Faculty profile: From Russia with love: Natalia Olshanskaya joins the Kenyon facultyIn 1992, Natalia Olshanskaya, then a professor of Russian at the University of Odessa, was invited to teach for a year at St. Andrews University in Scotland. The U.S.S.R. issued an exit visa for a year-long business trip, the University of Odessa granted her a twelve-month leave, and Olshanskaya left her native country with just a suitcase in hand.
Eight years later, with one academic opportunity leading to another, Olshanskaya has not returned to Russia. Although she didn't set out to emigrate, the Kenyon professor of Russian now embraces her American life, cherishes her green card, and looks forward to becoming a U.S. citizen.
Passionate about travel, Olshanskaya was born in a country with notoriously closed borders. Government approval to participate in international conferences in her field was rarely possible to secure. Despite several years of employment as an English-Russian translator and responsibility for teaching the English-history course at Odessa, the Soviet government repeatedly denied her permission to travel to England. When she was finally granted per-mission in 1989, following years of fruitless applications, Olshanskaya remembers alighting on English soil and bursting into tears.
The Odessa native's westward odyssey took her from Scotland to Williamsburg, Virginia, where she taught at the College of William and Mary for four years. Since arriving at Kenyon in 1997 to fill a visiting position, Olshanskaya has been appointed to a tenure-track position. Now, having purchased a new home near Gambier, she and her daughter, Ksenia, a senior at Mount Vernon High School, are putting down roots.
Olshanskaya says the adjustment to American culture was harder than moving to Scotland, in large ways and small. "In European universities and in Russia, for example, there is but one shoe colorblackand I still have this black-shoe style," she confesses, wryly glancing down at her footwear, which is indeed black. The dress code is merely the most obvious expression of an unwritten code of professorial conduct that governs throughout Europe and Russia. Olshanskaya says she likes the comparatively informal American campuses, which encourages closer relationships among colleagues as well as between professors and students.
Logistically, the biggest adjustment to American culture was learning how to drive. Growing up in Odessa, where she also attended college, earned her Ph.D., and pursued her career, Olshanskaya had needed neither car nor driver's license. In Scotland as well, she walked the two miles between her apartment and the university. But as there is virtually no living in America without a car, the life-long pedestrian learned to drive shortly after her arrival in the United States.
"I am still proud of myself every time I get the behind the wheel," she declares. "And where I used to be amazed that friends would drive their cars from one store to another at the mall, I now do the same!"
Of course, shopping at the mall in and of itself constitutes a distinctly American form of recreation. As Olshanskaya observes, "In Europe, you go for a walk in the center of town on a Saturday night. Here, you go to a shopping mall. And this is what I do too. For my daughter's eighteenth birthday, I am taking her shopping. Shopping for what? What do you need? This consumerism has become part of us. It's infectious, and it's fun. I like it!"
America has also provided Olshanskaya the opportunity to indulge her love of film. Although she had access to illegal books in the Soviet Union, videocassettes were more difficult to come by, and in any case no one had a VCR. "There were huge gaps in my education connected with cinema," she says. "So I'm rediscovering it for myself," with the help of local rental shops. In addition to intellectual films, Olshanskaya gobbles up comedies and "films that all Americans know, like the Holly-wood musicals, which are wonderful in their own way and very much resemble Soviet films of a certain period."
Olshanskaya's film education proceeds in part under the tutelage of her husband, Don Monson, whom she will soon welcome to the Kenyon community. A professor of French at the College of William and Mary, he will teach at Kenyon for the next two years as a visitor in the modern languages and literatures department. So, she can continue to cook for two, even when Ksenia goes off to college in the fall.
Americanization is hardest to accomplish inside the home, Olshanskaya finds, especially in the kitchen, where Russian habits die hard. "I cook every day on a regular basis," she says. "Ksenia would rather have a pizza, but I make borscht, stuffed cabbage rolls, piroshki." She also makes it a point to introduce these home-cooked specialties to her Kenyon students.
At the dinner table, as in the academic conference hall, Olshanskaya observes that Americans are ruled by a desire to spare the feelings of the presenter. When her husband or any other American tells her that a meal is good, she wonders, "Is that an American 'It's good,' or a Russian 'It's good'?"
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