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Transcending the Narrow Frame of Mind: the Life of Dmitry Chezhevsky

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Transcending the Narrow Frame of Mind: the Life of Dmitry Chezhevsky


His monograph on Slavic studies has been translated to many languages and used as a teaching aid in English, Spanish and German speaking countries. In the US Dmitry Chizhevsky had been teaching for a long time, in Germany he lived almost half a century and became the avowed authority in Slavic studies. He became famous as the connoisseur of Slavic antiques, Russian and Ukrainian poetry and philosophy. Chizhevsky studied Hegelism in Russia, the works of Grigory Skovoroda, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Fyodor Tyutchev. He authored the monographs Holy Rus: The History of Russian Thought in X-XVII Centuries and Russia between the East and the West. The History of Russian Thought in XVIII-XX Centuries. The scholar taught at the universities of Halle, Jena, Marburg, Heidelberg, but began his studies in the universities of Saint Petersburg and Kiev. The revolution and emigration tore Chizhevsky from his homeland.

Ukrainian, Russian, Pole?

He was born into a Russian-Ukrainian-Polish family. His father Ivan K. Chizhevsky coming from the Polish gentry was a populist revolutionary. His mother Maria D. Yershova, a Russian noble woman, did not share her husband's views.

The political views of Dmitry Chizhevsky were extremely contradictory and changed throughout his lifetime. In his adolescence he followed in the steps of his father and until 1917 he had been a Menshevik revolutionary, a member of the Ukrainian social-democratic movement. He was arrested for this activity, but was liberated by the Revolution in 1917. Chizhevsky became secretary of the Ukrainian Central Committee of the RSDRP. Being a member of the Russian faction in the Central Rada Committee, he voted on January 22, 1918, against proclaiming the independence of the Ukrainian People's Republic (UPR). When the Red Army came to Kiev, Chizhevsky was twice put behind bars and finally in 1921, after serving a half-year sentence in Kharkov, he returned to Kiev. Yet he did not have enough time to deliver a single lecture and was sent to a detention camp.

"What should a young assistant professor and his wife with a little baby on hand do?" wrote Chizhevsky in his biography kept in the archives of the University of Halle. "Running uphill and down dale, i.e. to the Soviet-Polish border which we crossed illegally on May 14, 1921. Thus we landed in Poland and later moved to Heidelberg University."

Emigrant's fate

Soon Chizhevsky was employed as a professor in Germany and stayed there to teach. He did not leave the country even in the years of Nazism, albeit sending his wife Lydia Izrailevna Marshak to the US. This did not help Chizhevsky a lot as the secret police restricted his freedom of movement and banned teaching in a number of universities. Even in the postwar period he was brandished as "untrustworthy": in Marburg Chizhevsky was indicted for his support of Communists. He leaves for the US and teaches at Harvard.

However, Chizhevsky did not speak English well enough to read lectures and therefore he used German, Russian and Ukrainian. Then he was invited to spearhead the Department of Slavic Studies in Heidelberg and returned to Germany.

During the years of emigration Dmitry Chizhevsky maintained vibrant ties both with White Russian emigrants and with Ukrainian nation-building oriented emigrants and in these connections of his were often subject to criticisms on both sides.

"Hegel in Russia"

Yet his dissertation Hegel in Russia, where the scholar studies the influence of the German mystique and Hegel's philosophy on the views of Ivan Kireevsky, Mikhail Bakunin, Ivan Turgenev, Herzen and Aksakov, gave him a name in the academic circles and a lot of respect in the political circles.

Yet not only the academic but also the basic worldly life of Chizhevsky epitomizes the blending of three nations: Russia, Ukraine and Germany. Chizhevsky often made the point that he loved all his three homelands: Ukraine, Russia and Germany where he made his career as an academic. However, Chizhevsky never accepted the totalitarian regimes of both fatherlands. Hitlerism tolerated the White Russian emigration assuming that those people were hostile to Bolshevism. Chizhevsky also made friends with the White. His anti-Nazi views are widely known, albeit initially he had a fascination for Nazism. However he quickly realized his mistake. "Father and his friends, progressive intellectuals, could not surmise that the process of recasting the German people's consciousness would be so aggressive and unfortunately productive," Chizhevsky's daughter Tatiana Marshak, an American historian, says in her memoirs.

Dmitry himself who spent his last years in Heidelberg where he died in 1977 thus characterized his world outlook: "My life path brought me from Russia to Poland, to Germany, to Czechoslovakia, Holland, Sweden etc. And everywhere I could see that the narrow frame of mind preconditioned by history crippled those nations and people not only economically, but culturally as well. And this narrow vision will hamper their development in the future, unless they transcend this narrow frame of mind by any means without infringing on the natural rights of these big and small nations."

Thus the USSR and Russia lost and Germany acquired a unique scholar and, though science and knowledge do not belong to one nation and their achievements are international, only 70 years later we saw a belated return from Germany to Russia and Ukraine of Chizhevsky's intellectual heritage which he could have created in the land of his fathers.

Vladimir Emelyanenko


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