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Our History

Our department has roots that reach back to the first decade of the 20th century. Explore below and read about the history of this department, including how Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky came to teach here.

In 1910, the University Bulletin explained the need for Russian language courses by emphasizing the growing importance of a knowledge of Russian in international commerce and diplomacy. Courses in Polish language and literature were introduced in the interwar period, taught by distinguished visiting professors and lecturers from Poland. By World War II, a Department of Russian had been established, offering a full range of courses in language and literature and a bachelor's degree in Russian.

In 1952, with the formation of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Michigan found itself among the first universities to create a complete graduate program in Slavic languages and literatures in order to meet the emerging national need in this area. A highly qualified young faculty was assembled and a program granting the M.A. and Ph.D. was put in place. Thus, when the National Defense Education Act was passed in 1958, Michigan was one of the first institutions to be designated a Slavic and East European Languages Center, permitting the Department to expand its curriculum to include Czech, Serbo-Croatian, and Ukrainian in addition to Russian and Polish. From 1987 to 1997 the Department housed an endowed professorship of Armenian literature, which is now located in the Department of Near Eastern Studies.

During the last four decades the Department has been a key component of Michigan's area center in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies (CREES), providing instruction in the languages, literatures, and cultures of the Slavic peoples to undergraduate and graduate students in the CREES program and serving as a host for visiting faculty from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania.

A distinguishing facet of the Department's history has been its commitment to scholarly publishing. In the late 1950s, thanks to the vision and initiative of Professor John Mersereau, Jr., who then chaired the Department, and Professor Ladislav Matejka, a scholarly publishing program, Michigan Slavic Publications (MSP), was established. As its managing editor, Professor Ladislav Matejka led MSP for more than three decades, bringing out publications focusing on the Slavic nations of Central and Eastern Europe that covered the gamut from theoretical linguistics, literary theory and semiotics to anthropology, art history and film theory. Perhaps Matejka's most important series of publications was his "thick journal," a yearbook entitled Cross Currents, which was path-breaking in its dedication to analysis of the culture, civilization, history and politics of Central Europe during the decade leading up to the collapse of communism.

Another important publishing enterprise of global significance was Ardis Publishers, which was created in Ann Arbor but outside the University by the late Carl R. Proffer, a professor of Russian literature, and his wife Ellendea Proffer. Ardis brought out an impressive array of works in and about Russian literature of the 18th to the 20th century, featuring primarily volumes in the original Russian by poets and writers whose works were banned in the USSR. These included such figures as Joseph Brodsky, Vassily Aksyonov and Sasha Sokolov. Thanks in large part to the Proffers, Joseph Brodsky came to teach at the University of Michigan shortly after his deportation from the USSR in 1972 and became a tenured professor in the Slavic Department before moving permanently to New York in 1981. Brodsky went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987 and served as Poet Laureate of the United States in 1991 and 1992.

In 2003, the Department celebrated its 50th anniversary, with lectures from faculty and distinguished alumni.  Those who attended also enjoyed cultural outings and time to reconnect with those associated with the Department over the years.

Over the last ten years, the Department has added several new faculty members.  These members have expanded the study in the Russian, Polish, and South Slavic fields, as well as augmented graduate student mentorship in fields such as comparative literature, cinema, and gender studies.