Remembering Omeljan Pritsak on His 100th Birthday

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April 7, 2019, marks the 100th anniversary of Omeljan Pritsak's birth. Pritsak was one of the founders of Ukrainian studies and the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard. An eminent Turkologist and professor at Harvard University, Pritsak's vision for a program of study on his native Ukraine helped ensure the West could become better acquainted with Ukrainian history and culture.

In honor of what would have been the scholar's 100th birthday, we're posting a biographical sketch of Omeljan Pritsak by Lubomyr Hajda. This article was published forty years ago in the journal Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol. 3/4, Part 1. Eucharisterion: Essays presented to Omeljan Pritsak on his Sixtieth Birthday by his Colleagues and Students (1979-1980).

Omeljan Pritsak: A Biographical Sketch

Omeljan Pritsak was born on April 7, 1919, in the town of Luka, near Sambir (now Ozerne, in Lviv oblast, Ukrainian SSR). The year of his birth witnessed the often conflicting strivings for statehood on territories of fallen empires. The place - the province of Galicia, lately under the Habsburg Monarchy - was in the midst of a violent struggle between Ukrainians and Poles. Omeljan's father, Osyp Pritsak, a mechanical engineer by profession, fought on the Ukrainian side, was taken captive and perished as a prisoner of war near Brest Litovsk in September 1919. His mother Emilia (née Kapko) was remarried in 1920 to Pavlo Saramaha, a merchant, who also participated in the struggle for Ukrainian independence. The property of both father and stepfather was confiscated by the Polish authorities, and in 1920 the family moved to Ternopil' to start a new life.

Disillusioned with the Ukrainian cause and anxious to ensure a better future for their child in the reconstituted Polish state, Omeljan's mother and stepfather decided to raise him as a Pole. In 1928, at the age of nine, Omeljan entered the First Gymnasium in Ternopil', a Polish-language high school with a classical curriculum on the old Austrian pattern that included both Latin and Greek. He was soon given permission to use the excellent teachers' library, and this gave him access to the classic works of history, of which he was enamored from early childhood, as well as more esoteric subjects, including Persian. By his third year at the gymnasium scattered facts from everyday life - the colloquial Ukrainian spoken at home, attendance at the Greek Catholic (Uniate) rather than Latin-rite church of his Polish friends, snatches of overheard conversation - combined with a curiosity about his family's history and genealogy led him to rediscover his Ukrainian roots. This growing awareness of his national identity was heightened by the growing tensions between Poles and Ukrainians in Galicia and the treatment he received from some of his teachers. In secret from his family, the young student learned literary Ukrainian and read voraciously about Ukrainian history and culture, especially Myxajlo Hrusevs'kyj's multivolume History of Ukraine- Rus '. By the time he graduated from the gymnasium in 1936, he had decided that the study of Ukrainian history would be his vocation.

In the course of his reading, notably of Hrusevs'kyj, Omeljan was struck by the underutilization of Islamic - Arabic, Turkish, and Persian - sources in Ukrainian historiography. For the history of the Ukraine, with its centuries-long links with the Middle East and the Eurasian steppe, this seemed a serious gap, and one he soon became determined to fill. The Turkish songs and phrases his mother learned during the war and taught him as a child, and his already budding interest in Persian, encouraged by Franciszek Machalski, his gymnasium teacher of Polish literature but an Iranian specialist by training, were an added impetus. When Omeljan Pritsak entered Lviv University, a major center for historical and Oriental studies, in the fall of 1936 it was with the goal of putting Islamic sources at the service of Ukrainian scholarship. At Lviv University Omeljan Pritsak pursued a systematic study of Central Asian history and the Semitic, Iranian, and Altaic languages (later to be supplemented by others, from Finno-Ugric to Chinese) under the well-known Orientalists Wtadysiaw Kotwicz and Tadeusz Lewicki. In medieval and premodern European and Polish history his professors were such noted Polish scholars as T. E. Modelski, Adam Szel^gowski, and Ludwik Kolankowski. He became active in Ukrainian scholarly circles as well, especially the historical commission of the Shevchenko Scientific Society (1936-39), which brought him into association with such distinguished Ukrainian historians as Ivan Kryp"jakevyc, a student of Hrusevs'kyj. From these years also date his earliest scholarly works - a monograph on the Skoropads'kyj family, other studies primarily on the period of Hetman Ivan Mazepa (1687-1709), and an exhaustive bibliography on Mazepa, whose publication was prevented by the outbreak of World War II. A number of articles dealt with Ukrainian church history, an interest fostered by his friendship and cooperation with the scholar-monks of the Basilian Order, notably his older university colleague, Fr. Teofil Kostruba, and Fr. Roman Lukan'.

War brought the first Soviet occupation of Galicia and its incorporation into the USSR in 1939. It was under Soviet rule that Omeljan Pritsak received his university degree in 1939/ 1940 (M.A. in History and Oriental Studies) and became a "junior research worker" and "learned secretary" of the newly established Lviv branch of the Institute of Ukrainian History of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. Soon, however, on the invitation of the renowned Ukrainian Arabist and Turkologist, Ahatanhel Kryms'kyj, Omeljan moved to Kiev to continue his graduate training (aspirantura). These studies lasted only a few short weeks, for in the fall of 1940 he was drafted into the Red Army. For some four months he was stationed in the Bashkir ASSR, an experience that among other things brought him for the first time into contact with native Turkic speakers.

German victories over the Soviets soon ended Omeljan Pritsak's military service. For a while he found himself an Ostarbeiter. In October 1943, however, thanks to the intercession of the German Arabist Richard Hartmann, he was released to resume his studies, this time at the University of Berlin. From 1943 to 1945 under severe wartime conditions, which included daily Allied bombardment, he immersed himself in Islamic studies with Hartmann, the Turkologists Annemarie von Gabain and Helmuth Scheel, and the Iranist and Central Asian specialist, Hans Heinrich Schaeder. Schaeder's influence on his intellectual development was paramount, not only in Islamic studies but also in the formulation of his view of the universality of human history that has guided all of his subsequent work.

This fruitful, if extremely difficult, period ended with the collapse of Germany. In the destruction of Berlin all of Omeljan Pritsak's notes and library perished. After some months of wandering in devastated Europe, he managed to reestablish contact with Schaeder, now a professor at the University of Göttingen, and in 1946 resumed his studies there. These involved a fundamental réévaluation of the state system of the Karakhanid Empire (9th to 13th centuries) in Central Asia, which led to his dissertation, "Karachanidische Studien" (part of a more extensive work, as yet unpublished), for which in 1948 he received his doctoral degree summa cum laude in Turkology, Iranian, Islamic, and Slavic studies. Dr. Pritsak's research on the Karakhanids led him to an investigation of Old Turkic and Uighur texts and thence to problems of Turkic linguistics. Philology, which he had long viewed merely as a handmaiden to historical analysis, he began to find fascinating in itself. The evolution from historian to philologist was epitomized in his Habilitationschrift, successfully defended in 1951, "Stammesnamen und Titulaturen der altaischen Völker," in which he drew on data from linguistics to reconstruct the history of the steppe for periods lacking written sources. He now became dozent in Altaic philology and Central Asian history at Göttingen, where he had already been teaching a variety of courses since 1948. It was at Göttingen, too, that Omeljan Pritsak met Nina Moldenhauer, a lecturer in Russian at the University of Kiel. They were married in 1952. Their daughter, Irene, was born in 1953. Now Mrs. Douglas Wissoff, she is the mother of Omeljan and Nina Pritsak's two grandchildren.

The next fifteen years of Dr. Pritsak's life were devoted to Turkology and Altaic studies - teaching, research, writing, and, not least, organizational activities to  promote and internationalize his newly chosen fields. With the eminent Hungarian specialist, Julius von Farkas, he helped found the international Societas Uralo-Altaica in 1951-52, and was its first secretary general and then, in the years 1958-65, president; in 1965 he was elected honorary member of the society. He expanded the membership of the society to include Japanese, Korean, and Mongolian scholars, and - especially difficult in the political climate of the times - Soviet and East European specialists. When the pre-war journal Ungarische Jahrbücher was revived in 1951-52 to serve as the organ of the society, under the more comprehensive title of Ural-Altaische Jahrbücher, Dr. Pritsak was intimately involved in every aspect of the operation. In the years 1954-66 he served as editor. Much of his time was devoted to bringing to the attention of Western scholars the much neglected works in Altaic and Turkic linguistics published in Turkey and the USSR, especially in the Turkic and Mongolian union and autonomous Soviet republics. His reviews and notices of these works number several hundred. He was also editor of the monograph series Ural-Altaische Bibliothek and Slavo-Orientalia, and co-editor of the Central Asiatic Journal Göttinger Asiatische Forschungen, and the series Uralic and Altaic Studies published at the University of Indiana. Finally, to provide a forum for scholarly interchange, he founded, together with the Mongolian specialist Walther Heissig, the Permanent International Conference of Altaists (PIAC) in 1958.

Dr. Pritsak's own research was by then concentrated in two areas: historical Altaic linguistics and comparative grammar of Turkic languages. He was especially intrigued by the language of the Huns and their descendants,the Bulgars and Chuvashes. He devoted many articles to problems in this field as well as the ground-breaking monograph, Die Bulgarische Fürstenliste und die Sprache der Protobulgaren, which elicited a considerable debate when it appeared in 1954. His comparative work centered on the older stages of Turkic and the lesser-known Turkic tongues (Karaim, Karachai-Balkar, New Uighur, Altai and Yenisei Turkic, and others). In addition to numerous journal articles, he wrote at least a quarter of the entries for the monumental reference work, Philologiae Turcicae Fundamenta (vol. 1, 1959). 

All this activity, of course, was in addition to his teaching. After a year at the University of Göttingen, he became dozent at the University of Hamburg in 1952, and was promoted to professor in 1957, a position he held until 1961. He was visiting professor at Cambridge University in 1954, at the universities of Cracow and Warsaw in 1959, and at Harvard University in 1960-61. In 1961 he moved permanently to the United States, where he became professor of Turkology at the University of Washington in Seattle. He came to Harvard University as professor of linguistics and Turkology in 1964. There he developed a full curriculum of courses, covering all phases of historical linguistics, comparative grammar, individual languages like Chuvash and Yakut, and specialized seminars on selected topics. And ever mindful of the relationship between philology and other fields in the humanities and social sciences, he was instrumental in establishing the interdisciplinary standing Committee on Inner Asian and Altaic Studies, of which he became the first chairman. 

After some fifteen years of almost total absorption in philology, his interest in linguistics began to wane, and Professor Pritsak finally turned his attention to his original design - expanding the source base for Ukrainian history to include data from Oriental materials. This plan had been dormant for many years, but had never been totally  abandoned. In 1953 he published a major study on the alliance of Hetmán Xmel'nyc'kyj with the Ottoman Porte, "Das erste türkisch-ukrainische Bündnis (1648)." In the mid-1960s, he turned to an earlier period - Kievan Rus' - and undertook an analysis of the epic Igor' Tale, especially its Turkic elements, as a  historical source. Immersion in this topic drew him ever more deeply into the past, and ultimately to an investigation of the origins of Rus', a work of monumental scope of which the first volume is in the final stages of publication, as is a monograph on Jewish Khazar documents, co-authored with Norman Golb of the University of Chicago.

Renewed involvement in Ukrainian history led him to reconsider the status and prospects for Ukrainian studies in the West. Convinced that only a permanent center combining both teaching and research possibilities at a leading university could ensure a rational scholarly framework, in 1967 Professor Pritsak proposed a bold plan to the Ukrainian community. He asked it to endow three professorial chairs in Ukrainian disciplines - one each in language, literature, and history - and a research institute along with them. As it happened, a group of Ukrainian-American students (incorporated as the Ukrainian Studies Chair Fund) had already been conducting a fund drive for some ten years to endow a single chair in Ukrainian studies at an American university. Now led by a more ambitious vision, they adopted the new plan. Fund-raising efforts were redoubled, and negotiations with Harvard University resulted in an agreement in 1968 that the proposed center would be established there. That same year an ad hoc (later standing) Committee on Ukrainian Studies was formed, and Omeljan Pritsak was appointed chairman. By 1973 the three chairs were fully endowed, and the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute officially came into being with Omeljah Pritsak as director.

Although the fund drive for the institute continued, a firm foundation had been laid. A series of weekly seminars in Ukrainian studies allows for regular scholarly exchange on current research by students and faculty; their résumés have been published annually since 1970-71 as the Minutes of the Seminar in Ukrainian Studies. Scholarly conferences provide a forum for Ukrainian specialists in every academic field. A publication program for sources, original studies, and reprints of rare works - the Harvard Series in Ukrainian Studies, of which Omeljan Pritsak is editor-in-chief - has been in operation since 1970. A cherished project, the scholarly journal Harvard Ukrainian Studies, began its publication in 1977, with Omeljan Pritsak and Ihor Sevcenko as co-editors. The library collections have grown and multiplied under the care of a professional staff. It was in recognition of all these achievements that in 1975 Omeljan Pritsak was named the first Myxajlo Hrusevs'kyj Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University. Since then he has maintained a heavy teaching load covering every aspect of Ukrainian history from general surveys to specialized topics in economic and social history, from Kievan Rus' to nineteenth- and twentieth-century intellectual currents.

In the course of his career Omeljan Pritsak has been honored many times. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and vice-president of the Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences in the U.S. He is a member of the Royal Asiatic Society and the Shevchenko Scientific Society, a corresponding member of the Turk Dil Kurumu, the Société Fenno-Ougrienne and the Societas Orientalis Fennica in Helsinki, and other scholarly institutions.

His scholarly oeuvre and organizational feats are Omeljan Pritsak's most visible achievements, but to those who know him best, there is no doubt that teaching is his most satisfying accomplishment. His first goal has been to produce new generations of dedicated scholars, through rigorous training and the transmission of his own enthusiasm in the pursuit of intellectual inquiry. In paying tribute to Omeljan Pritsak on his sixtieth birthday, his colleagues, friends, fellow academicians, and admirers honor him as a distinguished scholar. His students have the privilege also of honoring him as a devoted teacher.


Lubomyr A. Hajda
Harvard University

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