In the mid-18th century—15 years before assuming his role as the seventh president of Yale University—the theologian Ezra Stiles penned a letter to Mikhail Lomonosov, a Russian polymath who made important contributions to science, literature, and education and founded Moscow State University in 1755. Stiles wished to learn more about Lomonosov’s research on weather patterns, in hopes of beginning similar research in the United States. So he enlisted the help of none other than founding father Benjamin Franklin as his messenger. Sadly, Lomonosov died before Franklin was able to complete the delivery, and the letter never reached Russia. Instead, it ended up in the Benjamin Franklin Papers in Philadelphia's American Philosophical Society. But nearly 300 years later, Julia Muravnik, coordinator of Yale’s Fox Fellowship, completed the delivery herself.
A personal discovery
Yale features prominently in the rich history of Russian-American relations. So, while working in the Slavic Reading Room at Sterling Memorial Library as a librarian assistant, Muravnik’s natural curiosity led her to investigate the role of Yalies in Russian-American relations. Through this research, she came across the 18th-century letter that Stiles had written to Lomonosov in an article. The letter represented the earliest attempt to connect Yale’s scientific community to the Russian intellectual sphere, effectively capturing a bygone era of enthusiastic Russian-American exchanges.
Unfortunately, the Cold War brought about a shift from the once amicable relations between the United States and Russia. “I discovered the very interesting thing that during the Cold War, all the previous great relationships that Russia and the United States had had were completely forgotten, completely erased from the memories of both peoples,” Muravnik explained. “They forgot about this great history, this love affair in the middle of the nineteenth century.”
But when Muravnik was invited to represent the Fox Fellowship at Moscow State University’s celebration of Lomonosov’s 300th birthday, she saw a chance to recall the bygone era. She decided to hand deliver a copy of the letter at the celebration. Muravnik is at left with Victor Antonovich Sadovnichy, rector of Lomonosov Moscow State University.
A letter “from Mars”?
In today’s age of Twitter and Facebook, a letter delivered by hand from the United States to Russia seems not merely old-fashioned but from another world-- who even writes letters any more? But Muravnik vividly imagines the world of Stiles, Franklin, and Lomonosov and how fantastical such a letter would have seemed in that age.
“To get recognition – as a Russian scholar in the 18th century -- for an article you had published in a German journal that an American had read, and responded to in Latin: this is as impressive as getting a letter from the South Pole—or from Mars for that matter!”
The completion of the 300-year-old mission was, for Muravnik, in line with the goals of the Fox Fellowship Program. The Fox Fellowship Program is one of the hallmarks of Yale’s contributions to international relations. The scholarly exchange program was initially begun in 1989, contemporaneously with the fall of the Iron Curtain, and it created a partnership between Yale and Moscow State University. Over the years, the program expanded to include 12 of the most eminent universities across the globe. Their students conduct research at Yale, and Yale students for their part have the opportunity to study at world-renowned institutions, experience new cultures, and broaden their access to academic resources.
“The original vision for the Fellowship was that participants would be student ambassadors,” Muravnik said. “So this was my being a citizen ambassador.”
Muravnik also emphasized the extent to which Yale’s resources and community supported her throughout her letter-delivery scheme: “I admired the resources that Yale brought to bear, and all of the people who were willing to help, which I did not experience back in Russia. Even when I was in school, you had to write a request to visit archives. Here, everyone was willing and eager to help.”
The Epistle on display
And so, at long last, a hand-delivered copy of Ezra Stiles’ letter to Lomonosov is on Russian soil, displayed proudly at Moscow State University’s museum. The original remains among Franklin's papers in Philadelphia.
--Thomas Veitch, Class of 2015
Thank you to Julia Muravnik for bringing this story to Working@Yale