Robert L. Belknap SIPA ’57, GSAS ’60, professor emeritus of Russian in the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures, longtime Literature Humanities instructor and former acting Dean of Columbia College (from 1976 to 1977), passed away on March 17, 2014. He was 84.
A native New Yorker, Belknap was born on December 23, 1929, and attended Princeton, the University of Paris, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) State University and Columbia, from which he received a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures in 1960. He began teaching at Columbia in 1956, following his service in the Army.
“Bob was a magisterial teacher of literature in true Columbia tradition, a guiding intellect and scholar in the field of Russian literature and a committed educator who devoted his energy and vision to making Columbia an institution to be proud of,” said Liza Knapp GSAS ’85, department chair and associate professor of Slavic. “From start to finish he was a man of integrity, wit, wisdom and goodwill. He will be sorely missed and fondly remembered by all who have had the honor of knowing him and learning from him.”
Belknap was an expert on Russian literature and on Dostoevsky in particular. His two major studies on Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov: The Structure of The Brothers Karamazov (1967, reprinted 1989) and The Genesis of the Brothers Karamazov (1992), are classics cited by scholars throughout the world; both were translated into Russian. Literary Plots, based on the Leonard Hastings Schoff Memorial Lectures that Belknap delivered in 2011, is forthcoming from Columbia University Press. Together with former Columbia colleague Richard F. Kuhns Jr. GSAS ’55 (now deceased), Belknap wrote Tradition and Innovation: General Education and the Reintegration of the University (1977), which stated that interdisciplinary understanding, tolerance and humility are central to a whole — or, as the authors put it, reintegrated — university. Belknap had the ability to draw people from different disciplines together in a common intellectual enterprise, according to Knapp.
Belknap is known for the lasting impact he had on students — from first-years in Literature Humanities to dissertation advisees. His teaching repertory covered the canon of Russian literature, and he taught Literature Humanities for more than 50 years. Students chose him for the Mark Van Doren Award in 1980, and the Society of Columbia Graduates chose him for its Great Teacher Award in 2010. In fall 2013, Core lecturer Anne Diebel Ph.D. GSAS ’13 was appointed the inaugural Robert Belknap Core Faculty Fellow, a named lectureship endowed by Belknap’s former student Jay Lindsey CC ’75. In November, Belknap was honored in connection with the lectureship at a celebration at Lindsey’s home.
“Bob Belknap was a great teacher, whose legacy is legendary, a great scholar, who asked questions about narrative, structure, plot, and memory that have anticipated entire contemporary disciplines, a great humanist whose Columbia career attested to his belief that one must use one’s talents for the greater good, a true University Man, who crossed boundaries and brought people together, and a great person, who radiated intelligence, generosity, and kindness,” said Deborah A. Martinsen SIPA’82, GSAS ’90, associate dean of alumni education and adjunct associate professor of Slavic, and a former student of Belknap’s. “Bob was also one of the world’s greatest Dostoevsky scholars, beloved as much in Russia, Europe and Japan as in the United States. I am grateful to have lived in his radiant sphere.”
Belknap was recently honored by Martinsen and other colleagues in the Slavic Department with Teaching Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature: Essays in Honor of Robert L. Belknap, a volume edited by Martinsen; Cathy Popkin, the Jesse and George Siegel Professor in the Humanities; and Irina Reyfman, professor of Slavic . The work is a tribute to his influence on the practice of teaching Russian literature, Knapp said.
Belknap assumed leadership roles in a number of realms at Columbia. Besides acting College dean, he served several times as chair of Literature Humanities, as well as chair of the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures, director of the Russian (now Harriman) Institute, director of The University Seminars and acting associate dean for student affairs. In 2000, he received the eighth annual award for Distinguished Service to Columbia’s Core Curriculum, which was established to recognize faculty and administrators who demonstrate a special devotion to the Core.
“For me, Bob Belknap has always embodied the very best I have seen in and learned from this country and its intellectual world,” said Boris Gasparov, professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. “There have been few people to whom I feel owing so much for my ‘Bildung’— intellectual, social, and above all, human.”
A memorial service will be held for Professor Belknap at St. Paul’s Chapel of Columbia University at 2 p.m. on September 12, 2014.
He is survived by his wife, Cynthia Whittaker, a historian of Eastern Europe, and other family members.
Photo: Hilde Hoogenboom SIPA ’91, GSAS ’96.