Alexander Kazhdan: A Scene or Two

Over the past few weeks I’ve transcribed a few oral history interviews and proofread even more half-finished transcriptions. It’s been fascinating to watch the same names pop up again and again and to collect various anecdotes, watching my understandings of individuals come together piece by piece, like a grand mosaic. One individual who hovered prominently in the background of nearly every conversation was Alexander Kazhdan, the famous Soviet émigré Byzantinist. In this piece I’ve tried to bring together a few biographical details and a few anecdotes about Kazhdan that I found illuminating or charming.

A disclaimer: Hopefully it goes without sayingbut just in case it doesn’tthe research/narrative/mass of assumptions displayed hereafter is neither authoritative nor wholly reliable, being the half-formed result of a cursory acquaintance with, and study of, the subject. Anyone desiring a more nuanced (read: accurate) understanding of the matters treated should feel free to consult the correspondence herein referenced, which can be found in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives.

In 1966 Ihor Ševčenko and his wife traveled to Moscow and spent what we can assume to be an enchanting evening at the historic Bolshoi Theatre. Afterward, Alexander Kazhdan—the famed Soviet Byzantinist—invited the pair to his home. They made themselves comfortable, allowing the conversation to play over several topics. At one point, Ševčenko—the Director of Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks—asked Kazhdan if he had any interest in coming to America and working at Dumbarton Oaks. Kazhdan’s answer, according to his wife, Musja, was brusque and unequivocal: No, never, his place was in Moscow—he would never leave.

This curt refusal, so in line with Kazhdan’s general bearing—efficient, honest, occasionally dramatic—was most likely an uncharacteristic instance of dissimulation. Ševčenko later received a letter from Kazhdan’s superior at the Soviet Academy of Sciences that referenced Ševčenko’s tentative offer. The letter explained that, unfortunately, “press of work” made it impossible for Kazhdan to accept any invitations in the near future—a response that smacked of suppression and censorship. Three years later, Ševčenko was back in Moscow to visit Kazhdan and reiterate his offer. Shortly after this second meeting, Ševčenko wrote a letter to Professor Paul Lemerle in France, detailing his most recent covert discussions with Kazhdan:

“[Dr. Kazhdan] was not optimistic concerning his chances of coming to the United States at this particular juncture in time, but said that these chances would be better if he were to receive an invitation from a European Center of Byzantine Studies.”

What we get here is a snapshot of a decidedly shrewder Kazhdan, a calculating, politically savvy puppeteer; not only does he desire to escape the Soviet Union, but he is willing, in the process, to circumvent traditional bureaucratic channels, and—better yet—he knows exactly how to do it; he seems to be slowly prodding Ševčenko in the right direction.

The plight of Soviet academics was well recognized at the time, and, as a result, there existed baroque pathways for the extrication of promising intellectuals. What followed Kazhdan’s expression of interest was an impressive display of international realpolitik. Ševčenko was in constant communication with members of the US State Department, the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), university professors in Austria and France, Kazhdan’s superiors in Russia, and myriad minor bureaucrats the world over, the end result being that in May of 1971 an additional invitation was sent to Kazhdan at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. A month later the Soviet Academy responded equivocally, refusing to clearly deny Kazhdan the right of travel and leaving him in a sort of academic limbo. A final decision was awaited.

Efforts to remove Kazhdan eventually stagnated, and it wasn’t until early 1976 that he was again invited to Dumbarton Oaks. In the meantime, the Kazhdans’ circumstances in Russia had deteriorated drastically. Their son, Dima, had become highly and inconveniently religious and had emigrated to the United States, a move that provoked the ire of the Soviet state. As a result, Musja had been laid off from a job she’d worked faithfully for 28 years, and Kazhdan himself was forbidden to attend conferences or publish scholarly work. Dima, now working at Harvard University, communicated his parents’ renewed wanderlust to Ševčenko—also at Harvard—while Alexander and Musja prepared to leave.

Because leaving Russia had only ever seemed a remote possibility, a vast library had accrued within the Kazhdan home. Transporting the obscure and oftentimes rare volumes posed a problem for more than just practical reasons; by order of the state, only certain books (and a certain number of those certain books) could be moved across international lines. Kazhdan’s solution was both wily and time-consuming; hoping to bypass as many of these strictures as possible while avoiding suspicion, he went from post office to post office, mailing out small packages of only two or three books at a time. Some of the books were sent to Dumbarton Oaks, where Alice Mary-Talbot, then working part time, witnessed them trickling in: “I noticed in the mail room there were these piles of brown paper packages. Every week there would be more of these piles of packages. And I said, ‘What is this?’”

The official itinerary that Kazhdan and Musja eventually submitted to Russian authorities claimed that, after a reasonable period of globetrotting, they would end up settling in Israel. Travelling under the aegis of this deception—another uncharacteristic bit of guile—they arrived in Vienna, Austria, where Kazhdan rendezvoused with Giles Constable, the recently appointed Director of Dumbarton Oaks. There was still much to be fleshed out: a salary had to be negotiated, as well as the specifics of Kazhdan’s impending appointment (the length of his stay, his official title, and so on); visas had to be arranged, living space provided. After some prolegomenous discussions,the Kazhdans traveled to Paris, where they awaited further news.

While in Paris, they lived in Cité Universitaire; Alexander lectured for a small influx of cash at the Collège de France. As Musja recalls, Alexander asked the university officials whether it would be better to lecture in bad French or bad English; they told him, matter-of-factly, that bad English would be preferable. At the time, Kazhdan possessed a writing knowledge of English; over the next two decades he would go about the task of compiling this new language, ending up with a bemusing mélange of the arcane and esoteric, a formidable accretion once described by Anthony Cutler—a four-time fellow at Dumbarton Oaks—as “good, but very amusing.” Alexander culled words from a wide array of readings—historical texts, a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus that he steadily translated into Russian, nineteenth-century novels—resulting in a vocabulary that was highly flexible yet frequently antiquated. He was constantly trying out new words, both in conversation and in his writing. Michael McCormick recalls editing Kazhdan’s articles:

“He would use all these words that I’d never heard of. And I’d say, ‘Sanya, you can’t use this word.’ And he would say, ‘But it’s an English word!’ And he would pull out an English dictionary and show me it was an English word; and Sanya would use it. I mean, I could cross it out and he’d put it back in again.”

His time at the Collège de France was the start of an extended engagement with the English language, which would later become the primary language of his scholarly works.

And so, after a brief stint as refugees, the Kazhdans arrived in America—and, more specifically, Dumbarton Oaks—in the summer of 1979, only to find themselves living in an apartment girt about by a large new Soviet embassy. “So, they were surrounded by the KGB,” Michael McCormick recalls, laughing. “They were a little skittish about it…I mean, you wake up and all you see around you is the power of the Soviet Union.” Despite this perceived threat of continued surveillance, Kazhdan reveled in the fresh promise of academic freedom, a liberty which augmented an already impressive propensity for work. “He was happy in direction—that he could do what he wanted,” Musja explains. “It was not this pressure that he had to only write something about economics.” Kazhdan threw himself into his work, evincing the notoriously stalwart work ethic for which he’d later become known. Once, in the midst of preparing the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium—perhaps his most famous contribution to the field of Byzantine studies—Kazhdan experienced a health scare. “He convinced himself that he was going to die in the next two weeks or something,” McCormick explains. “And, he just locked himself in the room and churned [articles] out. It was incredible. He produced something like—I don’t know, but literally hundreds.” Kazhdan survived this little scare, continuing to work at Dumbarton Oaks until his death in 1997.

Anecdotes of Kazhdan’s time at Dumbarton Oaks are numerous and frequently colorful; he’s remembered most readily for his stubborn (and often risible) nature, his harsh but fair criticism of scholarly work (others’ and his own), and his singular commitment to Byzantine studies. Despite this, he managed to cut a larger-than-life figure, becoming an irreplaceable presence on the grounds of Dumbarton Oaks. He threw great parties in his home, hosted grand feasts that segued smoothly into early morning roistering, and generally made an indelible impression (good or bad) on all he met.

The trouble when contemplating a near-mythic figure like Kazhdan is, of course, that our moon-eyed fascination with the two or three distilled attributes that we suppose constitute the figure’s essence—his eclectic tongue, his brusqueness, his sterling mind—will often preclude any willingness to accept divergent anecdotes or traits. There is a certain depth, a certain complexity denied the object of worship; we ignore the occasional fault, the hidden vice, the obscure sorrow.

Which is not to say we can’t enjoy the image of Alexander Kazhdan, more myth than man, the source of countless enthralling yarns—it’s just to say that we might find the quieter moments rewarding as well, that we might consider, in lieu of a flashier anecdote, the time Michael McCormick took his good friend Alexander Kazhdan fishing along the Niagara River. We might examine this subtly limned scene and find within an old man—worn out by the specter of an authoritarian government eternally nipping at his heels—comfortable for once, in the calamitous roar of a nearby cataract, with dropping the veil of his habits:

“We’d drift down to the Falls (the closer you get to the Falls, the better the fishing is). I fished, and Alexander rowed. When we were out in the middle of the river, and there were no boats to be seen anywhere, he told me many things that he’d never told me before and never told me after.”

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