The Department of Central Eurasian Studies lost two long-time department members this past summer. Professor Emeritus Mihály Szegedy-Maszák and Professor Emeritus Yuri Bregel both made numerous and invaluable contributions to the university over the past two decades, and both were renowned world wide in their respective fields. “The contributions of Professors Bregel and Szegedy-Maszák , as both teachers and scholars in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies, were simply outstanding and will remain firmly fixed in our memory,” said Dr. Toivo Raun, Professor & Acting Department Chair of CEUS.
Professor Bregel came to Indiana University in 1981, joining what was then known as the Department of Uralic and Altaic Studies. In addition to offering courses about Central Asian history and historiography and to enhancing our library and institutional resources, Dr. Bregel also effectively shifted much of the department’s focus to the study of Islamic Central Asia. He served as Director of Indiana University's Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies from 1986 to 1997, and as Director of Indiana University's Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center from 1989 to 1997. Dr. Bregel authored many books including the 3-volume Bibliography of Islamic Central Asia, the edition and translation of the Khivan chronicle Firdaws al-iqbal, and An Historical Atlas of Central Asia, among others. Dr. Ron Sela, Associate Professor of Central Eurasian Studies and Director of IU’s Islamic Studies program, knew Dr. Bregel well. He met Dr. Bregel when he came to IU as a graduate student in the fall of 1996. “He was the reason I came to IU,” Dr. Sela said. “He was considered the best living historian of Central Asia.”
Dr. Bregel was born in Moscow in 1925, the son of Enoch Bregel, a distinguished Soviet political economist. In 1943, Dr. Bregel joined the Soviet army during World War II where he served in an anti-tank artillery unit. He was injured twice and decorated by the Soviet military. He enrolled in Moscow University after the war where he studied Middle Eastern, Central Asian and Islamic history. In 1949, however, Dr. Bregel was arrested and charged with participating in “anti-Soviet” activity despite his previous contributions to the Soviet war effort. For five years, he was imprisoned in a hard labor camp in the northern Urals. Dr. Sela said Dr. Bregel did not talk about his experience much, but that he had in his possession wood carvings that he had made while imprisoned in the camp. “He made mostly miniature boxes with elaborate engravings. He was able to keep a couple that he showed me,” Dr. Sela said. “He never talked with me about the hard labor, or the suffering, or the problems.”
Besides his outstanding academic accomplishments, Dr. Bregel was also a professor who was known for being tough. It was this quality, Dr. Sela stated, that made him a fantastic mentor. “Several students felt intimidated because his expectations were very high. Those of us who felt that this is the way it should be really benefitted,” Dr. Sela said. “There were some outstanding people who came to this program because of him.”
Dr. Bregel’s interests outside of academia included spending time with his family, hiking, and photography. Dr. Sela said Dr. Bregel and his wife Liusia had hiked through numerous canyons in the U.S. “He kept dozens of photo albums,” Dr. Sela said. “He really had an eye for aesthetics and capturing nature, and for light and darkness. It was fun to sit at his house and look at all of the photographs he took.” In addition, Dr. Bregel was a fan of political satire. “He especially loved Russian political satire and he could quote lengthy passages verbatim,” Dr. Sela said.
Professor Szegedy-Maszák was a guest lecturer and researcher at several universities before he was appointed professor in both Indiana University’s Central Eurasian Studies and Comparative literature departments in 1991. His research interests included Cultural Studies, Comparative literature, Interacts Studies, Narratology, Structuralism and Translation, Romanticism, Nationalism, Modernism and Postmodernism. Born in Budapest in 1943, he attended Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) from where he graduated in 1966 as a teacher of English. He later earned his doctorate at Cambridge University.
Throughout his career, he served as editor for both Hungarian and English periodicals, including New Literacy History, Hungarian Studies, and Protestáns Szemle. He was awarded many accolades for his work, including the Order of Merit of the Hungarian Republic in 1997, which is the second highest state order of Hungary. In 2003, he received the Széchenyi prize, an annual award given by the Hungarian state in recognition of individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the field of Hungarian studies.
Dr. László Borhi, the Peter A. Kadas Chair in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies, knew Dr. Szegedy-Maszák intimately, both as a colleague and as one of his former students. Dr. Borhi said the two met in 1989, first when Dr. Borhi came to IU as a student and again when Dr. Borhi returned as the Hungarian chair Professor. He said the two organized many conferences together on Hungarian scholarship.
Dr. Borhi remembers Dr. Szegedy-Maszák not only for his in depth knowledge of Hungarian studies, but for his vast knowledge of many different disciplines. Dr. Borhi said it is difficult for scholars today to do this because knowledge has become so specialized. It is difficult for top scholars to keep abreast of their own fields, let alone others.
Yet Dr. Szegedy-Maszák managed to do just that. According to Dr. Borhi, he was an expert on world literature. “Henry James was one of the authors that he wrote and published about, but he was also an expert on Romantic and British literature, particularly romantic poetry. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf were two of his favorites,” Dr. Borhi said. “He knew Hungarian literature, which is vast in itself, but also German, English, American, and French literature...the list is endless. He basically had Western civilization at his fingertips.”
Dr. Borhi also said Dr. Szegedy-Maszák had a keen interest in music, especially classical compositions and opera. He learned musical notation before he learned to read, and he was an accomplished pianist. Dr. Borhi said Dr. Szegedy-Maszák collected records and would go into the most obscure record stores to look for rare recordings. One of his favorite composers was Richard Wagner. Every year, Szegedy-Maszák went to The Bayreuth Festival to enjoy the Wagner performances. “He could tell you how a certain Wagner opera was performed in the last 100 years because he was interested in the reception of art,” Dr. Borhi said.
As both a professor and scholar, Dr. Borhi remembers Dr. Szegedy-Maszák for setting high standards, both for himself and his students. “He was tough and hard to please in scholarly achievement, but he set the same standards for himself,” Dr. Borhi said. “He would spend the night studying for a talk because he wanted to go to every event well prepared and he always wanted to rethink a new position.”
Dr. Borhi said Dr. Szegedy-Maszák was also interested in the philosophy of translation. “I think ultimately he thought translation produces a different text, so if you want to understand the original, you need to read the original and not someone else’s translation,” Dr. Borhi said. “In fact, he would have his students read very difficult Hungarian literature right from the outset. He would tell them to get a dictionary and find the words, and then he would go through and help them.”
A special Thank You to Dr. Ron Sela and Dr. Laszlo Borhi for their contributions to this article.