Teacher helps students go native in Russia

Oleinichenko (left) with the author at the Peter the Great memorial outside St.

Oleinichenko (left) with the author at the Peter the Great memorial outside St. Petersburg.

Summertime meant going home for Ludmila Oleinichenko, but it was no vacation.

While some of her colleagues used the time to relax, dive into long-neglected hobbies, or catch up on research and writing, Oleinichenko took inquiring students across the world and exposed them to foreign cultures and languages.

The adjunct professor of Slavic languages and literatures escorted a group of 10 students to Russia for the Penn Summer Abroad program run through the College of General Studies.

The program, hosted at Moscow State University, from which Oleinichenko graduated in 1970, was divided into two groups, one an intensive elementary Russian language course lasting eight weeks, and the other a six-week course offering of Russian folklore classes and business Russian.

Oleinichenko taught the elementary language class while also serving as the resident “mother-in-charge” for the more advanced Russian students.

Along with the concentrated academic requirements, the Penn-in-Moscow group also participated in a full schedule of excursions throughout the eastern region of the vast country, including trips to Novgorod, the oldest Russian city, and St. Petersburg. Cultural activities within Russian cities were also a very important part of the agenda for students and teacher alike. Some of the highlights were ballet performances at the Bolshoi Theater, a private tour of the KGB, and an extensive survey of the Hermitage, one of the world’s largest and most renowned museums, boasting extensive collections of old and new masters such as Rembrandt, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Monet.

Olienichenko and her husband, Lecturer in Philosophy Murad Akhundov, came to the United States in 1991 and became citizens in 1998. They both taught at Harvard before moving to Penn in 1995, where Olienichenko took on a position as the director of Russia House (now defunct) as well as a teaching position in the Slavic Languages Department.

Having been born and raised in Moscow, few people are more qualified to relate the realities of the past and the progress of the present Russian state. “Learning a language is much more than mere words and grammar. To truly understand a language, you must become familiar with the people that speak that language and the traditions of that society,” said Oleinichenko.

The Penn students had an opportunity to see Russia up close and tackle some of the obstacles that can hinder communication between cultures. Of course, some of the differences, such as lack of hot water for two weeks, were less comfortable than others, but for the most part the group survived with smiles on their faces.

“ This trip completely surpassed all of my expectations,” said Kate Zimmerly (C’05). “It was amazing to be immersed in a completely different culture, especially in Russia, a land that was so mysterious to the West for so many years. I feel that my appreciation for the world has grown immensely.

“ I don’t think that I could learn as much in an entire academic year as I did in just a few weeks. Without a professor like Ludmila, none of this would have been possible.” In fact, most of the participating students echoed the same sentiments, claiming that the summer in Moscow had positively changed their lives, adding great perspective.

This summer marked the second year that Oleinichenko marshaled the students through the program herself and the fourth year that Penn has sent students to study in the former Soviet Union.

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Originally published on September 18, 2003