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April 28, 2005

Wayne S. Vucinich, father of East European studies, dead at 91

By Lisa Trei

Wayne S. Vucinich, a founding father of Russian and East European scholarship after World War II and a beloved mentor to thousands of students during his five decades at Stanford, died of heart failure at a nursing home in Menlo Park on April 21. He was 91 years old.

Known to generations of students as "Uncle Wayne," Vucinich rose from humble origins as an orphaned shepherd boy in Herzegovina to become a legendary professor who taught that the "Communist Bloc" was far from the gray monolithic entity characterized by U.S. policymakers in the postwar era.

"He was an incredibly important influence on people's understanding in the academic world on what the Cold War meant in Eastern Europe," said Larry Wolff, a history professor at Boston College and Vucinich's last doctoral advisee in 1979. "Wayne was successful in teaching how different and complicated were the pieces of the East European puzzle. He enabled you to look right through the generalization … and not see it through the popular vision that was so important in U.S. policy."

From 1946 to 1988, Vucinich taught courses on Western civilization and Russian and East European history, advised more than two dozen doctoral dissertations and lectured on 24 Stanford alumni study tours on the Danube River. He was instrumental in founding and securing permanent funding for the Center for Russian and East European Studies, which he directed from 1972 to 1985. Vucinich also was curator of the Russian and East European Collections at the Hoover Institution from 1974 to 1977 and developed and edited its well-regarded series, Studies of Nationalities in the USSR. From 1981 to 1982, he was president of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, which established the Vucinich Book Prize in his honor in 1982.

Vucinich wrote and edited many studies on the region, including Serbia Between East and West (1954), The Ottoman Empire: Its Record and Legacy (1965), The Peasant in 19th-Century Russia (1968), Contemporary Yugoslavia (1969), Russia and Asia (1972) and Eastern Europe (1973). In 1977, he received a Dean's Award for teaching, and in 1981 a festschrift titled Nation and Ideology celebrated his wide-ranging achievements. In 2000, former students, including several prominent academics, honored Vucinich by organizing a two-day symposium on the Balkans. Many returned in 2003 when he turned 90 years old. "One of the highlights of my career was attending Wayne's 90th birthday, when many of us from around the country and the world came to pay tribute to our beloved 'Uncle,'" Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, wrote in a statement. "It may be a cliché, but Wayne S. Vucinich was a class unto himself."

Vucinich's infectious enthusiasm for his work and his genuine interest in people influenced many students to enter academia. "He was the Pied Piper for a lot of us; I would have followed him anywhere," said Norman Naimark, the Robert and Florence McDonnell Professor of Eastern European Studies. The chair was first established for Vucinich in 1977, and he held it for many years after his formal retirement in 1978. "Uncle was as important to the field as they come," Naimark continued. "He was also deeply inspiring as far as I was concerned personally. Students flocked to him. He was a real Stanford institution, but he was also an important scholar internationally."

Vucinich was born into an immigrant Serbian family in Butte, Mont., in 1913. When his parents and his infant brother died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, an uncle took Vucinich and his two younger siblings back to a remote mountain village in Bileca Rudine in Herzegovina, where they were raised by extended family. As a boy, Vucinich slept on a dirt floor in a primitive home and helped drive livestock to mountain pastures during the summer.

As the eldest son in the family, when Vucinich turned 15 he was given the choice of joining the priesthood, joining the Serbian army, attending agricultural college or moving to Los Angeles to live with his godfather. Vucinich returned to the United States. He spoke almost no English and struggled in school but was good at sports, earning letters in baseball, football and track. When fellow students started talking about college, Vucinich used his middle school transcript from Bileca—complete with good grades—to enter the University of California-Berkeley. He learned English and subsequently earned his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in Slavic languages and history between 1936 and 1941. He also studied at Charles University in Prague.

After graduating, Vucinich joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, to analyze the situation in the Balkans for U.S. interests in the region. He served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1943 to 1946 and earned a Bronze Star for "meritorious" work. In 1946, after working in the State Department for a year, Vucinich accepted an offer to teach in Stanford's History Department.

Vucinich's wartime experience in the OSS and his academic focus on Eastern Europe returned to haunt him during the Red Scare, when he was accused of harboring Communist sympathies. In 1954, Stanford's lawyers came to his defense during a two-day Naval Security Board hearing to prevent a dishonorable discharge from the service. Eventually, Vucinich's name was cleared. In 1955, the case was closed and he received a statement from the Navy confirming his status as a "loyal American." According to David Kennedy, the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Vucinich's former student, the university did the right thing in backing the professor. "Stanford went to bat for him," Kennedy said. "It made him a lifelong, unshakeable Stanford supporter."

During the 1960s, Vucinich's painful encounter with anti-Communist hysteria was replaced by his growing popularity on campus as a teacher. In 1960-61, Kennedy joined the first group of undergraduates to study in the new Stanford in Italy program in Florence. He recalled that Vucinich, who had worked in Italy during the war, joyfully shared his experience and knowledge of the region with his students. "I was greener than spring grass," Kennedy recalled. "The experience in Italy opened my eyes to the world. [Vucinich] was a great raconteur, a thoroughly captivating personality." Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, credits Vucinich for encouraging him to change his major from electrical engineering to history. He also said that "Uncle" taught him an indirect lesson about the importance of maintaining a personal interest in students. "It's something I've tried to take seriously," he said.

In addition to teaching at Stanford's overseas campuses in Florence; Beutelsbach, Germany; and Vienna, Vucinich led groups of students to Bileca Rudine in the 1960s to excavate evidence of Illyrian, Roman and medieval culture in the Trebisnijca Basin before a hydroelectric dam flooded the area. Naimark, a graduate student in 1968, recalled the dig as an "unforgettable experience." In 1995, Vucinich told Stanford Report that he had an ulterior motive for taking students such as Naimark to the Balkan interior. "I've always said, the more languages you speak, the more lives you lead," he said.

Gregorian, who often dined with the Vucinich family at their home, said "Uncle" was his freshman adviser in 1956. "It was because of him that I decided to major in history as well as in the humanities," he wrote. Later, Vucinich became his doctoral adviser. "He was one of a handful of Stanford professors who became a legendary figure," Gregorian said. "His office was always open, as was his home. For me and for others, he embodied what makes Stanford unique—great teaching, scholarship and mentoring."

Vucinich's wife of 48 years, Sara "Sally" Vucinich, died in 1990. He is survived by his two daughters, Annette Davis of San Francisco and Connie Vucinich Furlong of Bainbridge Island, Wash., three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

A campus memorial service will take place June 3. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to Stanford University for the Wayne S. and Sara Stys Vucinich Fund for Slavic Studies, Stanford University, Attn: Gift Processing, 326 Galvez St., Stanford, CA 94305-6105.



Lisa Trei, News Service: (650) 725-0224,


Norman Naimark, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences: (650) 321-2052,

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