Charles Jelavich (1922–2013)
David Ransel, November 2013
Historian of Balkan Nationalism, Inspiring Mentor
Charles Jelavich was born and grew up in the Santa Clara valley town of Mountain View, California. Now part of the densely-settled Silicon Valley, the Mountain View of Charles’s childhood was a small community surrounded by orchards. His parents, immigrants from the Austrian Empire with only grammar school educations, were cherry and apricot farmers. Charles played multiple sports in high school, and did well enough scholastically to receive two scholarships to continue his studies at the nearby University of California, Berkeley. He completed his bachelor’s degree in Slavic languages at Berkeley in 1944. That same year he married Barbara Brightfield, a fellow student, with whom he began a life-long intellectual collaboration.
After a stint in the US Army from 1944 to 1946, acting as an interpreter in the office of the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, Charles returned to Berkeley to complete his master’s and doctoral degrees (in 1947 and 1949 respectively), this time in history. He joined the faculty of the Department of History at Berkeley, teaching in his special area of Balkan and Hapsburg history. He progressed through the ranks from instructor to associate professor. A source of disappointment was, however, the inability of his wife, now Barbara Jelavich, to obtain a teaching position at Berkeley, despite her impressive accomplishments as a published scholar of diplomatic history. Robert F. Byrnes, chair of the Department of History at Indiana University, seized on this opportunity to lure the Jelaviches to IU with the offer of a professorship for each of them. Byrnes was then in the process of building the largest program of Russian and East European studies in the country, and the addition of Charles and Barbara Jelavich soon made IU the premier US school for the production of historians in the fields of Central Europe and the Balkans.
Throughout his career, Charles’s research focused on modern nationalism among the peoples of the Balkan Peninsula. He produced two major monographs on this subject, Tsarist Russia and Balkan Nationalism: Russian Influence in the Internal Affairs of Bulgaria and Serbia, 1879–1886 (University of California Press, 1958), and South Slav Nationalisms: Textbooks and Yugoslav Union before 1914 (Ohio State University Press, 1990). During the intervening 32 years, Charles was not idle; he cowrote or coedited with Barbara six additional books on Balkan history, and produced another essay collection, coedited with Tihomir Vulovic, on modern literary developments in Yugoslavia and America. He also published more than 30 scholarly articles on related topics.
Recognition and support for his scholarly work came from a variety of sources, including the Ford Foundation, Social Science Research Council, American Philosophical Society, American Council of Learned Societies, National Endowment for the Humanities, Fulbright-Hays, International Research and Exchanges Board, Woodrow Wilson Center, Mellon Foundation, and Indiana University. In 1992, the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies—the leading North American professional organization for specialists in the Russian and East European field—jointly bestowed on Charles and Barbara its highest honor, the Award for Distinguished Contributions to Slavic studies.
An enthusiastic advocate for foreign-language and area-studies education, Charles was regularly asked to serve on national and international committees of Slavic studies, and to organize international conferences and workshops. He also served on the editorial boards of nine scholarly journals, most with interdisciplinary profiles. His service to the profession culminated in 1987 with his election to the presidency of the interdisciplinary American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies. Despite his many contributions to interdisciplinary organizations, Charles believed firmly that scholars ought to find their home in a disciplinary department. “I think that a student should have a degree in a discipline,” he explained to an interviewer in 1993, “and then you should take courses in other fields.” So, while Charles promoted area studies, he thought that specialists should get a broad view of the field at an early stage and then concentrate on a disciplinary field for their PhD.
Charles also had strong feelings about what he believed was an illegitimate pairing of East European studies and Russian studies. He spoke passionately for the study of East and East Central Europe for their own sakes, and regarded these regions as belonging more to the sphere of European than of Russian history. But Charles conceded that the creation of centers of Russian and East European studies was necessary during the Cold War. “We would never have gotten one penny [for East European studies] from the United States government if we tried to separate Russia and Eastern Europe,” he declared in the 1993 interview.
Charles’s professional engagement and strong opinions made him a sought-after teacher. A popular undergraduate instructor, he introduced many Indiana students to what, for them, must have seemed a remote and mysterious corner of the globe. But the widest impact of his teaching was felt at the graduate level, where he inspired many young people in Indiana’s master’s degree programs in history and in area studies to pursue careers in the field of Russian and East European studies. Among these students was Robert Gates, later director of the Central Intelligence Agency and secretary of defense. A number of his other students went on to distinguished careers in the Foreign Service. At the PhD level, he and Barbara shared duties, regularly supervising the studies of a few dozen candidates. Charles himself served on more than 50 dissertation committees, and together they produced 59 PhDs at IU. One of his doctoral students, Nick Novosel, recently commented that “mentoring was where Charles excelled. His characteristic integrity, consistency, and reliance on common sense were trademarks.” Charles’s greatest legacy is undoubtedly his students. They can be found throughout the United States and abroad in college teaching positions, university administration, government service, and international organizations.