As elsewhere across the US, it was Khrushchev's beeping Sputnik that was academia’s wake-up call to the existence of Russia. After 1957, the study of Russian began to receive financial support from governmental and foundation programs. A Committee on Slavic Area Studies was established in 1959.

The tradition of Slavic studies at the University of Chicago is almost as old as the University itself. It goes back to 1896 when one of Russia’s best educated men, Prince Sergei Volkonsky, came to the University of Chicago to give a series of lectures and to deliver a convocation address. It was Volkonsky’s talks on Russian art, theater and literature that are said to have sparked an enthusiasm for Russia in the University’s first president William Rainey Harper. In 1900 Harper visited Russia, met Count Tolstoy and had an audience with Tsar Nicholas II, from whom he received as a gift a case of good wine.

One bottle from this case, half emptied, is now found in the archives of Samuel Northrop Harper, the president’s son. Knowing as we do that the first thing the revolutionary sailors did after they took the Winter Palace in October 1917 was to raid Tsar’s wine cellars, the half a bottle preserved on this campus may well be all that survives from the collection of wines once owned by the last Emperor of Russia.

A few facts about the president’s son follow. Encouraged by his father, Samuel Northrop Harper went to Paris to study Russian, visited Moscow in 1904 and Petersburg in January of1905, just in time to witness "Bloody Sunday" – the Tsar’s troops shooting at a demonstration of unarmed workers near the Winter Palace. Harper reported what he had seen to the American Embassy and came back to teach courses in Russian language and political institutions at the University of Chicago. Even though he supported the democratic process in Russia, interviewed members of the Duma and was hopeful about the Provisional Government formed in the wake of the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in February of 1917, Harper was dismayed and disheartened by the Bolshevik Revolution in October. Without ceasing to teach Russian subjects here in the Humanities division throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Samuel N. Harper had an official appointment to the State Department where, in 1918, he became the first expert in the field, which years later became known as Sovietology.

It was at this University that the future Minister for Foreign affairs of that short-lived Provisional Government of Russia, Pavel Miliukov, presented twelve lectures in 1903. He later expanded these lectures into the book Russia and its Crisis published by the University of Chicago Press in 1905. In the winter of 1905 (the same winter in which Samuel N. Harper witnessed the events of "Bloody Sunday"), Miliukov returned to Chicago to gives lecture on the Balkan states to history students. If founding dates were needed for every strand in the Slavic field, winter of 1905 could thus be considered the beginning of Chicago’s Balkan Studies program.

Indeed, the pride of this Slavic department is that we do not measure the importance of a culture by the size of its nation or by a military might. We are among the only ten Slavic departments in the US and Canada, which on the strength of the multiethnic composition of its program can be called a "full-service" Slavic Department, rather than being called a Russian one. On the one hand, this "all-Slavic" profile is justified by the fact that Chicago is a very Slavic city, with large Polish, Czech, Slovak, Ukrainian, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Bulgarian ethnic communities. On the other hand, however, this position can be traced back to 1902 when the future first president of yet-to-be-formed Republic of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Masaryk (then a professor at the University of Prague), came to Chicago to read a series of lectures entitled "The Philosophy of a Small Nation."

It took a long time for this to become our official philosophy, however. In the course of the past century, Russia was looming large, and the sad thing about academic policies then (as now) was that large things were noticed first. The second year of the Great War in Europe, 1915, was the year intended by President Harry Pratt Judson to be the beginning of a Russian department at the University of Chicago, with Samuel N. Harper as its chairman. As Soviet Russia bailed out of the war and closed a peace treaty with Germany, the Russian Department did not materialize, and the Chicago Russianists had to wait for the next world war before being in demand again.

When in the l940s the University was selected as a Center for Russian language and area instruction under the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), Russian émigré, Count George Bobrinskoy, a specialist in Sanskrit and of the Linguistics Department, was asked to teach his mother tongue to military intelligence officers. His staff of eight, which included Fruma Gottschalk and Raissa Palyi, utilized methods of orals-aural language instruction first developed at Chicago. After the war, Gottschalk remained in charge of Russian language teaching and Slavic as well as East Asian became part of the Linguistics Department. Francis J. Whitfield was the Department’s first full-time Slavist. He offered courses in Russian, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Czech, Old Church Slavonic, Old Russian, and introductory Russian literature.

In the decade after the war, Slavic studies slowed down again. A minimum of courses were maintained – basic language courses and a survey of the literature – until the mid-fifties. After Samuel N. Harper’s death in 1942, Professor Bobrinskoy kept calling for an appointment of a full-time specialist in Russian, but the administration dawdled, filling the vacancy with temporary appointments. From the scholarly perspective, however, temporary arrangements are not necessarily bad: in 1944 Roman Jacobson came to lecture at the University for one quarter.

As elsewhere across the US, it was Khrushchev’s beeping Sputnik that was academia’s wake-up call to the existence of Russia. After 1957, the study of Russian began to receive financial support from governmental and foundation programs. A Committee on Slavic Area Studies was established in 1959. Specialists in the Slavic realm appeared in a number of Departments: History, Economic, Anthropology, Linguistics, Political Sciences. In addition to teaching Slavic languages, Slavic linguistics was now being taught by Edward Stankiewicz, a general linguist with competence in all Slavic languages, accentology and metrics.

The new graduate Department of Slavic Languages and Literature was established in 1961 with Edward Wasiolek (part-time) and Hugh McLean’s (full time) appointments. For Russian literature, Krystyna Pomorska was a visiting professor in 1962 and 1963. In 1963, Ralph E. Matlaw joined in; in 1967, Milton Ehre and Barbara Monter; in 1971, Norman W. Ingham. Concurrently, appointments were made in Slavic linguistics. In 1961, Zbigniew Golab came to Chicago from the University of Cracow strengthening the program in West and South Slavic linguistics. Howard I. Aronson joined the staff in 1962, and rounded out the program of Russian and general Slavic linguistics, with a particular strength in Bulgarian. Peter Jonikas taught courses in comparative Balto-Slavic and the history of Lithuanian. In 1972, Bill Darden, with interest in Russian, Lithuanian, and comparative linguistics, joined the Department.