Irwin Weil is still going strong at 93, and when asked by admirers how he has managed to arrive at that esteemed age he always replies, “Enormous patience!” The same patience has helped see him through an extraordinary career as an authority on Russian history and culture and a beloved teacher of Slavic language and literature for almost four decades at Northwestern University.

Irwin Weil. (Photo from Wikipedia)

I’ve had the privilege of knowing the professor, a longtime Evanston resident, for many years, and caught up with him recently by phone to reconnect. First, a little background.

Weil was born on opening day of the 1928 baseball season, appropriate as his father Sidney owned the Cincinnati Reds. The young Weil planned to major in economics at the University of Chicago but a required literature course introduced him to Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” He told me on our call that reading the 1880 classic was a life-altering experience. “It knocked me for a loop. First thing I knew I wanted to read him in Russian. Next thing I knew, I was majoring in Slavic studies.”

“I ran to the bookstore, got ‘Crime and Punishment,’ and I’ll never forget what happened next,” Weil said in “Moscow Knight“, a 2001 Northwestern Magazine article. “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.”

After getting a Ph.D. from Harvard on Russian writer and political activist A.M. Gorky, Weil taught at Harvard and then Brandeis before coming to Northwestern in 1966. He retired in 2005. His “Introduction to the Soviet Union and Successor States” course was enormously popular, attracting as many as 800 students each spring semester.

According to the 2001 article, “‘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 [then] current chair of Slavic languages and literatures. ‘Because he has a reputation for teaching a wonderful introductory class, generations of students here have wanted to take it and have passed that on to generations more.’”

Added former Northwestern Slavic Language and Literature Department chair Clare Cavanagh more recently, “His reputation for warmth and passion for his subject, for caring about his student, and for occasionally breaking into Russian song to illustrate a point has attracted generations of students.”

Weil also recorded a popular lecture series for The Teaching Company titled “Classics of Russian Literature” in which he sang Russian folk songs as well as a Tchaikovsky adaptation of a Pushkin poem. When I asked him about this in our recent conversation he laughed and said, “Yes, I consider myself the greatest Russian-style baritone in Evanston, Illinois.”

Starting in 1960 Weil made over 50 research trips to the Soviet Union and, after the fall of the USSR in 1989, to Russia. There he met and befriended scores of cultural and political figures, including Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The famous poet was “roaring drunk” when he arrived at a dinner party Weil attended.

Weil helped establish the American Studies Center at Moscow University for the Humanities, co-founded the American Council of Teachers of Russian and was a board member of the Nevsky Institute of Language and Culture. Later he was awarded an honorary degree from the Moscow State University for the Humanities as well as the International Pushkin Medal.

The latter was presented to him by Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin in a special ceremony at the Soviet Embassy in Washington. Weil said the man assigned to read the award was not an ethnic Russian, however, so Dobrynin stopped him, turned to Weil and said, “Here, you read it.”

Sizing up Putin

I asked Weil about Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The U.S. press makes a mistake in demonizing Putin,” he said. “That’s not to say everything he does is right or admirable. But he represents a force for order, compared to a situation of grave disorder when he came to power.” Weil said that to “a very large number of Russians, maybe the majority,” Putin stands for strength and security.

As long as they avoid politics, Putin’s detractors can be “very vocal and very active,” Weil said. “He’s not afraid of them, and I suspect he sees their criticism as a harmless outlet. Of course, that’s a huge difference from Soviet times,” when any criticism of the political leadership was considered dangerous.

Putin has continued to permit the opening of historical archives from the Soviet era, Weil said, which has been a boon to scholars and historians.

Weil told me Putin believes the 1917 Bolshevik revolution was “a terrible tragedy for Russia,” but that in terms of Russia’s decline in world-power status, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 was equally calamitous.

Shostakovich in Evanston

Weil (right) with Shostakovich at the honorary doctorate ceremony at Northwestern in 1973. (Photo courtesy of Northwestern University)

The Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich came to Evanston in 1973 to accept an honorary Ph.D. Weil said he was “enormously excited” to be selected as Shostakovich’s guide and interpreter during his three-day visit to the city, during which he stayed at the Orrington Hotel.

Weil assumed the two men traveling with the ailing 66-year-old composer were KGB agents assigned to keep an eye on him. “But they seemed more interested in me,” he said. “They might have been worried I was set up to get information from him.”

“He was tremendously curious and a tremendously intellectual man,” Weil said of Shostakovich. “One of his first questions to me was, ‘What’s Watergate all about?’ When I explained the situation he laughed, as if to say, “You think you’ve got troubles. You should know something about my troubles,” living in a totalitarian state and under constant surveillance. Twice during the Stalin era Shostakovich was severely reprimanded for his music, which threatened the loss of teaching and performing privileges. Years later the composer incorporated some of Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar” for his powerful 13th Symphony, an act of extreme courage as the subject matter of Jewish massacres on Soviet soil had been essentially banned in the USSR.

The highlight of Shostakovich’s visit, for Weil, was hosting the Russian composer at his Evanston home near Northwestern. Shostakovich wanted to hear modern American music, so it was arranged for three local composers to join them: Easley Blackwood from the University of Chicago, John Downey from the University of Wisconsin and Alan Stout from Northwestern. “We played recordings of each of the men’s music, and Shostakovich was asked his opinion. It was remarkable: in each case he went straight to the heart of the music.”

In Weil’s 2015 memoir, “From the Cincinnati Reds to the Moscow Reds,” Weil elaborated: “After the piece by Alan Stout, there was a long pause. [Shostakovich] finally said, ‘What a terribly tragic piece of music! What a heavy weight it carries!” Stout replied he had “written the piece while his father was dying, and had finished it within a day of his death. [Shostakovich] had the most compassionate look on his face.” 

Weil told me that Shostakovich was, “…in those three days, tremendously accommodating to me. I asked him all sorts of questions about history and culture. He was very patient and quite articulate, almost fatherly. He referred me to some great but obscure 19th and 20th century composers and authors that he thought deserved to be better known.

“I felt this was an incredible experience. After all, I never had a chance to talk with Beethoven! That’s what I told Time magazine when their reporter called me.”

In his memoir, Weil wrote, “Normally, when honorary degrees are conferred at June commencements, there is polite, desultory applause: Graduating seniors and their families and friends have other, more pressing concerns than recognizing elderly scholars. However, in Shostakovich’s case, thousands of people stood up, with cheers roaring like a storm, and with sustained applause led by the music students. [Shostakovich] was deeply touched, and I felt great pride for my American contemporaries as they recognized a truly creative personality.”

Although the stated purpose of Shostakovich’s visit was to receive the honorary degree at Northwestern, subsequent scholarship has established another reason: to seek American medical care. On his return from Chicago he visited the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., for two days of tests. According to biographer Lauren Fay in “Shostakovich: A Life,” the American doctors delivered a crushing verdict: his condition was “incurable, a progressive neurological disorder, combined with heart trouble. Shostakovich took the news stoically.” He died in Moscow two years later.

Shostakovich’s career included 15 symphonies, 15 string quartets, two operas, six concertos, and numerous chamber works and song cycles. He ranks as one of the great composers of the 20th century. His Fifth Symphony was written after Stalin in January 1936 abruptly walked out during a Moscow performance of his second opera, and, two days later, a scathing review appeared in Pravda. Titled “Muddle Instead of Music,” the unsigned editorial called the symphony “coarse…primitive and vulgar…bestial” and famously warned, ‘It may end very badly.” At a time when Stalin’s purges were sweeping through every sector of Soviet society, this was a thinly veiled threat not just on his music but on his life.

“Many in the Soviet artistic community saw this not just as an attack on one opera and one composer, but as a government effort to control all artistic expression,” according to NPR.

The premiere of the Fifth Symphony, on Nov. 21 1937, was described in the National Book Award winning 2015 “Symphony for the City of the Dead” by M.T. Anderson:

“What surprised people [in the audience] was a new discipline, a new sobriety, a clear use of antique forms to describe new anguish. By the third movement, a slow lament, Shostakovich’s friend Isaak Glikman looked around the hall and saw that the faces of men and women around him were wet with tears. This was a song for all their dead.”

The last movement when played fast and with great conviction (as Leonard Bernstein does in his famous 1959 recording) sounds like a triumphant celebration, and probably convinced the Soviet authorities to sanction its performance. Today most conductors play it more methodically, almost ironically, emphasizing the music’s forced levity and ambiguity. Triumph or tragedy? The ending of the Fifth Symphony is one of many great conundrums in Shostakovich’s canon.

Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, known as “The Leningrad,” was written during the 900-day Nazi siege of the city, the composer’s birthplace. The score was microfilmed and spirited out of Russia, through Tehran and Cairo and across Africa to New York, where Arturo Toscanini conducted the U.S. premiere in July 1942, the same month Shostakovich appeared on the cover of Time magazine. A month later a ragtag group of half-starved Leningrad musicians performed the piece, which was broadcast on loudspeakers across the city and even beyond, to nearby German forces, “in a move of psychological warfare,” according to Wikipedia. The symphony was widely seen by the Allied forces as an important symbol of resistance to fascism and a call for resilience, fortitude and inevitable triumph.

Not everyone was impressed. The influential New York Herald Tribune music critic Virgil Thomson wrote shortly after the symphony’s U.S. premiere that “…it seems to have been written for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted.” A year later the great 20th century composer Bela Bartok parodied the piece in his “Concerto for Orchestra.”

Today it is acknowledged as bombastic propaganda music, but, as with many matters pertaining to Shostakovich, there is controversy about whether it was meant to be anti-Hitler or anti-Stalin. In Shostakovich’s purported memoir, “Testimony,” he wrote that the Leningrad he was imagining in his music was the one “that Stalin destroyed and Hitler merely finished off,” according to Wikipedia, adding, however, that “the authenticity of the…book is very much disputed.” Another Shostakovich mystery.

Russian Classics

Although Weil’s life and career changed forever after reading Dostoyevsky, he cited Tolstoy and Pushkin as literary giants of equal stature.

In his memoir he said as a college student he “literally slaved over” the Russian text of “War and Peace” for two months before finishing it.

“Suffice it to say, it took me several years to work my way, linguistically, into the Russian twentieth century. Somewhat later, I was able to get through the texts of several novels by Dostoyevsky and Turgenev.”

Tolstoy, he wrote, was a very important figure “not only in Russian literary life, but in Russian social and political life as well.”

Pushkin’s poetry “came still later as my grasp of the language and the general reality of Russian culture began to expand.”

Weil told me he has a special affinity for the poetry of Alexsander Pushkin (1799-1837), considering it to be on a par with the works of Shakespeare. Thus the Pushkin Medal, which he was awarded in mid-career by the International Association of Teachers of Russian for his work furthering Russian-American cultural relations, is a fitting tribute to a tremendous life and career.

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently four consecutive Northern...

4 replies on “Irwin Weil on the Russian classics, Putin and Shostakovich”

  1. I was fortunate to hear Professor Weil sing as a cantor at the high holiday services at Northwestern University in the 1980’s. He was brilliant. Glad he is doing well.

  2. I had the pleasure of talking with Prof Weil a few times when we both frequented the Unicorn Cafe for our morning coffee. He’s a fine storyteller. Alas, the pandemic has changed morning rituals and caused the Unicorn to close. It’s good to know that the professor is doing well.

  3. An excellent article and very informative about Professor Weil. The chicago area is lucky to have him in its midst as well as Professor Biljena Simsic at the University of Illinois,at Circle. She was also a profound leader of Slavic Languages and well versed in Croatian, Serbian and Russian.
    Thank you, Professor Weil for all the students you have taught.
    Constance Porteous,

  4. Thank you. What an interesting story. I have known Irwin as a neighbor for 50 years. His intellect , memory and sense of humor never fail to amaze me.


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