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University of Toronto
U of T Great Past

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What helped launch Slavic studies as a growth discipline at the University of Toronto?

Answer The number of U of T students interested in Slavic studies shot up after the satellite Sputnik was launched by the Soviets in 1957.

On March 15, 1827, King's College - the precursor to the University of Toronto - was granted its royal charter by King George IV. Throughout 2002, U of T celebrated 175 years of Great Minds. As part of the celebration, the U of T website featured excerpts from The University of Toronto: A History, written by Martin Friedland, University Professor and Professor Emeritus of Law at U of T.

The cold war created a strong interest in Russian and East European studies, and in 1963 a centre under that name was established, with Gordon Skilling as its director.

Skilling, a 1934 Rhodes scholar from Toronto, had returned to Toronto's political economy department in 1959 from his position at Dartmouth College. Before the Second World War, he had been working on his doctorate in Prague and broadcasting in English for the Czechoslovak Broadcasting Corporation when the Nazis entered the country. He later broadcast in Czech for the BBC and the CBC. Towards the end of the war, Toronto had started teaching night courses on the Russian language, a beginning that led to the formation of the Slavic studies department in 1949 - with the help of a substantial grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

A multidisciplinary centre was desirable at the university because of "the significance of Russia, not only as a great power, but as a historic cultural region and as a distinctive social order."

Skilling, then at Dartmouth, had sent Harold Innis a report in 1951, advising that a multidisciplinary centre was desirable at the university because of "the significance of Russia, not only as a great power, but as a historic cultural region and as a distinctive social order…These features," he went on, "make Russian civilization and Soviet society inherently worthy of study on a permanent basis, irrespective of current conflicts and their outcome."

James Mavor
James Mavor, 1905

At the beginning of the twentieth century, James Mavor, the chair of political economy, had taken a similar approach, but interest in Russian studies had decreased after his retirement. Innis had wanted to hire Skilling, and told Sidney Smith that Skilling "has established a reputation as a scholar with his volume on Canadian Foreign Relations, and has the advantage of a thorough training in Political Science and a specialized training in Slavic Studies."

The number of students interested in Slavic studies kept increasing, particularly after Sputnik was launched by the Soviets in 1957. Skilling set out a plan for a centre on his return to the University. Toronto had built up a large body of scholars interested in the field, including George Luckyj in Russian and Ukrainian literature, Edward McWhinney in Soviet law, Harold Nelson in Russian history, and Stephen Triantis in economic planning, and also including some younger scholars such as Ian Drummond in Soviet economics and Stephen Clarkson in Soviet government.

Cranford Pratt, Gordon Skilling

Political scientists Cranford Pratt, left,
and Gordon Skilling, in 1967

By 1965, there would be some 35 specialists on Russia and Eastern Europe at the university. As with criminology, funding was obtained from major foundations, such as Ford and Mellon. The centre stimulated research and publication and offered summer courses in Russian and exchange visits with the Soviet Union.

The exchanges sometimes created problems...

The exchanges sometimes created problems, however, particularly in 1970, when a scholar from the Soviet Union at the University of Alberta, Boris Dotsenko, defected and took a temporary position in the mathematics department in Toronto. Bissell resisted Soviet pressure to fire him, and the Soviets withdrew their students from Toronto and cancelled the program. The previous year, a Toronto exchange student, Susan Solomon - now a professor of political science at U of T - had been arbitrarily apprehended and threatened by the Soviet security police for meeting with dissidents.

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