PulseFrom Russia to Trinity, with love

Trinity’s only two Russian professors, Bruce and Masha Holl, discuss Stalinism, Tolstoy, teaching
Noelle BarreraApril 11, 20191804 min
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Photo by Matthew Claybrook

The Holls met at Middlebury College in Vermont in 1987: Bruce Holl was working toward a master’s degree in Russian literature and Masha Gedilaghnine was an exchange student from the University of Paris, taking classes for the summer in literature and linguistics and interning at the Russian language radio station at Middlebury. Now, Bruce and Masha Holl have been married for 31 years and together they makeup the entire department of Russian.

Both professors teach not only what they learned in graduate school but also what real life has taught them about Russian culture and history. While Bruce Holl is from Wisconsin, Masha Holl’s parents emigrated from Russia to Western Europe during World War II as political refugees from the Soviet Union.

“My mother always told me she was born in 1925; part of her story is that her original records were all destroyed during the Red Terror and the purges following the [Bolshevik] revolution, so she never had a record of her birth or baptism,” Masha Holl said. “When she was a child, her family was dispossessed and put into internment camps by the Soviets, and my grandfather had been executed in 1937. … They were definitely not friends of the Soviet government.”

When World War II came, Masha’s aunt had been slated to go to Germany to work on a farm as slave labor, but because her aunt was more helpful at home and Masha’s mother — Alexandra Ivanovna — knew more German, they switched identities and Alexandra went to work on the farm.

“[My mother said] she was fortunate because she was treated more as a foster child or any kind of young laborer rather than according to older Nazi rules [regarding Soviets],” Masha Holl said.

After World War II ended, the rule was that anyone who had left the Soviet Union during the war had to return. However, the connections that Alexandra (who was barely 17) had made with other Russian refugees or “displaced persons” who also wanted to leave the Soviet Union allowed her to bypass the rules.

“Russian émigrés supported each other and found ways to bypass the screening of displaced persons. If you had already been an émigré before WWII, you were not subject to repatriation, so ‘new’ émigrés (refugees) were coached in how to argue their ‘old émigré’ origin. Very few displaced persons had papers left after the war, so it was mostly a matter of personal narratives,” Holl wrote in a follow-up email. “There were sympathetic Allies who understood the situations and helped the Russian refugees along, including a number of American soldiers. Note that this was not a situation limited to Russians, but it affected other Soviet nationalities as well.”

After staying in a camp for displaced persons, teaching there and traveling across Europe in search of jobs, Alexandra eventually settled in France, where Masha was born.

Masha has always been close to her Russian heritage, although she has never been able to visit. However, the Holls are planning a trip to Russia next year.

“Russian is my first language. I did not speak French until I went to school, so until I was six. I continued to speak Russian at home, in my community church and with my friends,” Masha Holl said.

Bruce Holl — current chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures — teaches a variety of subjects, but his specialty is Russian literature.

“My original specialty is Russian literature, and that was the subject of my dissertation and the articles that I’ve written. I’m also very interested in art and science of language teaching, so I’ve done a lot of research on the best teaching methods,” Bruce Holl said. “My favorite work of Russian literature is Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, which I’ve taught dozens of times since I first came to Trinity in 1991.”

Bruce Holl discovered his passion for Russian literature and culture as an undergraduate.

“It was [Russian] literature that [originally] interested me,” Holl said. “I didn’t know any Russian when I got to college. In fact, I quit college for a while, came back, and I had enjoyed learning Russian literature in English, so I decided to learn Russian.”

In recent years, Masha Holl has taught Russian Cinema, where she brings her unique knowledge of Russian culture and history to the subject of film.

“I focus both on the cultural background of films and the actual situation in which the films were made, [such as] the constraints put on the directors by the Soviet system that produced the films that we watch,” Masha Holl said. “I combine my knowledge and training in literary analysis, my knowledge of folklore and my knowledge of culture as well as trying to see what Russians were watching and what was made in different time periods.”

The Holls serve as advisers to the Russian Club, a recent student organization made up of Russian students and students who want to learn more about Russian culture and traditions.

“We’ve had Russian Clubs at Trinity before we even got here, and I used to be co-advisers with the senior Russian professor, Sarah Burke. At that time, the club was very active, and we went to movies, took field trips … But since then we got to a point where there were no students of the language, and certainly no majors,” Bruce Holl said. “Since 2014 and 2016 there’s certainly been more political events surrounding Russia, so there’s been more interest in Russia.”

Andja Bjetlich, a sophomore and Russian Club member who is double majoring in Russian and English, has taken multiple classes with the Holls.

“They are fantastic people. Both of them are really delightful and hands-on in how they teach their classes, and they’re always willing to answer my weird questions,” Bjetlich said. “I asked Dr. [Bruce] Holl about how to talk about the mafia in Russian, and he actually helped with that, and Masha is always willing to go on interesting tangents about Russian culture and language with me.”

Earlier this March, Russian Club celebrated Maslenitsa, a holiday for remembrance of the dead which occurs every week before Lent.

“Masha came down to the Witt kitchen and taught us how to make blini for Maslenitsa. Blini are like this mix of crepes and pancakes, and it was just ridiculously fun,” Bjetlich said.

Masha is excited to see what ideas students in the club come up with next.

“One of the things that makes the Russian Club more viable this time is that students themselves picked it up, so they have ideas, and I’m very happy with that,” Masha Holl said. “I’m here and I’m happy to help from very mundane cooking to knowledge that I have as their adviser.”

Noelle Barrera

| Class of 2021 | Majors: English and Anthropology |

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