John-Paul Himka
November 2014

A Man Much Missed: Remembering Ivan Lysiak-Rudnytsky

Thirty years ago, on 25 April 1984, I lost a dear friend and mentor, Professor Ivan Lysiak-Rudnytsky. I had seen him a day or two before his death, visiting him in the University of Alberta Hospital, where he seemed to be recovering successfully from a heart attack. He had at his bedside a volume of ancient Chinese stories in German translation. He had loved belles lettres his whole life. And his interest in Oriental literature had been sparked by lectures on the subject he had heard as a student in wartime Berlin. He often told me that his professor of Orientalistik used to lecture about Eastern despotisms, while actually voicing a critique of the Nazi regime. He thought this exposed the difference between national socialist and communist totalitarianism. No such Aesopian lectures would have been possible to deliver at a university under Stalin; in the Soviet Union the space for intellectual independence was much more restricted.

At the hospital we talked about two unfinished projects, which I promised, in the event that anything happened to him, I would carry on. I did not fulfill either of these promises. One was that I would bring to completion a large collection of the autobiographical writings of Mykhailo Drahomanov in English translation. Ivan had made the selection. My job was "just" to make sure the translation was accurate. This was our usual division of labor. I still have all these texts. Although much progress has been made on editing the translations, I have been diverted from the project by my own original scholarly research and publications. Perhaps I will yet pay my debt to my friend, and to Drahomanov, the great Ukrainian political thinker. Ivan and I both admired Drahomanov's highly rational and pragmatic, yet principled, argumentation, his detailed exposition of his ideas, and his profound familiarity with the leading international scholarship of his time. Drahomanov’s texts remain ever fresh and ever necessary. The second promise I did not keep was to raise funds for a chair of Ukrainian history at the University of Alberta. There was nothing either of us could do about this. We both lacked the political skill and the interior motivation for this kind of work.

Ivan was just under sixty-five years old when he died. Until his heart attack, he seemed to be doing quite well. Just days before he ended up in the hospital, Ivan and his wife Alexandra Chernenko attended the party my wife and I put on in the Orthodox church hall to celebrate the baptism of our son Mykhailo. Ivan was in a gay mood and wished all three of us the very best. He presented me with baby booties for little Mykhailyk that Alexandra had knitted. His heart attack came as a shock. It was all the more unexpected in that Ivan had taken a number of steps over the past year precisely to improve the condition of his heart and of his health in general. For one thing, he had begun to exercise, taking evening walks around the neighborhood with his wife. He lived in a quiet residential neighborhood not far from St. Martin's Ukrainian bilingual elementary school. A much more fundamental step was that he quit smoking six months before he died. Until then Ivan had smoked a pipe when circumstances permitted, such as in his office at the university or in his home. In other situations he smoked cigarettes.

As late as the 1980s professors were still permitted to smoke cigarettes in the classroom as they lectured, and Ivan did so. In fact, he used his cigarettes as a prop to build suspense in his lectures. When he was telling an interesting story - and Ivan's lectures were full of interesting stories - he would suddenly stop what he was saying and fiddle with his cigarettes to build up the drama of his narratives. The students waited in rapt attention until he lit up, inhaled and exhaled, and only then brought his story to a close. I borrowed this and other techniques from Ivan in my own lectures.


Here I will end this stream of consciousness and present a more ordered accounting of what I remember of my late friend. I will proceed as follows: In the first part I will tell what I know of Ivan's life before I got to know him intellectually and personally in the 1970s. This account will be based on what Ivan himself told me, with some supplemental information obtained from his correspondence (preserved in the University of Alberta archives). Then, in the second part, I will say what I know from my first-hand experience with this wonderful personality.

Ivan's lineage was mainly Ukrainian, but partially Jewish. His father, Pavlo Lysiak, was a member of the secular Ukrainian intelligentsia. Ivan never said much about him. He gravitated much more to his mother's side of the family, the Rudnytskys. His increasing identification with the Rudnytskys can be traced in the various versions of his name. He was born as Ivan Lysiak and later added his mother's last name as well: Ivan Lysiak-Rudnytsky. By the end of his life he signed his name in English simply as Ivan L. Rudnytsky, his father's presence reduced to an initial. His attraction to the Rudnytskys is not hard to explain. His mother was the outstanding Ukrainian women's activist and UNDO politician Milena Rudnytska. His maternal uncles included a brilliant literary critic, Mykhailo Rudnytsky, and a prominent journalist for Dilo, also an UNDO politician, Ivan Kedryn Rudnytsky. Moreover, the marriage between his mother and his father did not last, and Ivan was raised in his mother's house. He remained emotionally close to his mother always, even during a brief estrangement near the end of her life. Colleagues who remembered him from the 1930s, such as Borys Lewytzkyj and Omeljan Pritsak, often referred to him - although not to his face - as a "mother's boy" (mamyn syn). Ivan's maternal grandfather came from a Ukrainian intelligentsia family with its origins in the clergy, and his maternal grandmother was born Jewish, but converted to Greek Catholicism to marry Ivan's grandfather.

Ivan was born on 27 October 1919 in Vienna. Because his father served in the Petrushevych government in exile, his birth certificate was issued by the West Ukrainian National Republic. This accident of history, to be born a Ukrainian citizen, gave Ivan considerable pleasure, because once this was a rare occurrence, with deep significance for patriots of a long stateless nation.

Ivan told me little of his childhood, but I do remember one story. He told me that he had rejected socialism already as a child. He had heard the word mentioned and asked his nanny what it meant. She explained to him that socialists believed that if he had a warm coat and some poor man did not have one, he should give his coat to the poor man. Ivan realized that he would then be left without a coat himself, so he concluded that socialism was bad. Of his adolescence I also know little, except that he had an intense and secret friendship with a Jewish boy, Piotr Rawicz - such interethnic friendships were frowned upon at the time. (Rawicz survived the Holocaust, and there is some postwar correspondence between the old friends in the Ivan L. Rudnytsky collection at the archives of the University of Alberta.)

When the Second World War broke out, Ivan was twenty. He and his mother first moved to Kraków, and then Ivan went off to Berlin (1940-43) to finish his university studies, begun already in Lviv. He earned a doctorate in Prague in 1945, under the supervision of the brilliant, colorful, and controversial historian Eduard Winter, of whom he thought very highly. It is my understanding, though I may be mistaken, that Ivan did not have time to finish his doctoral dissertation on Drahomanov before the degree was actually awarded. He was always a slow, careful worker. It seems that Professor Winter arranged the doctorate before the completion of the thesis in light of the uncertainty of the postwar situation, in order to give his remarkable student a better start. Ivan once mentioned to me that his important collection on Drahomanov published by the Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences in the United States in 1952 was the payment of a certain debt he owed. In that collection, Ivan published a study of Drahomanov's political thought that was as long as many European doctoral theses of that era and of exceptionally high quality.

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