In Memoriam: Deborah Martinsen GSAS’90, Dostoevsky Scholar and Core Leader

Deborah Martinsen GSAS’90, a longtime professor and scholar of Slavic literature who specialized in Dostoevsky, died on November 28, 2021. The first female president of the International Dostoevsky Society (IDS), Martinsen was the author and editor of several books on the formidable 19th-century novelist, including a forthcoming volume on her cherished Crime and Punishment. She was also a leader and devotee of the Core Curriculum, and possessed an effervescence and intellect that will be remembered by generations of students, alumni and colleagues.

Martinsen was 67 and had battled pancreatic cancer for more than a year.

“Deborah loved Columbia and she engaged with her colleagues, students and alumni with warmth, an expansive and generous spirit and always, a desire to support and contribute to the betterment of whatever was being set out to be achieved,” Dean James J. Valentini wrote in a message to the College community on November 30. “Her encouragement for colleagues was limitless; those of us who had the fortune to work with her felt she was always on our side — and she was.”

Martinsen’s modest nature belied her outsized contributions to the College. She had been the associate dean of alumni education since 2008 and an adjunct associate professor of Slavic languages — the latest of many roles in a tenure that spanned more than four decades. After joining the faculty in 1978, Martinsen taught courses for the Slavic and the English and comparative literature departments on Dostoevsky, Nabokov and others, and she advised undergraduates on senior theses as well as graduate students on dissertations.

Martinsen was also a committed instructor of Literature Humanities, having led course sections for upward of 20 years, and held roles in the Center for the Core Curriculum, both as the assistant to the director of the Core from 2000 to 2005, and then as the director of the Core Curriculum from 2005 to 2008.

In more recent years, Martinsen invested her energy and enthusiasm for the Core in presenting experiences for alumni through Columbia Reunion and Dean’s Day talks, Mini-Core Courses and alumni book clubs. Notably, she co-led a special session of the Core Conversations book club last year on The Decameron, using the work’s relevance during the pandemic to explore what it has to teach readers about surviving in isolation, and the role of stories in creating and maintaining connections with others, even during difficult times.

“Deborah was an enthusiastic and intellectually creative partner in the College’s work to support lifelong learning for our alumni,” said Michele Moody-Adams, the Joseph Straus Professor of Political Philosophy and Legal Theory, who two years ago co-led a seminar organized by Martinsen. “It provided some of the most personally and intellectually rewarding experiences of my career, due in large part to Deborah’s generosity of spirit and her passionate commitment to the people involved and to the plays and ideas we studied.”

Martinsen also was the driving force behind what has become known as the Core Ideas publishing project, a series of short, accessible books on authors related to the curriculum. “In her typically selfless way, Deborah played an instrumental role in setting up this series, in planning its vision and aims, in soliciting proposals for volumes and in placing the first books under contract,” said Gareth Williams, the Anthon Professor of Latin Language and Literature and a former chair of Contemporary Civilization. “She was a model of efficiency and cheerful hard work in the early days of the project, and when the first volumes in the series appear, they will bear the hallmark of her organizational influence and air.”

Martinsen earned a B.A. in Russian studies and French from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa.; an M.A. in Russian literature from Cornell; and both an M. Phil. and a Ph.D. in Slavic languages and studies from GSAS. An internationally recognized scholar, she was both versatile and prolific. Her book Surprised by Shame: Dostoevsky’s Liars and Narrative Exposure (2003) was credited as a pathbreaking volume of original insights, and is one of the most quoted sources on Dostoevsky.

She was a co-editor of Dostoevsky in Context (2016) and Teaching Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature: Essays in Honor of Robert L. Belknap (2014); and the editor of Literary Journals in Imperial Russia (1997), an overview of Russian journalism from the 18th to the early 20th century. In 2016, she received the Donald Barton Johnson Prize for best essay published in Nabokov Studies that year.

Martinsen was the executive secretary of the North American Dostoevsky Society from 1998 to 2013, and president of IDS from 2007 to 2013. A tribute on the IDS website spoke of her as a sophisticated thinker and an incisive and generous editor, continuing: “Deborah understood that ‘everything, like the ocean, flows and comes into contact with everything else. Touch it in one place and it reverberates at the other end of the world.’ (The Brothers Karamazov.) She ‘touched’ the world in so many places and these reverberations will remain with us forever.”

“Many contributors are indebted to her for judicial editing of their articles; Deborah was thus known to and beloved by scholars around the world,” said Irina Reyfman, a professor of Slavic languages and a close colleague and friend. “They mourn with us. The loss is unbearable.”

During her illness, Martinsen worked on completing two manuscripts. The first, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: A Reader’s Guide, will be published in February by Academic Studies Press; it builds on her decades teaching the novel in the Core, as well as teaching others how to teach the novel. The second, A Very Short Introduction to Dostoevsky, will be published by Oxford University Press.

Martinsen is survived by her husband, Randall Butler GSAS’05, and son, Rory Butler ’13.