Natalia “Natasha” Olshanskaya P’04, an 18-year member of Kenyon’s modern languages and literatures faculty, died Wednesday, Jan. 20. The much-loved professor of Russian, who had been suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, was 66.
“Natalia Olshanskaya’s dedication to her students, and to the craft of her teaching, embodied the values of Kenyon,” President Sean M. Decatur said. “She contributed to the College community in countless ways, and we will miss her.”
“Natasha was renowned for the rigor of her classroom and the high expectations she set for her students,” Provost Joseph L. Klesner said. “Professor Olshanskaya took a Russian program that had reached a very weak state when she was hired and built it into a popular and robust program. Her students regularly achieved honors in national competitions. She made Kenyon proud.”
Born Nov. 25, 1949, in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, then a part of the Soviet Union, Natasha earned her bachelor’s degree in English literature, her master’s degree in foreign-language teaching and her doctorate in linguistics from Odessa State University. She went on to teach at Odessa State from 1975 to 1992.
In 1992, Natasha was offered a one-year post at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews. She left the Soviet Union with just an exit visa and a suitcase, with the expectation that she would return to Odessa after her year in Scotland. Her next stop, though, was the College of William and Mary, where she taught from 1993 to 1997 — and met her future husband, Don Monson.
Natasha joined the Kenyon faculty in 1997 as a visiting assistant professor of Russian. After winning a tenure-track job at the College in 2000, and a Whiting Award for summer research work the following spring, she earned tenure and promotion to associate professor in 2003 and full-professor status in 2011. Her areas of expertise included cinema studies, stylistic analysis of texts and genres, and translation theory.
A gifted mentor who coaxed the best from her students, Natasha was presented with the College’s Trustee Teaching Excellence Award, in the junior faculty category, in 2005. At that time, her colleagues described her as “among the most prolific members of the department” and “well-liked for both her diplomatic skills and her sense of humor.”
“Natasha once said, in her elegantly nuanced accent with the ever-so-slight roll of her r’s, ‘I could teach Russian to a rock!’” said her friend and fellow faculty member M. Jane Cowles, professor of French. “That claim embodies so much of her distinctive strength and personality, affirming her confidence as a professional, her practicality and her willingness to work hard. And although her Kenyon students can hardly be compared to a ‘rock,’ it also reflects her emphasis on the basics of language learning. She eschewed the bells and whistles and fads in language teaching to focus on the fundamentals.
“Natasha’s students not only achieved high levels of proficiency, but also soaked up lessons rich in cultural content — along with Natasha's characteristic ‘tough love’ — and adored her for it,” Cowles continued. “Though often self-effacing, Natasha helped shape the department and touched all our lives. We will feel her loss deeply and keenly for years and years to come.”
Natasha was a mainstay of Kenyon’s International Studies Program (IS). “Her infectious enthusiasm for Russian films and food and literature helped inspire international studies majors to go on to careers that promote greater understanding of Russia and its people,” said Wendy F. Singer P’14, Roy T. Wortman Distinguished Professor of History and a longtime colleague.
An active scholar throughout her career, Natasha was the author of numerous articles published in books and professional journals. Among the most recent were “Russian Dystopia in Exile,” in Contexts, Subtexts and Pretexts: Literary Translation in Eastern Europe and Russia, and “De-coding Intertextuality in Classic and Post-Modern Narratives,” in Translation and Interpreting Studies. Her book Russian Writers on Translation: An Anthology, edited with Brian James Baer, appeared in 2013.
“I find it difficult not only emotionally, but even intellectually to describe my debt to Professor Olshanskaya,” said Assistant Professor of Russian James McGavran ’02, who was Natasha’s student and then her colleague. “At the very least I owe her my career, and in more ways than one. She taught me Russian, all but forced me to apply to graduate school and supported me tirelessly with advice and letters of recommendation through several years on the academic job market. She did all this with warmth, love and affection tempered occasionally and appropriately with exasperation and admonition — a proprietary blend with which many of her students are no doubt familiar.”
“It is hard to imagine working at Kenyon without Natasha,” said her friend Paul Gebhardt, associate professor of German. “Reflecting on her life as a committed scholar-teacher, as an enthusiastic and fierce traveler, it’s clear that she demonstrated that it was OK to throw the full weight of who you are behind what you are doing.”
Natasha is survived by her husband, Don A. Monson, who retired from William and Mary as a professor of French and now holds an affiliated scholar appointment in the College’s Department of Modern Languages and Literatures; a daughter, Ksenia M. Sokolyanskaya ’04, from her earlier marriage to Mark G. Sokolyansky; and a brother, Aleksandr “Sasha” Olshansky.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Natalia Olshanskaya Scholarship in Russian Studies Fund in care of the College’s Office of Development, 105 Chase Ave., Gambier, Ohio 43022-9623, or online at gift.kenyon.edu. The memo line on the check or the comment box in the online form should indicate that any donations are to be directed to the Natalia Olshanskaya Scholarship. A memorial service will be held at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30, in the College’s chapel, the Church of the Holy Spirit.
– By Thomas Stamp ’73