Bilingualism in the Russian Expatriate Communities. Baron Sergei Korff at the Universities of Finland, Estonia and the USA


  • Eugene Petrov



Bilingualism in the Russian Expatriate
Communities. Baron Sergei Korff at the
Universities of Finland, Estonia and the USA
Eugene Petrov
St Petersburg State University

Individuals who are characterised as bilingual usually speak two
languages equally well and choose the language depending mainly
of the communication situation. Diglossia refers to a situation where
different languages are used in a different social context or social
class, and this more likely characterises an entire community.
This article discusses how bilingualism and a liberal world view
guaranteed success to one of the best Russian administrative law
specialists, Baron Sergei Korff (1876–1924), as an emigrant in the
USA, on the example of his academic biography. Korff’s fate was in
many ways typical to Russian expatriate researchers, but his success
occurred quicker than that of many others.
At the beginning of the 20th century many European universities
preferred to educate their own students to be the next generation of
the academia. It was easier for newcomers to find a place in the more
open American universities; however, speaking the language was an
unavoidable precondition.
There are three clearly differentiable stages in the life story of
Korff: the periods of St. Petersburg (1876–1905), Helsinki (1905–
1919) and New York (1919–1924), but the reality was more complicated.
After studies at the St. Petersburg law school, Baron Korff
worked at the University of Helsinki in 1905–1911. His federal views
developed during that time and the works cited to this day were published
(e.g., Federalism, 1908). In 1911, he completed his PhD in constitutional
law (topic: Russian administrative law) at the University
of Tartu / University of Jurjev, however, this did not secure him an
academic position. Korff became the director of the Slavonic library
of the University of Helsinki. He had to hold lectures in many private
institutions of higher education in 1914–1916 (women’s courses, commerce
courses and lectures at the commerce academy) and, from time
to time, he would make an appearance with lecture courses in America.
In 1917, he quickly became politically renowned as the assistant
to the governor-general of Finland. Up until 1919, Korff participated
actively in the Russian emigrant activities in Europe but seeing that
the Bolshevik’s secured their power, he immigrated to the USA in
1919. After that, since 1919, he already worked as an emigrant at the
universities of Georgetown and Columbia in the USA, where he laid
much of the foundations for the Russian studies in the USA. Baron
Korff’s wife was American, and the reasons for his thriving and quick
success as an emigrant in the USA were mostly his fluent language
skills and the vast knowledge about both the European and American


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