My Memories of Jurij Striedter

This article is part of an AATSEEL initiative to create an archive of memoirs about the great scholars and colorful personalities of Slavic studies in the United States. If you are interested in writing such a memoir, please contact us

Andrew Wachtel

Jurij Striedter (1926–2016)

I suppose that Jurij Striedter began teaching at Harvard when I was a sophomore, in the fall of 1978. Rumors quickly spread that the new faculty member, who had come from the legendary Konstanz University in Germany was bringing a breath of fresh air to a Slavic Department that was sorely in need of it.  I was actually not a member of the Department. Having been told that I was a completely hopeless student of Russian who would never learn the language, I chose instead the History and Literature Program, but since Russian literature and history were part of my course, I decided, at the urging of friends who knew something about what was going on, to sign up for Professor Striedter’s course on the Soviet novel.

I was never a big fan of lecture courses and avoided them as much as I could, but the lectures that Jurij gave in a medium-sized auditorium in Boylston Hall (I think) were something completely different.  He would stand up in front with a sheaf of notes on small pieces of paper which he would toss to the floor as he finished a page. As he lectured, he would wander around occasionally tugging at the waistband of his pants, which were always threatening to fall down. As opposed to the elegant, perfectly prepared, languid and typically Harvard lectures of Donald Fanger, Jurij’s were much more free form and spontaneous. He exuded a breathless energy and an exceptional desire to communicate to his audience the essence of the works that he chose to discuss. Most important, while he was talking about books like Konstantine Fedin’s Cities and Years, Boris Pilnyak’s The Naked Year and Gorky’s Artamonov Business (or “Zee Artamonov Biziness,” as he pronounced it in his inimitable Russo-Germano-inflected English), he made it clear that at least for the 50 minutes he was lecturing, there was nothing in the world more important than that novel, its ideational aura, and its stylistic peculiarities. Amazingly enough, and I have never been able to figure out quite how he did it, he was particularly effective lecturing about novels that we were not actually reading (the Gorky in particular). He was so good, in fact, that when I actually read the novel some years later in graduate school, I was most disappointed. It turned out that Jurij’s reenactment of it was significantly better than the work itself.

In general, he had a rather odd idea of the concept of a syllabus and of what undergraduate students in the US should be doing. I recall him telling us, perhaps as part of this class or perhaps in some other context, that when he came to Harvard, he was amazed to be told by his colleagues that he had to prepare a syllabus for his students, with all the reading carefully laid out. As he put it, “zo I asked my colleagues, vill zey ectually read zee buks on ze seelabus?” “And zey said, ‘no, but zey veell feel geelti about eet.’” In any case, although I generally did not take notes in my Harvard classes, not only did I do so in that course, but I still have those notes to this day, and could probably teach my own course on the basis of them, though it would certainly lack Jurij’s charm, wit, and conviction.  As one result of that course, I went on to write my junior paper for the History and Literature major on The Naked Year, though I did not have the good fortune to do so under Jurij’s guidance.

In my junior year I took my last lecture course at Harvard, a survey of Russian drama, again from Jurij.  This course was particularly memorable because one of Jurij’s mentees at the time was Peter Sellars, who of course has gone on to have a major career as an opera director. At that time, however, Peter was the bad boy of Harvard theater, directing as many plays as he could, sometimes in some pretty strange settings, including a notorious performance of Antony and Cleopatra in the Adams House swimming pool. That year, and inspired probably by Jurij’s teaching, Peter staged a performance of The Death of Tarelkin in the elevators of one of the university libraries, which required the audience to follow the actors around, as well as a truly stunning production of The Three Sisters, which I think is the best version of a Chekhov play that I have ever seen.

In any case, as it was with the Soviet novel, Jurij’s lectures on drama were themselves spectacular performances.  As he spoke about Sumarokov, he actually made you want to go out and read one of the plays (later, as a graduate student, I was similarly inspired to do so by Simon Karlinsky and discovered that both Jurij and Simon’s lectures were a lot more interesting than the plays themselves). Later, when I had the opportunity to write on the ballet Petrushka and on Russian theater more generally, I realized that far from being entertainment (as we undergraduates saw them at the time), Jurij’s lectures were deep and extremely thought-provoking, opening up unexpected vistas for scholarly production. As I wrote in the acknowledgements section of my book Plays of Expectations, “My initial interest in the study of Russian theater and drama was sparked many years ago by a series of inspired lectures on this topic by Jurij Striedter. Jurij always said that he wanted to write a book with a title similar to the one I have chosen for this volume, so I would like to thank him both for starting me down this path and for helping to name it.” This recollection leads me to note how unfortunate it was that Jurij found writing extremely difficult and did not leave anything like the written legacy that his incredibly broad and fertile knowledge could and perhaps should have done (though undoubtedly the work he did write is of absolute top quality). Really, though, he was an oral performer first and foremost, and if you did not have the chance to hear him speak, you lost a great deal.

In my senior year at Harvard, Jurij invited me to take the Slavic graduate proseminar, a course which proved instrumental in leading me toward a career in Slavic. While Jurij’s undergraduate classes were remarkably easy (he didn’t expect the students to do all that much reading and he didn’t seem very interested in the grading process either, giving most everyone an A, I believe), the proseminar was another beast entirely.  The group was small, and included a number of extremely well-prepared students, including Claudine Frank (the daughter of my future Stanford colleague Joseph Frank), Maria Markoff-Belaeff, and Katya Everthav. From the first assignment, which involved a bibliographic treasure hunt through the bowels of Widener Library, through the final paper assignment, this class demanded our full attention and most of our time (which was a bit problematic given that I, at least, was simultaneously writing my senior thesis on a topic which had almost nothing to do with Russian literature).

Jurij’s seminar teaching was at least as inspiring as his lecturing, but it consisted primarily in setting the table and forcing the students to do almost all of the work (a great technique, especially if the students are good, and one that I have tried to emulate). Along the way, however, Jurij, in his completely unassuming and unpretentious way, managed both to inspire and terrify us. Perhaps my most vivid memory of this course relates to a unit he taught about the relation between meter and meaning in poetry.  In order to illustrate his contention that meter could indeed carry meaning, he told us the following story. When he was in his early teens, he and his parents moved from the USSR to Germany—as he put it, “When my father was told that we could leave Stalin’s Russia he said, ‘Nothing can be worse than this.’ But after we had lived in Hitler’s Germany for a while, he had to admit that he was wrong.” In any case, as Jurij recounted, he decided to translate the Russian skazka “Konek Gorbunok” (“The Little Humpbacked Horse”) for his new German friends. And so, he did, preserving the original meter and rhyme.  As if his linguistic and literary ability at the age of 14 or so was not scary enough to us fledgling Slavists, he continued. “But my friends did not like this work, and so I began to think about why this might be.” Now we were truly terrified. Not only had our professor begun to engage in literary translation as a teenager, he apparently was involved in literary analysis as well. “And,” he continued, “I figured out that the rhyme and meter of Ershov’s skazka was the same as the one that had been used in German poetry by a poet named Wilhelm Busch. And I realized that for my German new German friends, this meter and rhyme scheme carried a different meaning and could not be used to translate a skazka.” After this, we pretty much all gave up the idea of continuing in graduate studies.

Jurij told us other fascinating stories as well, explaining that he had decided to go into literary studies after starting in Philosophy but realizing that he did not want to study with Heidegger. He was also quite open about his terrifying time serving as a recruit in the German army towards the very end of the war. Particularly fascinating was his description of the efforts he made to ensure that he was able to surrender to the Americans and not the Soviets, deliberately marching West from Czechoslovakia in the recognition that if the Soviets captured him and realized that he had once been a Soviet citizen he would have had no chance at survival.

Still, even though Jurij could be intellectually terrifying and quite demanding, there was always a warmth and a lack of pretension (the latter being a quality generally absent among senior Harvard faculty) that always encouraged us. And at the end of the semester, when he and Emanuala invited us to their home in Newton for a final seminar dinner, I think that we all felt incredibly fortunate to have had the chance to learn from someone of his incredible stature.

After graduating from Harvard, I spent a year in Europe and then started a PhD program in Slavic at Berkeley.  But in my third year, the great Hugh McLean nominated me for a position in the Harvard Society of Fellows, and in the fall of 1984, I was invited to Harvard to interview for this position. The interview was an ordeal, conducted by the 10 senior fellows, the majority of whom were Nobel Prize winning scientists who seemed to believe that the Humanities was pretty trivial stuff. But fortunately for me, Jurij was also one of the senior fellows, and I have to assume that he managed to convince his colleagues that they should take a lone Slavist (out of the 8 fellows in my year there were 6 physicists and one biologist). And what a delight those three years were—the only requirement in the Society is to have dinner with the junior and senior fellows once a week.  At these dinners I had the chance to talk both professionally and personally with Jurij, and as I was finishing up my dissertation, he agreed to be an unofficial outside reader.  He generously invited me to participate in the PhD writing seminar he organized for his students, and again I was able to watch his incomparable ability to ask probing questions, while never tearing down his students.

Indeed, one of Jurij’s amazing abilities was to ask the first question after any talk, be it by a student or a visiting scholar. As we all, know, when you give a talk there is nothing more disheartening than getting to the Q & A and seeing that no one wants to ask anything. When Jurij was in the audience, that problem simply never came up. As soon as the moderator asked for a question, he would have a searching one at the ready, opening up the discussion and ensuring that the speaker felt that she had been heard and appreciated (although not always agreed with). I once asked Jurij how he managed to do this, and he admitted that he spent most of his time during the talk thinking about what he could ask that would simultaneously push the speaker further and allow her to open up. It really was typical of his generous spirit and he would do it regardless of whether the speaker was a neophyte or a full senior professor.

After his retirement from Harvard, I did not see Jurij very frequently, but we corresponded on a number of topics having to do with autobiography and memoir, which is something I had written about. I was thrilled when his own memoir came out (but also extremely frustrated because my German was in no way good enough to read it). As soon as the Russian edition came out, I read it and was thrilled to hear the clear and probing voice that I had known as a teacher and colleague, telling some stories that I had already heard and many that I hadn’t. If you have not read it, I really encourage you to do so, as it displays all of Jurij’s best qualities as well as telling an extraordinary story of a life lived and examined in Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany. It proves that no matter how difficult the circumstances one grows up in, a truly generous spirit and open mind will somehow find a way to flourish and to nourish future generations. Hopefully all of us who had the opportunity to work with him will do the same.

Andrew Wachtel is an American scholar, translator and educator. At present, serves as the President of the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Thank you so much, Dr. Wachtel, for writing this wonderful essay about your experiences with Jurij. It beautifully complements what I (one of his two sons) remember of him. I almost never saw Jurij “in action” in the classroom but, based on your descriptions and my own knowledge of his personality, I can well imagine what he was like. I’m very happy that you appreciated him, funny accent and all.

  2. Dear Andrew, we once met in Dubrovnik…

    Andrew, ich kann alles voll bestätigen, was Sie über Jurij als Menschen und Wissenschaftler erinnert und geschrieben haben. Genau so kannte ich ihn seit 1958 an der Freien Universität in Berlin. Sie wissen, dass ich eine Zeit lang auch sein Assistent war. Wir, meine Frau Gisela, die ebenfalls bei Jurij studiert hat, schätzen ihn als herausragende Persönlichkeit, die uns lange Jahre sehr eng begleitet hat. Und seine Schwächen, die ihm selbst sehr bewusst waren und die er gelegentlich ironisierte, mindern unsere Einschätzung von ihm in keiner Weise. Sie haben inzwischen gelegentlich den Status von Anekdoten. Nicht zuletzt wegen dieser Gesamteinschätzung haben Gisela und ich damals die nicht einfache Aufgabe übernommen, seine wirklich hochinteressanten Memoiren endgültig zu ordnen und erst auf Deutsch und dann auf Russisch zu veröffentlichen. Ich danke Ihnen sehr für Ihren absolut zutreffenden Erfahrungsbericht zu Jurij Striedter!

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