A final gift

With the Banjanin Family Scholarship, beloved Russian professor Milica Banjanin and her husband created a legacy that will support the next generation of student scholars.

Stanko and Milica Banjanin. (Photo courtesy of Ksenija Kos)

Through their estate, Professor Emerita of Russian Milica Banjanin and her husband, Stanko, established the Banjanin Family Scholarship as an enduring gift to the WashU community. Last year, five undergraduate students became the first to benefit from this final gift of the devoted WashU student and scholar.

Milica Banjanin was born in Zagreb, Yugoslavia (now Croatia) in 1938. She met Stanko after they both immigrated to the United States. Milica, an orphan after World War II, had made the journey in 1956 at the age of 17. Stanko, having experienced some of the most harrowing decades in modern European history, arrived a few years later to pursue the American dream, according to friends.

Banjanin moved between St. Louis and New York City for her education, earning her bachelor’s degree from Washington University in 1961 and her master’s degree from Columbia University in 1963. She returned to WashU as an instructor in Russian the following year, completing her doctorate in comparative literature at the university in 1970. In 1986, she was appointed chair of Russian, a position she held until her retirement in 2006.

As a scholar, she had a particular interest in Russian modernism and its encounter with the city, especially as expressed in poetry and painting. “Milica was drawn to the ‘poetics of the street,’ as she termed it, and poetry that involved ‘listening to the new rhythms of life,’” said Lynne Tatlock, the Hortense and Tobias Lewin Distinguished Professor in the Humanities. “From the start, women writers and artists occupied a significant place in her engagement with cultural production.”

Banjanin’s work included essays on the historian Lidiya Ginzburg, the painter Boris Ender, the lyrical poet Aleksandr Blok, and the playwright Lydia Scheuermann Hodak. Above all, she was considered a global expert on Elena Guro, a Russian futurist painter, playwright, poet, and fiction writer.

“Milica’s scholarship on Guro stresses two sides of her artistic sensibility and production: the artist’s intense encounter with the city, complemented by a lifelong engagement with nature,” Tatlock said.

For her research, Banjanin was honored with grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the International Research & Exchanges Board, and the Fulbright-Hays Program. 

Banjanin was also a beloved teacher. She often mentored the students in her Russian language and literature classes, encouraging them to pursue opportunities like studying abroad. A sign of her dedication, she remained in touch with many students well past their graduation dates. In 1985, the Council of Students of Arts and Sciences recognized Banjanin with a Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching and Commitment to Undergraduate Students. One student returned to St. Louis to offer a moving tribute at her memorial service.

This gift reflects her appreciation of the community that existed during her years here. It reflects the couple’s desire to give back by providing opportunities for future generations of students.

Among her former colleagues, Banjanin is also remembered as a compassionate and committed scholar. “She was very well known and respected, but also very discreet,” said Harriet Stone, professor of French and comparative literature. “She never sought the limelight.” Banjanin’s esteem at the university was especially evident in her seven semesters on the Personnel Advisory Committee, Tatlock said. “Election to this faculty committee reflects the confidence of one’s colleagues in one’s fairness and conscientiousness. It was a perfect fit for Milica.”

After her retirement in 2006, Milica and Stanko Banjanin remained deeply involved in the WashU community. Milica often welcomed faculty and others newly arrived in St. Louis for a meal and stimulating conversation. She also read voraciously and, with Stanko, regularly traveled abroad to discover new places, which they viewed with an eye to both history and innovation.

Milica Banjanin died just before her 80th birthday in December 2018. Stanko died the following year at the age of 90. Throughout their lives, they remained steadfast learners, eager to engage with different languages, cultures, and communities. “The study of languages and cultures other than one’s own enables students to confront and transcend human differences and engage in a dialogue with people whose perspectives on life are shaped by diverse forces,” Milica Banjanin said in a 1998 issue of WashU’s alumni magazine.

According to family friend Ksenija Kos, MD, the couple’s generous gift to the university is an expression of gratitude for the WashU community. “Milica was appreciative of the opportunities that Washington University provided to her, first as a student and then as a member of the faculty,” Kos said. “This gift reflects her appreciation of the community that existed during her years here. It reflects the couple’s desire to give back by providing opportunities for future generations of students.”

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