Svetlana Boym, 1959-2015

A scholar, novelist and photographer whose work drew on her past as a Jewish émigré from the Soviet Union has died

September 10, 2015
Obituary: Svetlana Boym, 1959-2015
Source: Justin Ide/Harvard University

Svetlana Boym, Curt Hugo Reisinger professor of Slavic languages and literatures and comparative literature at Harvard University, was the author of academic works including Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia (1995) and The Future of Nostalgia (2001), and was known at Harvard for her teaching on literature, art, and visual culture in the Soviet era.

A statement from colleagues in the department of Slavic languages and literature at Harvard said that her “warm yet fiercely independent personality together with her influential scholarship attracted students and colleagues from around Harvard, and indeed around the world”.

Professor Boym was born in what was then Leningrad on 29 April 1959 and received a bachelor’s degree in Hispanic languages and literatures from the Herzen State Pedagogical Institute in Leningrad.

She was parted from her parents when she emigrated from the Soviet Union at the age of 19, a decision she arrived at while standing in a food queue and imagining America.

Professor Boym spent time in a refugee camp in Vienna and arrived in the US in 1981, where she gained a doctorate in comparative literature at Harvard in 1988. She was hired by Harvard first as an assistant professor in history and literature and comparative literature and was promoted to professor in 1995.

She was awarded several prizes during her career, including a Guggenheim Fellowship for the study of Slavic literature and an award for her mentoring of students at Harvard.

As a photographer, she participated in the 5th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art in 2013. She wrote a play, The Woman Who Shot Lenin, and a novel, Ninochka (2003).

Alastair Bonnett, professor of social geography at Newcastle University, wrote in Times Higher Education in 2008 that The Future of Nostalgia – which examined varieties of personal and collective nostalgia, along with the uses of the latter in nationalism – had been “one of the more influential books of the new millennium”.

He added that Professor Boym had “returned time and again to the uncomfortable yet necessary relationship we all have (perhaps especially ex-Soviet citizens and those on the political Left) with abandoned aspirations and mouldering assumptions” and that her work had “become a common reference point for a new generation of younger academics who are trying to rethink nostalgia”.

Professor Boym’s husband, Dana Villa, the Packey J. Dee professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, said in his eulogy for Professor Boym that “compared to her, many of the ‘original’ thinkers and writers we are invited to applaud look positively herdlike”. She died a year after being diagnosed with cancer.

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