Irwin Weil

photo by Bill Arsenault






Irwin Weil with composer Dmitry Dmitrievich Shostakovich in 1973.






Weil in 1978 at St. Basil's Cathedral near the Kremlin.





Eight hundred pairs of eyes watch his fingers as they strum a guitar, follow the folds of his flannel shirt to the signature bow tie perfectly knotted around his neck and marvel at the joy in his face as he bellows out the words of a Russian folk song.

Irwin Weil is not a typical Northwestern professor. Back in his office at Andersen Hall, Weil sits behind a well-covered desk, nestled between walls lined with bookshelves full of Russian, French, German and, yes, English titles, and chuckles as he boasts of his singing talents.

"I always have at least one musical session on Russian music in the course on the Soviet Union," he says. "Singing for me is a real passion. The trouble is, the Metropolitan Opera never called me up, but in spite of that terrible mistake on their part, I do love to sing."

And his students love to hear him. As far as this professor of Slavic languages and literatures is concerned, anything that brings them closer to the material he teaches is well worth the effort. "I don't think there is such a thing as a science of teaching," says Weil, now in his 36th year at Northwestern. "In my experience what works is caring about the students, caring about their work and knowing the material."

Students, administrators and his fellow faculty also recognize that Weil's teaching has worked. "This department has the biggest enrollment of any Slavic department in the country. The reason it does is because of Irv Weil," says Andrew Wachtel, Herman and Beulah Pearce Miller Research Professor and current chair of Slavic languages and literatures. "Because he has a reputation for teaching a wonderful introductory class [The USSR and Its Successor States], generations of students here have wanted to take it and have passed that on to generations more."

Weil, who entered his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Chicago, with his eye on economics, was drawn toward Slavic studies after his first introduction to Russian literature.

"At the University of Chicago, of course, they wanted us to read the best of literature of all cultures," he says. "Among other things, they had us read a novel by a certain Dostoyevsky, whom I had never heard of before. The novel was called The Brothers Karamazov, and it absolutely knocked me for a loop."

Next on his must-read list — another novel by the "certain Dostoyevsky."

"I ran to the bookstore, got Crime and Punishment, and I'll never forget what happened next," Weil says. "I sat down in my dormitory room on a Saturday night, and I started to read it. The next thing I knew, it was Sunday afternoon, my eyes were as big as saucers and I had just finished the novel. It was probably the most powerful learning experience I've ever had in my life."

At that point Weil decided a translation of the novel would not suffice, so he began taking courses to learn the Russian language.

"Dostoyevsky was probably one of the deepest-thinking people whose work I have ever come across," he says. "Of course, to fathom some of that depth, to understand some of that depth, to transcend some of that depth is a challenge to any person of normal capabilities. ... It's made me look at people and at human feelings in a very, very individual - and I hope non-clichéd - sort of way. Behind every single human personality there lies an ocean of experience."

A Cincinnati-bred descendant of German Jewish and Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, Weil received his bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago in 1948 and completed his master's degree in Slavic studies there in 1951. Then, after three years of working on a voluminous Soviet census for the U.S. Library of Congress, Weil tackled Harvard University, where he had received a Ford Foundation fellowship to work toward his doctorate in Slavic studies. After receiving the degree in 1960, he taught at Brandeis University.

Seven years at Brandeis prepared Weil for the next step in his academic career — Northwestern.

"I came to Northwestern University because the Slavic department here was just being formed, and the faculty wanted somebody with qualifications that were exactly the ones I had," he says. "I've been teaching at Northwestern ever since with a great deal of love and a great deal of pleasure because students here have been wonderful."

The feeling is mutual. His class on the former Soviet Union and its successor states has become one of the most popular at Northwestern, drawing up to 800 students each quarter it is offered. The course, in which Weil gives a political, social, economic and cultural overview of czarist Russia, the Soviet Union and its dissolution, is most often the place where he sparks a passion for Slavic studies among the students.

"I felt he was one of the first professors I had at Northwestern who really cared not just about the subject he was teaching but also about his students," says Brian Vinson (WCAS94), who remains in contact with Weil. "He always brought a real enthusiasm to the classroom, an enthusiasm to be teaching the subject and for life in general."

Weil travels to the former USSR two or three times within most calendar years. Those forays have given rise to exchange and educational programs, as well as to the American Council of Teachers of Russian, which he helped found. In 1984 Weil received the International Pushkin Medal for his contribution to the study of Russian language and literature. And in 1999 he received an honorary degree from the Nevsky Institute of Language and Culture in St. Petersburg.

Of all the Russian people he has come to know from a lifetime in the field, Weil singles out Dmitry Dmitrievich Shostakovich (H73), the famous composer, and Kornei Ivanovich Chukovsky, a talented children's author and profound and beloved literary critic, as being among the most intriguing. Weil served as Shostakovich's escort and interpreter when the composer came to Northwestern in 1973 to receive an honorary degree. Weil had long admired Chukovsky before meeting and becoming good friends with the author.

"Nowhere have I received such wonderful, sensitive human treatment as I've received in Russia," Weil says. "Russians are marvelous at understanding human feelings. This is why I love Russians."

Under Communist rule he nonetheless encountered many surprising contradictions during the numerous academic forums in which he participated. "Often the very same person who had criticized me quite strongly for what I said at a seminar would come up afterward, when no one was listening, and say, ‘Thank God you can say it because we can't,'" Weil says. "And I understood that they understood very, very well and very sympathetically what I had said."

Although never overtly threatened by the Soviets, Weil grew accustomed to being tailed and questioned by the secret police, who, he says, were not so secret.

"Of course there were people who would keep tabs on me," he says. "Somebody would come up and get in a very friendly conversation and not say where he worked, and it got to where you pretty quickly knew with whom you were dealing. They would invite me to dinner and try to get information out of me.

"I wouldn't know the front end of a rocket from the back. I mean, if they were trying to get military information out of me, they were absolutely the worst intelligence in the world."

Frequently the KGB officers who approached him were primarily interested in his attitude toward the Soviet Union. What they really wanted to know, he says, was how American liberals viewed the country — and he told them.

"I tried to explain to them we had great sympathy for the Russian people, but on the other hand, I said, ‘Take my advice and don't invade Poland,'" Weil says. "Usually, of course, when they invited me to lunch, I was very aware of the fact that they were talking not to me but to a microphone under the table."

Despite his openness he knew not to name names. The trust of his Russian friends and colleagues was based on his ability to "forget" with whom he'd spoken and with whom he had socialized.

In the introduction to his book about the life and work of M. Gorky, one of the better-known Russian writers of the latter part of the 19th and first third of the 20th centuries, Weil was very careful not to implicate those who had been vital to his research.

"I wrote, ‘I want to thank my Soviet colleagues for the marvelous criticism they gave my book,'" he says. "If I had said, ‘I want to thank my Soviet colleagues for the help they have given me,' that would have immediately gotten them into trouble."

In this country Weil's reputation as a scholar protected him from criticism during the height of anticommunist and anti-Soviet sentiment.

"In the days before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans usually mixed up totally things Soviet and things Russian," he says. "Most Americans [outside the academic world] did not have the foggiest idea that these were two totally different concepts, one highly confined and the other as broad as the ocean. One of the things I try to get across in my courses is precisely this difference."

One time a man not affiliated with the University approached Robert Strotz, Northwestern president from 1970 to 1985, in Evanston to complain about Weil.

"The man said to Bob Strotz, ‘You know, you have a terrible person on your faculty,’" Weil relates. "[Strotz] said, ‘Well, I know that. I've got plenty of terrible people on my faculty. Which one are you talking about?’ The man said, ‘His name is Weil.’ And Bob Strotz said,‘Oh, yeah, he’s pretty terrible. But tell me, why do you think he’s terrible?’ And the man answered,‘Well, he likes the Soviet Union.’ And Bob Strotz replied, ‘Well, he teaches Soviet literature — you want him to hate what he teaches?’ And that was the end of that."

Weil says that it is precisely this love of Slavic culture that has enriched his life and taught him more lessons than he could possibly return. Leading his students into a discovery of Dostoyevsky, his "very first Russian love," is what brings him the most pleasure from the material he teaches.

"When I try to get [Dostoyevsky] across to students who are trying to understand him, it produces some of the deepest feeling and deepest thinking I've done in my lifetime," Weil says. "That's a real challenge."

A challenge that he has passed on to many students.

"I didn't know much about Russian literature or Dostoyevsky until I took [Weil's course]," says junior Thomas Vranas. "Until I actually took the class, I didn't realize what an amazing art form Russian literature is. He brings things alive — and now I'm dedicating my life to [Russian literature] because of this man."

Weil's ability to draw first-rate students into Russian studies has helped establish such a strong department at Northwestern, Wachtel says.

"Irv's main thing is to say, ‘Wow, this is great stuff, you should be interested in it. Let's start reading it and see what we see,'" Wachtel says. "You have to get people in the door before you can educate them. The way to get them in there is by having someone who is enthusiastic and able to engage undergraduate students."

Students are key to Weil's life, but his Jewish background explains a lot about him, too. He's widely recognized throughout the Chicago Jewish community not only for being a cantor during the High Holidays but for his well-received lectures on the Jewish experience in Europe.

Weil attributes his vigor for life to his wife, Vivian, a professor of philosophy at the Illinois Institute of Technology and the director of IIT's Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions. Some of his most important life lessons have come from more than 50 years of marriage.

"What can I say? She was the smartest, she was the prettiest, what could I do?" he says, laughing to himself. "She's the one with the brains, she's the one who keeps things going and, you know, from her I've learned a lot about what love is, what human beings are like, what life is all about. The process of watching our three children grow up and mature and reach adolescence has been like none other."

His journey is far from over and, although he will enter a phased-in retirement in 2002, Weil will continue teaching his introductory course for as long as he can. This is welcome news for students who have yet to have the experience with the bow-tied professor.

Wachtel was impressed when Weil introduced a new course about Russian music — first taught last spring — but even more so when he convinced each of the 150 students in the class to attend a concert of Russian music at Chicago's Ravinia Festival. "I don't think there are many 70-year-old professors who not only are thinking about new courses but also forging a whole new connection with a different group of people within the city to get it done," Wachtel says.

Wachtel, other faculty members in Slavic languages and literatures, and alumni are creating the Irwin Weil Fund for Slavic Studies to further efforts toward a better understanding of Eastern European culture.

Weil, however, is modest when he speaks of his life. "What do I think I've done?" he asks. "Well, the Russians say, ‘That man will never die of excess modesty.' I'm going to sound like that man if I talk about it.

"I guess I would summarize it in two ways. I honestly believe that I have made it possible for a large number of students to expand their consciousness, to use Russian literature as an instrument that deepened their perceptions of the world around them. ... And I think I've gained some understanding for myself of some extraordinarily wise people, like Dostoyevsky, like Tolstoy, like Pushkin, and have made myself a more understanding person with a much broader perception of the world than I ever deemed possible when I was a young man.

"And along the way I've sung some good songs."

Negar Tekeei (J03) of Columbia, Mo., was a summer editorial intern for Northwestern magazine.