Some of the best, most beautiful and most bizarre literature has come out of Russia–from Alexander Pushkin’s spirited tales, to Dostoyevsky’s philosophically-rich works, to Gogol’s bafflingly absurd stories.
This semester, Eastern students had the chance to study these and other works of Russian literature with guest professor Dr. Galina Yermolenko. Russian Literature is not a course typically offered at EU, but the Center for Orthodox Thought and Culture has partnered with the English department to institute the class and to bring Yermolenko here to teach it.
From the beginning of the course, Yermolenko’s deep love for language and for stories was evident and contagious. She says that she loves getting into a text and being able to study it closely–down to each sentence and each word. In large part, this appreciation for zooming in on certain passages of a text comes from her background as a linguist. Yermolenko says that from the age of about seven she was tutored in English, French and German. She loved studying language and went on to earn a Ph.D. in Germanic/English Philology from Simferopol State University in Ukraine.
Yermolenko has unique perspective on Russian literature given her Ukrainian background. She was born in a Russian-speaking area of southeast Ukraine when it was still part of the Soviet Union. She moved later to the Crimea where she remained for most of her childhood and young adult years. She says the culture was “very mixed” between Russian and Ukrainian. Although her grandparents still spoke Ukrainian and she learned to speak it as well, all of her education was in Russian, and her immediate family spoke Russian at home.
Yermolenko came to the United States in 1990 to do grad research and has been living and working here since then. In addition to her degree in philology, she holds a Ph.D. in English from Marquette University. Her love of literature dates back to her childhood–she recalls spending her summers reading nonstop. Her mother, whom she refers to as an “angel,” encouraged this by constantly pushing Yermolenko and her sister to read. As a teen, she read classic works by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev and a whole host of other writers. She considered studying literature as an undergraduate student but decided against it, knowing that doing so would mean being under pressure to carry the Communist Party line in analyzing texts. At Marquette, Yermolenko chose to specialize in British Renaissance literature. When I asked her about her interest in this period, she joked that there are some personality types who are attracted to modern literature and others who are attracted to medieval and renaissance literature. Yermolenko says she definitely falls into the latter category. Some of her work focuses on Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene”–a choice that led many of her graduate colleagues to ask if she was crazy. But Yermolenko says she likes this complex, multilayered medieval text, albeit difficult to work with.
As far as teaching goes, Yermolenko says, “I always kind of knew that I would be teaching.” Her interest in having conversations about books was sparked when she got involved with history and philosophy clubs as an undergraduate student: “that’s where I got the love of debating and discussing books.” She goes on to say that in good books there is always something to come back to–always more to explore.
“Still to this day,” Yermolenko says, “I never lose interest even in the books I’ve read many times, if I like them and respond to them. I always find something new, so I don’t get tired of them.”
Yermolenko is currently an associate professor of literature at DeSales University, and this is her first time teaching at Eastern. When I ask her about her experience at EU, she speaks positively and graciously about her interactions with students in her Russian Lit class. It has certainly been a privilege to welcome her to our community, and we hope to see Dr. Yermolenko visiting Eastern again soon.