In Memoriam

Eugene Yazkov (1924-2009)

Glenna Matthews, October 2009

2000 Honorary Foreign Member

On March 28, 2009, the world of historical scholarship lost an extraordinary figure when Eugene Yazkov, professor from Moscow State University (MSU), died in Moscow after a lingering illness. He was 85 years old and had long taught at his country’s oldest university.

A specialist in the history of New Deal agriculture and the author of numerous books, Yazkov was one of the leading Russian Americanists. After the death of Nicholas Sivachev (another pioneering Americanist) in 1983, Yazkov became the chair of the Department of Modern and Contemporary History at Moscow State. He then played a major role in developing the field of American history, first in the Soviet Union and then in the Russian Federation after the USSR broke up. Moreover, he provided essential support for having a Fulbright lecturer in American history at MSU, this being the Soviet Union’s first Fulbright.

In fact, the Fulbright position at MSU, launched in 1974 when the exigencies of the Cold War had only begun to be relaxed, required much nurturing. Both Sivachev and Yazkov after him provided the leadership to institutionalize the position, including simple acts of kindness for those who occupied it.

Speaking for those Fulbrighters who have taught at MSU, this writer can say that Eugene Yazkov was a memorable figure. The word leonine could have been coined to describe him, both in appearance and in staunchness of character. Together with his wife Marina, he provided hospitality, resources, help from graduate students, and collegiality to visiting Americans. Even in the coldest Russian winter, the Yazkovs radiated warmth.

By the time of my own Fulbright in 2002, Yazkov’s health had begun to fail. Yet he extended himself—and then apologized for not doing more. I had only been in Moscow a week or two, for example, when the invitation to the Yazkovs’ apartment came. Arriving, I was met by a beautifully set table arrayed with equally beautiful food. When we sat down and began the toasts, I had the distinct feeling that I had encountered the scene before in a Russian novel. That feeling was heightened when Mrs. Yazkov took me into her room to show me the battle ribbons she had won during the siege of Stalingrad.

This all took place only a few months after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. After many toasts and much hilarity, Mrs. Yazkov introduced a more somber tone by proposing a toast to the memory of the victims. And on March 11, Yazkov called me to offer condolences on the six-months’ anniversary of the tragedy. Perhaps only another person who grew up during the Cold War could appreciate how remarkable these acts of kindness seemed, as well as how much they meant.
These days there is much talk about internationalizing the study of American history. Eugene Yazkov was a pivotal person in making such a vision into a reality. In recognition of this, in 2000 the American Historical Association made him an honorary foreign member.

—Glenna Matthews, Laguna Beach, Calif.