By Timothy Schorn and Megan Card ’15
Robert Legvold’s father thought his son needed a fallback. To temper his doubts as to whether or not Robert would get into a good law school, he encouraged his son take shorthand and typing in high school — just in case.
Little did he know his good intentions were unwarranted. Legvold, a 1962 University of South Dakota graduate, is a now a premier Sovietologist in the United States with a career spanning more than 50 years.
“He meant well. And those skills came in handy when I got a job in the dean’s office. But at USD, my first aspiration was getting into the Foreign Service,” Legvold said.
The Sioux Falls native actually began his academic career at the University of Chicago. After a year, though, Legvold transferred to USD to find a degree of “community” he said he could not find in Illinois.
“[The University of Chicago] really wasn’t my cup of tea,” Legvold said. “I felt more comfortable with what I assumed would be life and studies at South Dakota. So I came back for my last three years—and I was right.”
Legvold said he lived a “split life” as a student because he was married and had a daughter by his junior year. But that did not keep him from getting involved in student life. By his senior year, Legvold was elected to student body president.
“I wasn’t a typical college boy,” he said. “When I ran for president that senior year, it wasn’t because I was heavily involved with fraternity or student life. I must have done enough that people knew about me, and I could plausibly run for this post.”
Legvold’s election to student body president was not a surprise for his wife, Gloria, who is a fellow South Dakotan and 1962 USD graduate. Since they first started to “go together” in high school, she said her husband did not shy away from leadership positions.
As a young family in Vermillion living in married housing on campus, Gloria said they found a “real community” at USD. More than 55 years of marriage later, Gloria said she and her husband feel great loyalty to South Dakota.
“I was raised in South Dakota, and there is an openness and inclusiveness that I remember from living in the Midwest,” Gloria said.
Aside from atmosphere created by students at USD, there were three professors in particular that left a significant impact on the ‘62 alumnus. The first was Richard Luman from the Department of History. It was his “intellectual excellence” seen in the classroom and over chicken pot pie luncheons in his kitchen apartment that left Legvold with a deep regard for the man.
“For a number of years, I kept one of the first blue books I got back from him. In fact, there was more red writing on it than I had written in blue to begin with,” he said.
His mentors also included William “Doc” Farber. Legvold encountered Farber his junior and senior years in what could be justifiably regarded as difficult courses. Legvold said it was clear that Farber meant a great deal to the students that he taught and mentored, and he said “your relationship with Farber was 80 percent outside the classroom.”
Glen Driscoll, a professor of European history, was the “finest teacher I’ve ever seen,” according to Legvold. He would begin each class by having the students pose questions and would then use those questions to weave an integral and coherent lecture— a teaching style that Legvold said was challenging but incredibly engaging for the students.
“I’ve been in classrooms, whether in front of them or as a student, and I’ve seen applause at the end of the course to say thank you,” Legvold said. “Not only was there applause at the end of his course, but three girls in the class were actually crying, or really weeping, because the class was over.`”
The professors Legvold encountered on USD’s campus would help to propel him to become one of the leading Sovietologists of his time. Initially, he had aspired to join the Foreign Service, but ultimately chose the study of public policy.
After reading an article in The New York Times Magazine about Marshall Shulman, a well-known Soviet scholar at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, Legvold decided to pursue further study under Shulman. He received his Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1967. He continued his work in Soviet studies as a faculty member in the Department of Political Science at Tufts University for nearly a decade. Legvold then served for six years as senior fellow and director of the Soviet Studies Project at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
The fall of the Soviet Union was the most astounding midcareer challenge Legvold faced as director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, a post he held from 1986 to 1992. He, and the Harriman Institute, needed to answer some important questions about the direction for the future. How should Columbia University and the Harriman Institute proceed? Should the Institute become a Russian institute or an area institute?
Rather than a single country, though not monolithic or homogenous by any means, scholars of the former Soviet Union were confronted with 16 independent countries with their own interests and identities. No longer would Moscow be exclusively calling the shots, Legvold said. No longer would Russian be the language of government, culture and education. And no longer would history be written by the Kremlin. Each of the new countries would be rediscovering their own past, resurrecting their own languages and promoting their own cultures.
Marshall Shulman jokingly commented to Legvold, his successor at the Harriman Institute, that “when I turned the Institute over to Legvold it was intact, and then it all fell apart.” Legvold said four years earlier, all of this would have been completely unexpected. While he was surprised by the developments, he found them both interesting and a bit frustrating.
Student interest and public attention both would drop after the collapse of the USSR. But this did not keep the USD alumnus from continuing projects and analysis on the Soviet Union’s history and politics.
That includes coming to terms with the current status of U.S.–Russian relations. Unlike the original Cold War, Legvold said he feels sometimes he needs to pinch himself in the morning as a reminder of the current tension building between the two superpowers.
“From my point of view, it makes no sense why we are here. Because of that, I feel a little like somebody from Mars who’s standing outside this watching it,” Legvold said.
But this bewilderment will not stop him from continuing his work as a Soviet scholar. Legvold will have a new book coming out soon discussing “a new Cold War.” While he does not see the disagreements between the United States and Russia today reaching the level they did during the previous century, he said there are significant similarities between the old and new Cold War.
He will also continue as a contributor for “Foreign Affairs,” a multiplatform media organization that is a leading forum for serious discussion of American foreign policy and global affairs. In a recent article, Legvold advised that “Moscow and Washington must focus on making the new Cold War as short and as shallow as possible.” He suggested a broader perspective when viewing U.S.–Russia relations, a necessary long-term approach.
That does not mean to him, however, that the U.S. not respond to what has happened in Ukraine. The new conflict has resulted in Congress, the media, even specialists, refighting or returning to the Cold War, he said.
Legvold said he is once again seeing institutions focusing on Russia. Even USD has reintroduced the Russian language to the foreign language curriculum.
While the Soviet scholar does not mind seeing increased interest in his field, he worries that the commentary created by politicians, the media and others has already resulted in formidable consequences.
“The price we’re going to pay now for what’s going on between the U.S., Russian relations, even if the Ukrainian crisis went away tomorrow, the damage is large and lasting,” he said.
For now, the Marshall D. Shulman Professor Emeritus of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy will continue some degree of his work, even in retirement. He has already agreed to lead a project at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the new relationship between Russia and the United States. He will also continue to review books over Russia and the former Soviet Union for “Foreign Affairs.”
His legacy in Soviet and post-Soviet studies remains well-respected by academics internationally and right in South Dakota. Dr. William Prigge, chair of South Dakota State University’s department of history who specializes in modern European history and the Soviet Union, said Legvold and his work is clearly significant in the field.
For those who know him less as Dr. Robert Legvold and more as “Bob the handyman,” Legvold is one USD graduate who continues to blaze a trail in his field while balancing his own South Dakota sensibilities.
“He has always had an outward appearance that’s very serious and intelligent, but I know him as the funny guy,” Gloria said. “He has a highly professional persona that includes a suit and tie, but around the house, he’s in his jeans and flannel shirts— building and fixing anything and everything.”