Office Hour: Professor Alexander Levitsky

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Welcome to Office Hour, where Natasha Bluth, a Brown University Junior concentrating International relations and Slavic studies interviews a different professor each week. You are cordially invited to delve into Brown’s sixty-three departments and meet the crème de la crème of academicians.

“Translation contributes to world peace more than anything else.”- Professor Alexander Levitsky, Slavic Department

Courses teaching this semester: RUSS1200 Russian Fantasy and Science Fiction, RUSS2720D Derzhavin and His Epoch

Amidst the smell of coffee, cigarettes and books, Professor Alexander Levitsky of the Slavic Department sits at the center of a long table haphazardly cluttered in books, reviews and strewn papers. His office is framed by ceiling-high bookshelves under the watchful eye of Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, Russia’s undisputedly most beloved poet. In a charming Czech accent, Professor Levitsky explains his life, how he came to Brown and what space has to do with world peace.

After 50 years, Professor Levitsky confidently calls the United States his home. He first came to the States in the 1960s when he was seventeen-and-a-half, escaping – on foot – the political situation in Czechoslovakia. He lived in France while applying for an American visa – a relatively easy process for a student of medical sciences, and ultimately joined his mother, who was already a U.S. citizen. It was a small price to pay, Levitsky comments, for American cigarettes. Continuing his premed studies at the University of Minnesota and then at the University of Michigan, the adjustment process to life in the U.S. was not so difficult for someone who had grown up under the socialist system, where one “grows up faster…learning to read between the lines.” In some ways, he adds, he valued his newfound sense of freedom more than typical Americans.

During his time at the University of Michigan, Levitsky was selected to study a semester in what was then the Soviet Union. “Not to self-promote,” he says, “but I spoke better Russian than the average Soviet…I possessed nuances of the language from my grandmother who raised me.” Considered a “free Russian” by those around him, many Soviets spun him melancholic yarns of life in the USSR, treating him as a sort of priest. In the end, Levitsky says, he came back from to America with heavy emotional baggage. Given the stories he heard and in regards to his personal experience – three-quarters of his family had been exterminated for political reasons in Eastern Europe – he no longer wanted to focus on saving people as a doctor. He wanted to save people from communism and its “humungous numbers of hatred.”

He studied topics inaccessible to Soviets, in particular about sacred poetry, and wrote his dissertation on 18th-century Russian literature. The goal: that his personal “drop to the bucket” would contribute to the eventual overflowing that ultimately ended communism in the USSR and in its satellite nations. He later witnessed the empire disappear from the map. It wasn’t just about Soviet socialism, he claims: “I don’t like any ideology because it conveniently forgets about the facts.”

But what of his fascination with science and space, that had originally driven him along the path to medical school?

This semester, his course, “Russian Fantasy and Science Fiction,” strives to bridge the sciences and humanities, something that has become increasingly difficult, with the hindrance of modern technologies. As a professor, he works to “reengage humanity to be more eclectic.” Space – not religion – he asserts, “has the power to unify mankind…it is so huge that our differences are dwarfed.” Levitsky remembers the excitement surrounding the first mission to the moon under J.F. Kennedy. Space exploration, he adds, “didn’t produce any warfare” during the Cold War. And unknown to many, the seeds that became NASA and the Soviet space program originated in the minds of great thinkers – French novelist, poet and playwright Jules Verne, for example. A great number of Soviet thinkers, too, envisioned a futuristic utopia in which men and women were equal. While idealistic, literature, as a body of ideas, was able to exist outside of the limits of the material world, asking questions such as “What is a man? What defines him?” As Levitsky speaks, it becomes clear that literature, like space, will always be a final frontier, ever expanding in all directions, inviting humanity to find solace in ideas.

Levitsky has translated numerous works of poetry into English, but prefers to think of it as “transplanting the impact of particular work” into a different language. The goal is for an English reader to “adore the work as much” as in the language of origin. “There is a Czech saying,” he adds: “As many languages you know, as many languages you are a human being.” In this way, “translation contributes to world peace more than anything else.” That is, “if you know your perceived enemy through good translation, they cease to be an enemy.” The only difference among us is that we are born to different circumstances.

The Slavic Department is home to courses related to Polish, Czech and Russian language and literature. Levitsky concludes, “Russia still occupies about a sixth of the globe…if we have an interest in China, we should equally pay interest to Russia. Russia is not an enemy of Brown students, nor of the United States.”

Questions, comments, concerns? Email Natasha Bluth at Natasha_Bluth@brown.edu for more information. 

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