Alexander Kazhdan

Alexander Kazhdan

Alexander Kazhdan

Few individuals were as influential to the field of Byzantine Studies during the past century as Alexander Kazhdan. Kazhdan, a Russian scholar, immigrated to the United States in 1978 after it became clear that Soviet censorship was limiting his ability to publish his research.  While he is perhaps best known for his work on the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, he is also remembered within the Dumbarton Oaks community in a more personal way, as he lived and worked here from the time he arrived from Russia until his death in 1997.

Kazhdan was a larger than life figure — respected by his peers, and, in many cases, somewhat feared by the younger generation of scholars.  He was a prolific writer and took a no-nonsense approach to his work. Michael McCormick, the Francis Goelet Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, found Kazhdan’s work to be so groundbreaking that, after reading all his work  in Western publications, he learned to read Russian solely to be able to continue to study Kazhdan’s scholarship. The standards that pushed Kazhdan to be one of the best scholars in his field occasionally caused friction in his interpersonal relationships. Former Dumbarton Oaks Director Giles Constable has remarked that Kazhdan’s extraordinarily high standards caused him to be critical of research done by young Junior Fellows. His attitude was not meant to be belittling, however; he wanted to push the Fellows to produce the best possible work and make their time at Dumbarton Oaks as productive as possible. As brilliant as Kazhdan was, much of his knowledge was limited to Byzantine history. Gary Vikan remembered some of the funny conversations he had with Kazhdan at lunch in the refectory

I enjoyed sitting with Alexander Kazhdan. We were talking about how many people had lived in Constantinople, what was the population of the Byzantine Empire under Justinian. But he had no idea how many people lived in Washington, zero. If I were to say, “five million?” He’d say, “Yeah, that sounds right.” Two hundred and fifty thousand?” “Oh yes, I could believe that.”

He valued time, it has been said, as one of the most precious commodities. Anthony Cutler, a friend and colleague of Kazhdan recalled his “puritanical” attitude toward time wasting —

Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium

Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium


If I was invited to dinner, he would spend twenty minutes of trivial conversation with me and then…he would take out a book. He had this extraordinary attitude towards time. Time was a commodity which could not be wasted.

Kazhdan is remembered most by his casual colleagues for his fastidious attitude toward work, but to his closer friends he had a much lighter, more personable demeanor.  He was especially well known for throwing parties that lasted into the morning hours and could seemingly outdrink even guests with the highest tolerance for alcohol. At least one party was known to have ended with Kazhdan leading a foray to the Dumbarton Oaks pool for early morning skinny-dipping.  Robert Nelson was invited to one of the Kazhdans’ parties, which was held on New Year’s Eve —

Cottage where Kazhdan lived at DO; currently the security building.

Cottage where the Kazhdans lived at D.O.; currently the Facilities and Security Building.

We arrived [at Kazhdan’s]…and we were thinking we’ll just have a little bit to eat. So, we sit down and the food starts coming. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a Russian New Year’s Eve party. Be prepared.  We’re sitting down to eat at about ten. And at three o’clock in the morning, everybody was still at the table and courses were still arriving! It was unbelievable. Of course, I made a terrible mistake by cleaning my plate, eating all that was served at various times. And, of course, between each course there are vodka toasts. It was just too much. Apparently it went on until, I don’t know, seven or eight in the morning, or something. And I just said, “I’m sorry. I just can’t stay anymore.” So, we got up and left.

Others fondly remembered other early experiences they had with the Kazhdan family when they first moved to the United States. Betsy Rosasco once encountered them in the grocery store–

People and Power in Byzantium

People and Power in Byzantium

I would run into them in the vegetable section, and they would come over and point at something and say, what is that? And you’d tell them the name and they’d say, how do you cook it? All these new things, artichokes and asparagus…. They had just fallen out of the blue in America and they seemed a little stunned, it was so different from the old Soviet Union.

Sidney Griffith, when asked about Kazhdan, first remembered the early days when he was settling in and trying to get around the city, as well as his love for hiking —

I don’t know if I should claim responsibility for this publicly, but during my year here I helped him learn to drive and get his license, which was something of a scary experience…. [A]nybody who has ridden with him may wonder if I was a good enough teacher because, of course, he was an interesting driver.

I used to frequently go on hikes with Kazhdan, he loved to hike, especially on Saturday, and he knew every area around Washington where one could take a longish hike of several hours. I remember in particular one very long hike, and it was Kazhdan and Maria Mavroudi and I. Maria Mavroudi and I sort of engaged in a long discussion that lasted almost the whole hike about the Middle East and the level of Greek that persisted there after the Islamic conquest, all these things about which we still disagree. It was a very pleasant hike, that was a very Kazhdan thing to do, of course.

Most remarkable about Alexander Kazhdan is how widely he is known and remembered, and the sheer number of individuals who count him as one of the more important influences in their own scholarship.  Of course, Kazhdan is remembered particularly fondly by those who knew him at Dumbarton Oaks, as he resided here for the entirety of his life in the United States. It is a shame that it was not possible to interview Kazhdan for this project, his memory lives on and there is no shortage of individuals willing to pay brief homage to his life and work.

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