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Simon Karlinsky, scholar of Russian classic and émigré literature, dies at 84

| 28 July 2009

Simon Karlinsky, a University of California, Berkeley, professor of Slavic languages and literature and a pioneering scholar of Russian classic and émigré literature, died in his Berkeley home on July 5 of congestive heart failure. He was 84.

Karlinsky is known for his examination of early Russian drama and of artists about whom there initially was little information available in English, or whose politics or homosexuality met with suppression by the Soviet government. Among his principal interests were writers Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov, Vladimir Nabokov and Marina Tsvetaeva, ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev and composers Igor Stravinsky and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

The Russian Review published a special bibliography of Karlinsky's work in 1990 as part of the journal's documentation of some of the leading scholars in Russian studies. A festschrift celebrating his career was published in 1994 in the series Modern Russian Literature and Cultural Studies and Texts.

Karlinsky wrote and edited several books, including two studies of Tsvetaeva (1966 and 1985), "Russian Drama from Its Beginnings to the Age of Pushkin" (1985), "The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol" (1976), "Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya; The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971 (1979) and, with Alfred Appel Jr., "The Bitter Air of Exile: Russian Writers in the West: 1922-1972" (1977).

He also authored hundreds of articles about Russian literature for leading academic journals and publications such as The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, The Advocate, Christopher Street and Gay Sunshine.

In 1972, he wrote in The New York Times about Nobel Prize-winning Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author then of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" and later of "The Gulag Archipelago." Both are books about Soviet prisons. "By relying solely on his own vision of reality and his own artistic conscience, Solzhenitsyn brought back to Russian literature the two qualities that were its greatest glory in the days before the Revolution: honesty and originality," Karlinsky wrote.

Karlinsky was born in a Russian émigré conclave in Harbin, Manchuria, on Sept. 22, 1924. He came to the United States in 1938 and became a U.S. citizen in 1944.

Karlinsky briefly attended Los Angeles City College before enlisting in the U.S. Army, where he served from 1943 to 1947. After leaving the Army, he worked for two years as an interpreter for the Control Council for Germany, a military occupation governing body established in Germany after World War II, and as a liaison interpreter for the U.S. State Department in Germany from 1948 to 1950.

Karlinsky studied music composition at Ėcole Normale de Musique in Paris from 1950 to 1952, and later at the Academy of Music in Berlin. From 1952 to 1957, he worked as a liaison officer for the U.S. Command in Berlin.

He earned a bachelor's degree in Slavic languages and literature in 1960 at UC Berkeley and his master's degree at Harvard University in the same field in 1961. Three years later, he earned his Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literature at UC Berkeley, having written his thesis on Tsvetaeva's life and art.

Karlinsky began teaching as a fellow at UC Berkeley in 1962. He became an assistant professor of Slavic languages and literatures in 1964 and a full professor in 1967. Karlinsky chaired the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures from 1967 to 1969, remaining at UC Berkeley until his retirement in 1991. He also held appointments at Oxford University and at Harvard at various points in his career.

He earned numerous awards, including Guggenheim Fellowships in 1969 and 1978.

The UC Berkeley Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures is planning to sponsor a conference in his honor sometime during the 2009-2010 academic year.

Karlinsky is survived by his husband, Peter Carleton.