The following remarks were made by Leah Missik '10 at the memorial service held Jan. 30, 2016 for Professor Natalia Olshanskaya.
It began how it would end: sitting in her living room with chocolates being pushed upon us. I didn’t know it then, almost a decade ago now, that I was meeting someone whose like I am sure I will never encounter again. In that first afternoon, with four young girls nervously crowded in on her furniture, she began shaping us, and making a family. I don’t know how she did it, what she always did, when she leveled her eyes upon her young students. She would cut through the anxieties, the apprehension, straight to our essence. She sighted the potential there was — academic and personal — and made it her mission to get her students where they could be.
I didn’t know that a decade ago. Professor Olshanskaya was cunning, and sneaky, in the kindest way possible. She would work her magic on you so subtly and take you under her wing before you could blink. All you’d know is that you felt stronger, more comforted, in her presence: even when you were subjected to teasing and scolds.
I was a 16-year-old bundle of anxiety when I started Kenyon. And one didn’t hide things from Professor Olshanskaya — there was simply no way to do so, sitting five days a week in her introductory Russian class, under her endlessly perceptive gaze. Ellie and I ended up in her office — beckoned I imagine — and she asked how we girls were doing. We were already “her girls,” you see. Her “how are you doing?” cut straight to the point. Her blunt honesty was likely rubbing off on me, for when I answered there was a crack in my voice. Understanding that Ellie was going to be away that weekend, leaving me bereft of my best friend, Olshanskaya declared, “Leah, I am babysitting another professor’s child this weekend. We will go to a park, and have a picnic, and go shopping, and you will come with us.”
So we did. We wandered around Kingwood Center in Mansfield — a place that her students all remember fondly. She brought us to a discount clothes store where she declared which clothes looked sexy on me, and which did not, and she got me a little black dress. And then we had dinner at Hunan Garden, and I felt so proud sitting at that table, with her. On that day, she had grabbed my hand and pulled me away from the black pit that often stared at me, mouth open, waiting to swallow. I know now, she knew what she was doing when she folded her wing over my shoulders.
This is what Professor Olshanskaya did, for me and for so many others. Her mission was not just to be a good Professor and make us all masters of Russian language and culture — though she certainly achieved that with a pedagogical brilliance that was well recognized. No, her mission was something greater, something deeper, something that cuts straight to the kind of life someone should lead in this world. What she did was take us, strengthen us, warm us, and then send us into the world as better, tougher people, with a knot of others at our sides.
Professor Olshanskaya enveloped all of us with caring, in a way that was so generous. Even when someone misbehaved, the words of her very direct scolds were tempered by the softness in her gaze. You didn’t want to disappoint her — but you knew she would stand by you and help you always. Some days I would go to her and complain about the behavior of an AT student, and she would smile, agree with me, “yes, I have told him he must quit smoking these things!” — and let it go, because she knew it would turn out alright in the end. Professor Olshanskaya simply cared for all of her students and exerted a power to grow people, as if her new students were buds, with the potential to bloom, and she knew how to get us there.
In that way, my Kenyon career was set out in front of me. My initial desire to minor in Russian became a Modern Languages major, which meant picking up German — because there was no way I would drop her classes and, besides, as she put it “you can’t just do International Studies.” This little plot of hers was a resounding success, for I came away from Kenyon with a Russian family. We girls, her girls, were all similarly enticed into MLL majors, and we became a close-knit gang. Years after Kenyon, we have an understanding and a caring between us — due to her threads stitching us together. I also came away with other friendships: I wonder how heavy a hand she played in my eventual friendship with Professor Gebhardt. I remember once entering her office to the exclamation, “he is so in love with you!” I was utterly confused. “Gebhardt!” she announced. She knew us so well. She is what made my Kenyon experience. It is Kenyon that embodies her values for those of us who grew under her tutelage. Professor Olshanskaya is, and always will remain, an unencompassable force.
I could talk about the poems we memorized, and the kapustniki where we recited them. I could talk about the jokes she made in class, asking me how many bottles of vodka I’d drink in Finland to get me to use the genitive case. I could talk about how she gave a classmate of mine an A---- because she couldn’t bear to give him a B. I could talk about the days passed in her kitchen, folding (or failing as my case may be) pirozhki. I could talk about the dinners she hosted us at, plying us with gluhwein and chocolates. I could talk about the breakfasts, where “Leah! You want more!” was called out over another heap of blini. I could talk about the evening the power went out at Kenyon, so Ellie and Andrew and I drove over to her house, where she set us up in the basement with tea and, yes, chocolates, so we could do our homework.
These anecdotes are all symptoms of a greater cause that I now want to grasp and pull out into the light. Professor Olshanskaya’s essence, her soul.
I cannot define who she was. I know the impact she had on me, on us, and I know what traces of her incredible self she passed on. Now I’m reaching for something, at the top of a pedestal, angry because I can never, now, reach it. When she dropped hints from up there, breezing through sentences about smuggling books from the American Embassy in the Soviet Union, or about leaving bread behind for an old lady resolutely staying behind in a forcibly abandoned village, I gathered them eagerly as evidence to point to, to say, “Look! Look how fierce and amazing my professor is!” As if external evidence, as if these stories were needed. She shines through in what we’ve all become.
After Kenyon, I reported back to her like she was my general. This is what I am doing, where I’m at, how I feel. The simple act of connecting with her was comforting. She was always our safety net, rising higher and higher underneath us, lifting us to what we were capable of achieving. Even when my reports were sad, her responses, though honest in assessing the crap the world does hold, were bracing.
So, it felt like a carpet being pulled out from under us when she was diagnosed. It’s one of those things: you’ll always remember the moment it happened. I stood with my friend, who was visiting from out of town, on the street in Fremont, Seattle, not far from a graffitied Lenin statue, phone clutched to my ear, breathing “what?” as Claire brought me the bad news.
Even as I, shatteringly, tried to care for her — to do a fraction of what she had done for me — I felt like I was snuggling up to her presence, that she was still the one being there for me. Even amid the tears, the shuddering, my hand in front of my face, hiding everything in sight as I spoke to her on the phone — I felt warmed by this connection with her. Something of her magic, that glowing core of her, was touching me.
The last time I saw her, she couldn’t speak well anymore. It didn’t matter. Ellie and Gebhardt and I prattled on with Ksenia, Don, and Andreas and she watched us. Every time she would interject, her voice, though now weak, cut straight to her clever, cutting, comic points. I could feel her eyes reading me as she watched the conversation bounce around. There was no discomfort in the examination. It was the opposite: there was a knowledge of who I am, who I actually am, and an acceptance, and a compassion for it. This gaze of hers was slowly internalized over the years I spent with her: I left Kenyon fortified, with a self-understanding, and even a confidence that my own self-effacing comments complimented. That was something she did, something I loved, and something that was pushed into me.
When I hugged and kissed her goodbye, words were spilling out of my mouth with no thought preceding them. They were the simple truths. At the door, I looked back, and said “see you later,” knowing the instant those words escaped my mouth, that they may have been wrong.
It was the last time I saw her, but it is not. I see her in the girls sitting in front of me. I see her in the automatic bonds I share with other students of hers, even at our first words to each other. I hear her in my speech, when I practice my Russian. I feel her when I read the books and poems that matter. I sense her when I find myself thinking a thought that assesses what is with an honesty not devoid of kindness. I see her when I feel a compassionate ferocity loom inside me, ready to exert its force on the world.
What is her death, in reality? I see her every day, so in reality, it is not possible for her to have passed on. She is just inside, where that essence, that glow is. That’s all. She’s just inside.