BY KATHLEEN O'TOOLE
In the Romanian dictionaries of early last century, "Balkan" was defined as "something negative or hopeless," Romanian historian Sorin Antohi reported at the opening of a conference on the Balkans' many traumas. However, Professor Wayne Vucinich, a Balkan who, in his own words, is "always an optimist," defies such a definition.
Vucinich, 87, was surrounded April 14 and 15 by former students who addressed him as "Uncle Wayne." The Robert and Florence McDonnell Professor Emeritus of East European Studies was honored with a two-day symposium on the Balkans, hosted by the Stanford Center for Russian and East European Studies, which Vucinich helped found and directed for many years. Having trained more than two dozen academics in Eastern European history, Vucinich was fondly remembered at the meeting as a friendly, protective professor, always willing to talk with them about their personal lives and encourage them to pursue his field.
"He made you feel special because of your background. You didn't have to be English or German or French. You could be what you were," said Mary Ann Milias St. Peter, A.B. '67. A San Francisco investment manager now, St. Peter grew up in Gilroy, the child of Croatian immigrants who spoke little about their Balkan history because they were determined to assimilate. Vucinich, she said, "fit the pieces together for me. He is Serbian and I'm Croatian, but he was very objective in his lectures so that everyone who came from the region could feel special."
The conference focused on how the Balkans' past history might affect its future. Some scholars argued that peace will not be found in the Balkans until Croats, Bosnians and Serbs each have a separate sovereign homeland. Gale Stokes of Rice University said the recent Balkan wars and "ethnic cleansings" are the continuation of a process that began in Western Europe to map state boundaries onto ethnic lines there. World Wars I and II accomplished that, he said, at the cost of 50 million lives. The Balkans, he said, won't be able to voluntarily enter a multicultural structure like the European Union until they first also feel the safety of having their own countries.
Others were not so sure. Partitioning has led to ongoing violence in Kashmir and Palestine, several speakers noted. "I'm opposed to partitioning. I don't think it is necessarily normative or desirable," said Ivo Banac, a former student of Vucinich, who is now a faculty member at Yale University.
Vucinich stayed out of the debate, but proudly listened to some of his former students, including Roman Szporluk and Ana Siljak of Harvard, Reginald Zelnik of the University of California-Berkeley, Thomas Emmert of Gustavus Adolphus College, Andrew Rossos of the University of Toronto, Wendy Bracewell of University College London, Larry Wolff of Boston College and Norman Naimark of Stanford, who now holds the McDonnell chair and organized the symposium. Nancy Kollmann is the current director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies.
Born in Butte, Mont., in 1913, Vucinich and two younger siblings were sent to live with relatives in a mountainous village in Herzegovina after both their parents and a brother died in the flu epidemic of 1918. He returned to the United States at age 15 to live with a godfather in Southern California and eventually earned a doctorate from UC-Berkeley. He came to Stanford's History Department in 1946 after having served in the Office of Strategic Intelligence, the forerunner of the CIA, in World War II. While at Stanford, he has authored several books and many articles on Eastern Europe, Russia and the Middle East. He also has been curator of the Hoover Institution collections on Eastern Europe and Russia, and taught both alumni and undergraduates abroad in Stanford's Overseas Studies and Alumni College programs.
When the Cold War began, Vucinich became interested in the Soviet social experiment in creating Yugoslavia and traveled there every year, usually with alumni groups. He no longer visits, Vucinich said during a symposium break, because the wars there have scattered his remaining friends and relatives. Early in his career, he said, his visits left him "under suspicion both here and there. There's nothing you can do about it. But Stanford was nice to me. They provided me with a university lawyer, for example, when Yugoslav refugees in this country accused me of betraying the king, being for Tito, or this or that."
Naimark, who was one of Vucinich's students in the 1960s, said the attitude of the U.S. government toward scholars of Eastern Europe changed before he became a student. But in researching the history of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, Naimark found initial distrust of scholars who "spoke with accents." When Columbia University established the first institute for Russian and East European studies, he said, "the five professors were all Anglos and there wasn't a single person from the region on the original committee. But people came quickly to realize it was a crazy attitude, that there was this tremendous expertise among the emigres."
Naimark said he also found himself "with huge eyes" in Vucinich's Balkan history courses. "He was just a wonderful, very unusual mentor of young people, so that everybody felt enriched by his encouragement, his friendliness. He was so welcoming, and if you are 20-year-old American kid who doesn't know anything about the region, all of a sudden here was someone telling you there is all this wonderful history to learn and all these fascinating cultures, and you could do it too."
Emmert, who graduated from Stanford in 1973, said he particularly admired Vucinich for developing and editing the Hoover Institution's series of books on the non-Russian peoples of the former Soviet Union. (The volume on Moldova was published last month.)
"He has been a major figure in our
discipline," Naimark said, "and he is responsible for pretty much
everything we still do at the Stanford center." SR