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The Total Byzantinist

A Tribute to Ihor Ševčenko (1922–2009)

Born in the Polish village of Radość as the only child of Ukrainian refugee parents, gymnasium student in Warsaw, recipient of doctorates in classical philology in Prague and Brussels, translator of Orwell’s Animal Farm into Ukrainian, and postwar émigré to the United States where he spent most of his life, Ihor Ivanovich Ševčenko was an international scholar with many different interests and perspectives. A gifted linguist, fluent in twelve languages, he became a renowned researcher in the fields of Byzantine and premodern Slavic studies. After teaching at Berkeley, Michigan, and Columbia, he moved to Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC, where he held a faculty research appointment from 1965 to 1973. He spent the final twenty years of his career at Harvard University as Dumbarton Oaks professor of Byzantine History and Literature and was cofounder of the Ukrainian Research Institute. His book Ukraine between East and West: Essays on Cultural History to the Early Eighteenth Century, which traces the development of Ukrainian cultural identity under the influence of Byzantium and western Europe, reifies Ukraine as a distinct object of knowledge as a way to establish its legitimacy as a separate nation.

A proponent of “total Byzantinology,” he trained his students in epigraphy, paleography, and textual editing as well as history and literature. His specialty was intellectual history, especially of the erudite scholars of late Byzantium, such as Theodore Metochites, refounder of the Chora Monastery in Constantinople, but he also wrote on hagiography, the illustrators of the tenth century, the Menologion of Basil II, and the Zealot revolt in Thessalonike. His magnum opus was his translation of The Life of Emperor Basil I, completed shortly before his death and published by under the title Chronographiae quae Theophanis Continuati nomine fertur Liber quo Vita Basilii Imperatoris amplectitur. Among his major discoveries were proving that the so-called “Fragments of the Toparcha Gothicus” was an early nineteenth-century forgery and identifying the ruined basilica at Saraçhane in Constantinople as the sixth-century church of Saint Polyeuktos (by recognizing a few words carved on an architectural fragment as part of an epigram by its patron Anicia Juliana). He is also remembered for his brilliant essay on the two kinds of historian, the caterpillar and the butterfly. He managed to be both.

Alice-Mary Talbot, with assistance from Nancy, Catherine, and Elisabeth Ševčenko

To read a transcript of Ihor Ševčenko's oral history interview, please go here.