June 26, 2020

A look at the founding of the Harvard Ukrainian Research institute


I read Thomas Prymak’s “The generation of 1919: Pritsak, Luckyj and Rudnyt­sky” (May 24) with considerable interest. I now write to make one rather important correction and to share a personal anecdote.

Whereas Dr. Prymak writes about it being the Ukrainian Canadian community that established the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, he writes that it was Prof. Omeljan Pritsak who “made a special mark by founding the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI) and its journal Harvard Ukrainian Studies (HUS)…” Perhaps because Dr. Prymak is a Canadian, he might be less informed about the history of events in the U.S. Whereas the statement about Prof. Pritsak founding the journal is certainly accurate, the statement about HURI is only half true.

The reality is that at a private university such as Harvard, nothing new happens without money, and when it came either to the three endowed professorships of Ukrainian studies at Harvard or to HURI, neither Harvard nor Prof. Pritsak dipped into their respective pockets to come up with the $3.8 million required to make them happen. They were instead funded by the Ukrainian community, mostly by the Ukrainian American community but also by some important contributions by the Ukrainian Canadian community.

It was the Federation of Ukrainian Student Organizations in America, whose Ukrainian-based acronym was SUSTA, that in 1957 began the campaign to raise money to establish a chair in Ukrainian studies at an American university. In 1958, those students incorporated an organization under the name of the “Ukrainian Studies, Chair Fund, Inc.,” also known as the “Ukrainian Studies Fund” and for a while as the “Harvard University Ukrainian Studies Fund,” but most often referred to by its Ukrainian name “Fond Katedr Ukrayino­znav­stva” or its acronym “FKU.”

It was that organization, headed up by Stephan Chemych and Bohdan Tarnawsky, remarkable individuals who devoted their lives to soliciting support for research and scholarship in Ukrainian history and other disciplines, and the more than 13,000 individual donors in the Ukrainian communities that contributed the money required to make anything at all happen at Harvard or at any other university.

To summarize, Prof. Pritsak was the co-founder of HURI. He was Mr. Inside – the individual within Harvard who was able to explain to and persuade Harvard that Ukrainian studies made sense. There would not exist a Ukrainian program at Harvard had it not been for Prof. Pritsak, but, equally, there would not exist a Ukrainian program at Harvard had it not been for the generosity of the Ukrainian community, as mobilized by the extraordinary efforts of the Ukrainian Studies Fund.

As to the personal anecdote, in the early 1980s I was invited to deliver a guest lecture at HURI related to my writings on the Slavic and Gypsy victims of the Nazi Holocaust. After the lecture, Prof. Pritsak invited me into his office for a chat, during which I lobbied him to get HURI to devote at least some resources to researching and analyzing what had happened in Ukraine prior to and during World War II. To my amazement, Prof. Pritsak told me that HURI couldn’t or wouldn’t do that because one couldn’t really do history until at least 100 years had passed.


Bohdan Vitvitsky has been a member of the board of the Ukrainian Studies Fund since 2005 and currently serves as its president. The views expressed and the experience recounted here are his own.