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Svetlana Boym, at 56; Harvard professor, author, essayist, photographer, and filmmaker

Dr. Boym’s novel, ‘Ninochka,’ layered her experiences onto
Dr. Boym’s novel, ‘Ninochka,’ layered her experiences onto

On her webpage, Svetlana Boym wrote in an autobiographical note: “She lives parallel lives that sometimes cross.”

The self-observation was, if anything, an understatement. She taught in two departments at Harvard University, and amid her scholarly nonfiction books she paused to pen a modernist novel. Of late she was a visual artist who used her camera’s multi-burst mode to make still photos flutter restlessly. She also was a filmmaker and wrote essays sprinkled with luminous lines.

On a train once from New York City to Boston, she glimpsed a “landscape of industrial decay, ruins of former factory towns, framed by endless pipes and wires.” Between her and the window sat a passenger watching a movie on a laptop computer. Taking out a camera, Dr. Boym captured scenes that slipped through the window and into their midst.


“From a certain uncomfortable angle, the digital screen turns into an old-fashioned reflective surface shamelessly invaded by passing clouds and sunset panoramas,” Dr. Boym wrote on her website, adding: “I am perched on the edge of my seat trying to commemorate the flickering shadows on my neighbor’s computer screen without disturbing her cinematic pleasures. I feel like a private detective spying on transience itself.”

Dr. Boym, 56, the Curt Hugo Reisinger professor of Slavic languages and literatures and comparative literature at Harvard, was diagnosed with cancer about a year ago and died last Wednesday in Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She had lived in Cambridge.

A Soviet émigré who arrived in this country in 1981, she was decades and continents away from her past and never entirely at home in the present. “You exist in two different worlds and self translation is always hard,” she said in a 2004 interview with The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper. “You’re always estranged from both cultures.”


When she died, Dr. Boym was completing a film about the refugee camp in Vienna where she lived in 1981 with other Soviet Jews. Her website, meanwhile, offers a panorama of essays and photographs, and a bibliography that spanned the intellectual world as deftly as she traveled from country to country.

In a tribute posted on the website of The New Yorker, her longtime friend Masha Gessen wrote that when the two of them offered each other a “capsule update” after months or years apart, “mine contained the recent events of my life; Svetlana’s described entire new lives.”

“It was her sheer mental energy – her love of experience, of texts, ideas, art, and visual culture generally – that made her so astonishing and so astonishingly creative,” her husband, Dana Villa, said in a eulogy at her funeral Friday.

Villa, the Packey J. Dee professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, added that “compared to her, many of the ‘original’ thinkers and writers we are invited to applaud look positively herdlike.”

In one section of her website, Dr. Boym recalled that those who left the Soviet Union when she did “were not allowed to carry family albums. Photographs with more than three people in the picture were considered ‘suspicious grouping.’ Each picture we took with us thus became unique and unrepeatable.”

The photos and essays she created were similarly singular. When the French philosopher Jacques Derrida died in 2004, she noticed that a page from one of his books had slipped out and was resting on her bookshelf. As she held the stray page, light silhouetted her fingers behind Derrida’s sentences. “In the absence of a mourning ritual,” she wrote on her website, “I found myself taking photographs of the fallen page, touching the words in the light, casting shadows, animating the lines.”


Born Svetlana Goldberg, she grew up in St. Petersburg when it was Leningrad during the Soviet era. A grandmother had been imprisoned in the gulag. In a catalog for “Territories of Terror: Mythologies and Memories of the Gulag in Contemporary Russian-American Art,” a 2007 show at the Boston University Art Gallery, Dr. Boym wrote: “When asked about her experiences in the Gulag, my grandmother, a former ‘rootless cosmopolitan,’ would look up to the sky and recite a few lines from a monologue in Anton Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’: ‘Oh one day we will see the diamonds in the sky. . . .’ ”

When Dr. Boym was 19, she “decided to emigrate and had to leave the country without my parents. I was stripped of citizenship and told that I would never be able to return to Leningrad and see my family,” she wrote in a 2014 essay published on the Tablet magazine website. Those who left the Soviet Union, she added, “might as well be going to the moon or to the Underworld. Farewell parties in the 1970s and 1980s resembled funerals in their finality.”

In the Viennese refugee camp, “it felt like we were in a time capsule, a place where there was no present, only the repressed past and the unknown future,” she wrote. A first marriage, to the designer Constantin Boym, ended in divorce.


She had studied at the Herzen institute while in Leningrad and received a master’s in Hispanic literature from Boston University. In 1988, she graduated from Harvard with a doctorate in comparative literature. Her books included “Death in Quotation Marks,” “Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia,” and “Another Freedom: The Alternative History of an Idea.”

“The Future of Nostalgia,” published in 2001, found an audience beyond academia with the distinctions she drew. “Reflective nostalgia protects the absolute truth,” she wrote, “while restorative nostalgia calls it into doubt.”

Her novel, “Ninochka,” which appeared two years later, included sharply drawn scenes that layered her own experiences onto a fictional narrative. Early in the book, a train passenger gazes into windows of passing houses: “It’s dinnertime now, and in each of those lighted windows there might be two or more gesticulating shadows caught in their pleasant or unbearable everydayness, accustomed to the siren of the train.”

Dr. Boym, who married Villa in 1992, was an only child. Her parents, Yury Goldberg and the former Musa Beskin, arrived in Boston in 1987 and now live in Watertown. They were engineers in Leningrad until 1981, when they lost their jobs as Svetlana emigrated and they applied to leave. During the years that Soviet officials repeatedly rejected their visa applications, Yury could only find work as a night watchman.


Along with the funeral service that was held Friday, colleagues will announce a memorial gathering to be held during the upcoming academic year.

“Of course, she had great human warmth; great humor; and great receptivity to experience,” her husband, who lives in Chicago, said in his eulogy. “These qualities are far from nothing. Many of us — myself included — would be happy to have just one of them. But they all pale in relation to that mind — her mind — a mind the like of which I had never encountered either in person or in writing.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.