Olga Dolgina Remembered

December 2009

Olga Dolgina, translator of Quaker literature, former member of Friends House Moscow’s International Board

In early December, Olga was struck by a car very close to her home, only twenty meters from her entrance, and was hospitalized with a broken leg. On 9 December she was discharged, and to all appearances was on the road to recovery. However, on the morning of 11 December she reported feeling unwell, and then died shortly afterwards. The funeral took place on December 16. Peter Dyson wrote:

Today was not the best of days; but it was not the worse of days either; in fact it was a Good Day. It was one of those days when the sun shone brightly just above the St Petersburg horizon casting long shadows over a fresh light fall of snow. The temperature was a brisk minus 17, reminding you that you are alive, and glad you remembered your gloves and to put thick woollen socks on.

The new St Petersburg Crematorium is on the outskirts of the city, about a twenty-minute ride in the bus [Olga's husband] Zhenia had arranged to pick us up from the metro. It was full and there was a brief kerfuffle whilst the driver insisted that all those standing should sit down before he would start the engine. Bunches of flowers were moved and people sat three to a seat to make him happy and we set off beyond the Piskarevskaya Blockade Memorial towards the new ring road.

It is a vast new complex with thousands of empty memorial niches. Utilitarian? A bit Soviet? Perhaps a little, but plain and uncluttered simplicity are the words I would choose: practical, spacious and fit for purpose; no adverts just informative notices. There must have been 150 to 200 of us; I gave up counting; all with our flowers waiting in hushed silence with muted whispered greetings of recognition. I must have stood out as being on my own; for one of Olga’s students came and talked to me so that I would not be alone and she kept asking me if I was okay. An usher came and asked us to take all the flowers in. Thus when we were finally shown into the Tsentralnyi Zal, all our flowers were beautifully arranged round the closed coffin (not an open coffin as per tradition) with the huge Quaker bouquet of white lilies on the coffin itself with its card.

The hall was large; a white marble floor and stuccoed walls with a large window on the end going over into the roof itself. The ground falls away outside so that you get a view of the silver birch forest beyond; more Klimt than Shishkin. There were no decorations or furniture, just large verdant bushy plants around the room. We can’t have made it more than a half full. Olga’s coffin stood in front of the window and Zhenia and Anna stood at its side and we enclosed them in a semicircle. In the background was very quiet unobtrusive classical music; Bach, Beethoven, Pachelbel – all those pieces you would expect. The Officiate made his introduction and invited people to come forward and say their words- thus it turned into a Quaker Meeting with good reflective pauses and Ministry to the Life of Olga Dolgina. I was too choked to speak at this point.

After more silence we were invited to say our own personal farewells and slowly filed passed the coffin with everyone stopping to touch or silently say their prayer with Zhena and Anna last. The coffin descended gently from sight but with a mighty banging of metal as the doors to the aperture closed. I was put in mind of another funeral of a friend here when the lid was place on the open coffin and the nails hammered in. It is a very final sound that stays in the memory. An overall impression would be of a gentle unhurried calm and sensitivity; not an easy achievement for any institution with daily routines to maintain.

About fifty of us adjourned to an intimate cosy downstairs restaurant across the city at Chernaya Rechka, not far from where Pushkin fought his duel. Tables full of Russian salads greeted our arrival. Not long into the meal the toasts and speeches started. If the tone at the funeral had been more formal and about Olga as a teacher and colleague, here people spoke about their feelings, their disbelief, the last conversation they had with her: all very personal responses to this tragedy of a post-accident blood clot moving into her lungs. I spoke fourth and told me them that I was not there as one alone, but stood before them representing hundreds of Olga’s Quaker Friends in Europe and America and of how the Divine shone in Olga’s life. I referred to all the messages I had received from Friends around the world, and read one that seemed to sum everything up (and later gave Anna a printed copy of the fifty plus messages I had received. There are more in her in-box). I spoke of my Quaker travels with Olga across Europe and of Olga’s role as a “wordsmith” (a pause and “thank you for that Peter” from my translator as she explained what I meant). I talked of Olga’s sensitivity to words and the struggle to translate Quaker language in Russian, particularly from the seventeenth Century. I talked of our hope to set up a memorial fund in her name to continue this work of translation… and of love and of celebration… and then I was choked by tears and could say no more.

What followed at my end of the table was unexpected. Thank-yous for the reminder about celebration and lots of questions about Quakers, because of course they knew of Olga’s involvement, but without understanding. The consequence is that there will be a meeting with a group of Olga’s colleagues to talk more of Quaker values and, of course, being teachers, they want preparatory materials! So I agreed I would talk about the role of silence in Quaker worship and will use Alan Davies’s 1983 article on Levels of Silence as my document in advance!

We drifted away slowly after many more reminiscences and up-holdings of Olga’s life. I cannot affirm too strongly this type of rite of passage where everyone is heard.

The sorrow is for us left behind; the joy .. in a life fully lived. And a knowledge that my life was made richer by walking cheerfully together with her. I am going to miss Olga.

February 2010

Peter Dyson writes:

Olga Dolgina: a St Petersburg Friend Remembered

Krasnoufimsk is a small town in the Ural mountains 224 kilometres due west of Ekaterinburg. Olga was born here in 1950 but the family were moved to Petropavlovsk over the border in North Kazakhstan about a 1000 kilometres in the opposite direction. You should remember that one’s place of labour in the Soviet Union was directed and not chosen.

Olga had the good fortune in Petropavlosk to meet the Kolesnikov sisters, teachers who had been educated in Helsinki University and the Sorbonne. From them she acquired her love of the English language. She was a brilliant pupil at school, being awarded with a gold medal diploma: this more or less guaranteed entry to any university in the Soviet Union. She chose the Herzen Institute in Leningrad where she trained as a teacher, graduating in 1972. She remained on its staff thereafter and became one of its most respected and loved teachers. She touched the lives of generations of students; she was an ideal teacher and an ideal person, a role model to build their lives on. Her teaching methods, creative and full of innovation, helped hundreds of teachers from all over Russia master new techniques of teaching and improve their own English language skills. She was “a typical example of St Petersburg’s intelligentsia; civilized and heedful”.

Olga was amongst the first group of exchange students ever allowed to leave the Soviet Union. She studied at Bradford University from October 1970 to February 1971. Olga met the Rowntree family and her journey into the family of Friends began. She married Zhenia in 1972 and they lived in Kolpino, a suburb of Leningrad. They had a daughter Anna (now living in Phoenix with her two daughters and American husband).

Olga was an early member of the St Petersburg Worship Group. She studied at Woodbrooke College from April to July 1995; was an active member of Baltic Meeting, organising their gathering in Pavlovsk in 1999: she served as a member of the Board of Friends House Moscow from 1999 to 2004. Her bilingual excellence was always in demand as interpreter and translator, and she was often asked to facilitate Quaker Gathering. Her legacy as a “wordsmith” remains in her sensitive translations of Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion and Douglas Steere’s Quaker Spirituality. Many Friends will remember her from EMES Gatherings and QCEA events. Olga made a wonderful and very distinctive contribution to Quaker faith and practice in Russia and beyond.

Patricia Cockrell (Clerk of FHM British Committee) writes:

Olga Dolgina: An Appreciation

Spiritual companion, deep thinker, teacher, translator, Friend, Olga Dolgina died unexpectedly shortly after being knocked down by a car near her home in St Petersburg. She was 59. She is much missed by her husband Zhenia, her daughter Anna and her two grandchildren, her students, her colleagues and her many friends. An excellent student of English, Olga was invited to join one of the first groups of exchange students allowed out of the Soviet Union. She studied at Bradford University in 1970, and her lifelong devotion to the Quaker way began when she came into contact with the Rowntree family, with whom she spent that Christmas. The Quaker community in Russia has lost a much-valued source of wisdom and knowledge, for Olga had read widely and discussed deeply while at Woodbrooke, where she attended courses, and at FWCC-EMES gatherings. Her example was catching and her translations of Quaker literature became seminal works in the study of Quaker faith and practice in Russia.