Natalya Leonidovna Gogolitsyna, 1948-2018
7 March 2018
Dr. Natalya Gogolitsyna, Russian language teacher in the School of Modern Languages, passed away on 17 January at the age of 69. Derek Offord, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Russian, offers a remembrance
Natalya started work in the Russian Department of the University in 1994, having previously worked for three years at the University of Essex and having recently settled in Bristol with her husband Yuri and her son Vladimir.
A native of Leningrad, as St Petersburg was still known when she left it in 1990, Natalya was a most welcome addition to the department, partly because Russian native-speakers who were highly qualified academic linguists were not so numerous in the UK in those days, but more importantly because Natalya was who she was, that is to say a gifted teacher and a supportive colleague who put the needs of the collective above her own. During her career she contributed to the department’s language teaching at all levels and whole-heartedly involved herself in all the department’s events, meetings and seminars.
As she felt increasingly comfortable in her role in a British university and realised what a distinctive contribution she could make to it, Natalya became more confident about freely expressing her personality as a teacher. Her enjoyment of what she was doing communicated itself to students and her willingness to be herself made her more effective. Like her namesake, Tolstoi’s Natasha in War and Peace, and to the delight of her students, she was not afraid to break into a dance to the sound of a Russian folk song accompanied by a guitar or balalaika. She was also able to bring to bear her wide experience and reading and her many interests, including religion and travel.
Natalya was so much more to her students and colleagues, though, than a teacher who conscientiously delivered her classes. She contributed to course materials for students of Russian in the English-speaking world in general by co-authoring an edition of a book on modern Russian usage which has been widely used. She produced a book of her own too, about untranslatable words.
Nor did Natalya ever lose sight of the fact that knowledge of the language she taught was more than a skill that students in Britain could usefully acquire for vocational purposes. It was also a vehicle for understanding another culture, in which she felt herself to be deeply rooted and of which she was such an impressive representative. This explains her deep interest in the non-linguistic side of the department’s work, its engagement with Russian literature, thought, cinema and history.
Natalya’s conception of her role as a mediator between cultures, a cultural ambassador, was reflected in the particular interest she had in non-equivalence between languages, the difficulty that languages have in expressing certain notions which are not fully shared between different communities. Among the untranslatable words Natalya included in one of her books, we find the near-synonyms prostor and razdol’ie, meaning roughly ‘freedom’, in the sense of ‘expanse’ or ‘expansiveness’, together with her comment that these words evoke the ‘wide-open spaces and seeming limitlessness of the Russian lands’. These are concepts which have come to be associated with the Russian mental landscape as well as with the geographical landscape. So, it is perhaps no surprise that a recent graduate, paying tribute to Natalya after learning of her death, affectionately recalled Natalya’s strong objections to the precept that all things are best done in moderation.
Just two days after Natalya died, an event took place in Bristol that she would have enjoyed and at which her absence was keenly felt. This was a symposium which brought together scholars of Russian culture, history and society in the UK and in Russia to explore the building of bridges between cultures and to celebrate the academic collaboration that can and does take place across national boundaries even at times like the present when relations at the political level are poor. The department dedicated this event to Natalya’s memory, because Natalya’s life’s work was itself devoted to the building of bridges. This work, and Natalya’s long presence in our University community, will have left a mark on all her students and colleagues. It will live on in their positive impression of the language and culture they chose to study and in their memory of Natalya’s warmth, sincerity and kindness.