Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier

Parsing History


in 1941, when 15-year-old Elizabeth Kridl and her family arrived in the United States from war-ravaged Poland, she was given a full scholarship to the Northampton School for Girls. “We came here penniless.” she said. Dislocated from the life of comfort and high social standing her family had left behind—and with “almost nonexistent” English—she nevertheless buckled down to her studies and became a very successful student, eventually earning Phi Beta Kappa honors.

She recalls French lessons with Ms. Bement, American history with Ms. Bornholdt, and Bible class with Ms. Whitaker—“not because I was interested,” she said. “I am agnostic at best. I always had a very negative attitude toward the church and religion even as a young person.”

The variety of courses at NSFG served her well. After graduation, she earned degrees in history and Russian policy from Smith College, Yale University, and Columbia University. She then forged a career first as a researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, where she met her late husband, Robert Valkenier, and then from 1981, teaching at Columbia, where she lectures to this day, at age 93. She’s written a number of books on Russian history and art and has created groundbreaking scholarship for which she earned a Festschrift—a book honoring a respected scholar—in 2014.

Valkenier’s path began in Wilno, Poland. The city of Wilno, now called Vilnius and the capital of Lithuania, was captured by the Red Army in September of 1939 after the Nazis invaded Poland. The Kridl family remained there until February 1941, when the situation became too fraught. Though Valkenier’s father was stuck in Belgium teaching, her mother made the decision to shuttle her children to Wilno’s rail station and board a train to Moscow, embarking on an eight-day journey across the Trans-Siberian Railway, to Vladivostok in eastern Russia on the Sea of Japan. Over the next six months, they tried to find passage to the U.S., living in several cities in Japan before heading to Shanghai, China, and finally to the Philippines, where they sailed to Tacoma, Washington. They arrived by train in Northampton in time for Halloween, Valkenier remembers, just weeks before Japan’s surprise December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. officially into World War II.

As a young woman in Northampton, Valkenier noticed many differences between her previous life in a cosmopolitan Europe and her new home in a small New England college town. Smith College had created a position for her father, teaching Russian. While she was grateful for the welcome her family received (“The reception was really most generous,” she said), adjusting was not without its challenges.

“I remember being quite unhappy because I left friends and the very secure social and economic position for a very, well, a pinched one is the word that occurs to me. I remember we had to count every penny.”

She lived in the top floor—three rooms and a kitchen—of a house that still stands, on Belmont Avenue, quite a change from the large apartment with three servants they had in Poland. “And I remember being mortified that we didn’t have a dining room,” she said. “We had to eat in the kitchen. I never invited anybody because I was ashamed that we didn’t have a separate dining room.”

Struck by the conformity of American life during and after the war years, Valkenier also observed how women’s place in culture was different here. She remembers Northampton School girls being allowed to wear makeup only after a certain hour on the weekend. “But one day at the end of the week, the girls would start forming a line in front of the bathroom to put on lipstick at the appointed hour, which struck me as idiotic.”

In Northampton, everybody also went to church on Sunday. The Kridls did not. At first, the social life was, she said, “not exactly exciting, intellectually exciting.” She remembers going to dinner at the house of a professor who taught English. “And afterwards we played Scrabble. I mean, that was unheard of in the European intellectual milieu!” she said, laughing. “But anyway, they were good-hearted, and maybe our English wasn’t that up to snuff to conduct much of a conversation!”

After NSFG, she attended Smith College, studying history. “It was a shock to find out that women really did not have the same amount of independence or sense of self that they did in my circles of Europe. They sort of let custom or tradition dictate their rather secondary role in society,” she said. “Most of the girls I knew in college later, after my education at the Northampton School, well, their ambition was to get married.” Not so Elizabeth, who had seen many of her parents’ female friends in Europe working as artists and intellectuals, and intended to contribute to society in the same way. She forged on with her studies, and continued to be surprised when she encountered assumptions about what women could do. While working on her history PhD at Columbia (she also has a master’s degree in Russian history from Yale University) in the early 1970s, for example, she encountered subtle sexism that, ironically, led her to a new area of study. She was taking a class in Russian medieval history when her professor assigned her research topics on art and architecture. “It all started because of certain bias among males that women are the people to report on art,” she said.

Despite this, Valkenier became interested in a group of Russian painters who, in the 1860s, left the Russian Art Academy. They were called the Peredvizhniki—the Wanderers or Itinerants in English. They shifted their focus from painting the lives and landscapes of aristocracy in the stiff, European style to depicting with a looser brush ordinary Russians working the land, and the beauty of the country’s natural features.

While Soviet historians held these painters up as examples of patriotic Russians, loyal to the party cause, Valkenier’s research challenged that take.

“I was suspicious of the Soviet interpretation of their role, which was that they were ideologically—only ideologically—motivated, and that they were nationalists,” Valkenier said. When she dug deeper, poring over primary sources at Columbia’s first-rate art library and the New York Public Library’s Slavic Collection, she found that the artists were professionally motivated. They wanted to break out of the controlling atmosphere of the European-centric academy and build careers at a time when the private system of patronage was underdeveloped. Because the artists came from more modest backgrounds, they could relate to their subjects—Russian peasants—on a personal level. She wrote her dissertation on this subject, and later published Russian Realist Art: The State and Society: The Peredvizhniki and Their Tradition. The work was a pioneering piece of scholarship and led to five other books on Russian art and policy.

This tension between east and west is a common thread in Valkenier’s work and life. “The main divide between Poland and Russia, which—I feel it in my bones, in my own blood—is that that Poland was Catholic, always very pro-Western, whereas Russia was Orthodox.”

“Russia was really isolated from the west,” she continued, “until Peter the Great, the beginning of the 18th century. So they have a long tradition—religious, cultural, ethnic—of being different.” It was Czar Peter who, after visiting European cities, returned to Russia and required men to shave
their beards and give up traditional robes, to become more like their European counterparts. When noblemen balked, Peter imposed a beard tax as a compromise.

“Russians had an uneasy relationship with the west given the forced westernization. It was a violent process because Peter never did anything for them mildly,” Valkenier said. “Whereas with the Poles, it was natural, the church connection dating back to when they were baptized Catholic” in the year 966. Polish students would go to Italian universities from the time of the Renaissance, she added. The upper classes knew Latin, which was the lingua franca in those days, like English is now.

Drawn to the differences between these two worldviews at a time when the Cold War was waging, Valkenier picked apart government propaganda, uncovering biases and moving toward articulating the truth in a field called historiography, the study of historical writing.

Summing up her views as an educator, Valkenier said her aim was always to remove bias from her own thinking, and to be realistic about what motivates nations.

“The Cold War spirit was really very noticeable here and people really did skew the research to reinforce various Cold War attitudes about Russia, which I never subscribed to, even though, you know, being born in Poland, I should have been anti-Soviet Union, which is the usual Polish attitude,” she said.

“Any big country has imperialistic tendencies no matter what,” she continued, “and Poland at one point was a big empire and oppressed other people. I, always, in my work, tried to be as impartial as possible. I suppose that comes from being born in one country and educated in another.”