994. In 2000 the department hired Ksana Blank, a Ph.D. in Russian literature from Columbia University, for upper-level Russian language instruction and assistance in the graduate literature program. Mirjam Fried, a linguist specializing in Czech, came from the University of California at Berkeley in 2001. Frank McLellan, another linguist, arrived in 2004 to serve as language coordinator of the Russian program. In 2006, Serguei Oushakine, an anthropologist with a specialization in Russia, joined the department after receiving his Ph.D. from Columbia University. In 2006, Margaret Beissinger (a Harvard PhD in Folklore & Mythology), a folklorist with special interest in Romania and South Slavic countries, came to Princeton after having taught at the university of Wisconsin-Madison . She enriches the departmental curriculum by offering courses in Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian language as well as Slavic folklore. And in 2007 Petre Petrov, a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh, was hired to cover the Soviet period, an area left open after Herman Ermolaev’s retirement, and to teach the Polish language which Charles Townsend established at Princeton .
The academic program is supplemented each year by numerous lectures, concerts, and other activities. In addition, the Princeton Council of the Humanities has helped to bring leading Russian writers to the department for an entire semester.
In this way, both undergraduates and graduates have had the opportunity to take courses with such major cultural figures as Vladimir Voinovich , Tatiana Tolstaia , and Andrei Bitov.
Since the renaissance of the graduate program in 1991, twenty four students have received doctoral degrees. Many of them are now teaching at American colleges and universities, including Bucknell University, New School University, Pomona College, Stanford University, University of Missouri at Columbia, University of New Orleans, University of Texas at Austin, University of Washington at Seattle, and Wellesley College. Recent graduates have also gone on to post-docs at Cornell, UCLA, and the Harvard Society of Fellows.