An Interview With Evgeny Dengub
Chichi Tsai ’22
Assistant Features Editor
“I think people should learn a foreign language, period,” Professor Evgeny Dengub said when I ask him why students should study Russian at Smith. “Whether it’s Russian, French, Italian, Japanese or Arabic, it’s good for your brain. It’s good for your overall development and intellectual growth. It’s good for your soul.”
Asking Dengub this question had somewhat of a foregone conclusion, admittedly — after all, he’s devoted his life to languages and language education. While he’s primarily known as the Elementary- and Intermediate-level Russian instructor, Dengub is also the co-director of the 3 College Russian Initiative, an author of multiple Russian-language textbooks, the founder of TeachRussian.org and is on the board of directors of the American Council of Teachers of Russian. To say the phrase “Russian Table” to any student in the Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies (REEES) program is to conjure up an image of Dengub with a plate of salad, projecting an aura of infinite patience as he waits for answers to his conversational Russian questions. The fact that I’ve used the word ‘Russian’ seven times already in this paragraph should demonstrate how essential Dengub is to the Russian language program at Smith.
However, Dengub got his start in foreign language education in a very different context. Growing up in the small town of Amursk in Eastern Russia, he never imagined that he would eventually become a Russian professor at an American college. “If somebody had told me that I would be living [in the United States] and have an American passport, I would probably laugh at them.” He had first wanted to be a doctor, then an economist, then an accountant like his mother. It wasn’t until 10th grade, when a foreign language school opened in his hometown, that he met a “wonderful teacher” who got him “hooked on English and the United States.” For Dengub, his first experiences as a foreign language teacher dealt with English tutoring jobs while he was in university. “I actually got a lot of experience teaching foreign language, it was just in English and not Russian.”
Two fateful coincidences led to Dengub’s first two trips to the United States. Coming of age after the Soviet Union collapsed around 1995, Dengub watched his classmates leaving on trips abroad since “they had means, they could afford it. … It was a really poor time for us. I remember talking to my dad and him saying to me, ‘Well, do you want me to sell the car so you can go [abroad]?’ and me saying ‘Well no! Don’t do that.’” His first chance to visit the United States finally came one day in university. Dengub was walking down the hall when he spotted a poster for a program that sent Russian students to study abroad in the United States. “I was good in English class, but I was not [the] best overall, so I thought my exemplar classmates would go and get the grant, those straight-A students. But I wrote the application essay anyway, filled out the forms and got into the final stage, and that is how I first came to United States.”
Dengub spent his junior year abroad in Eau Claire, Wis. due to the program and returned to Amursk after completing his bachelor’s degree in Khabarovsk. “I was dreaming of leaving my hometown because it was very difficult [there] … ” He was teaching English at the language school of his childhood, where the work was good but his salary was low. Dengub was applying to all the programs available when, “by mere chance,” a visiting Fulbright scholar gave mention to a foreign language assistant teaching program. At the scholar’s suggestion, Dengub applied to the program.
This was the second of Dengub’s two strokes of luck and the one which eventually led to his career as a Russian professor. “Many things in life — often important things — seem to happen by chance, you know?” Dengub applied for graduate school at Davidson College and was accepted, which led to a realization that, in the United States, “especially in the humanities, certain grad schools can be free!” He got his Ph.D. in Russian and Second Language Acquisition at Bryn Mawr and has been a veritable Russian education superstar ever since.
It wasn’t easy to teach Russian in the beginning, though. Dengub described the experience as “surprisingly difficult, given that Russian is [his] native language.” Many aspects of language, such as spelling and grammar, are so natural to native speakers that they aren’t even aware of them or struggle to explain them. Dengub said that in the beginning “I didn’t know how to explain cases. Oh my god, my explanations were horrible!” He credits his preparatory education at Bryn Mawr and Davidson with helping him gain the skills he uses in the classroom today. “People think that any native speaker can teach their language and that it doesn’t require [formal] education or skills — it absolutely does. And foreign language education is a certainly a field, an academic discipline, like any other.”
Russian is the eighth most spoken language in the world, ahead of Japanese, French, German and Korean (other languages that Smith has programs for). At Smith, however, the Russian language classes tend to be small. The entirety of my Elementary Russian course (the whole course, not just a single section) has always been able to fit around one respectably-sized table. REEES is a program, not a department, and it only has one full-time faculty member, while all of the other professors are spread out across other departments or split their time between Smith and other colleges in the Valley.
It’s all well and good that Dengub thinks one should learn a foreign language, but why should that language be Russian at such a small program like Smith’s? Dengub believes that there are advantages to being in a smaller language program. With fewer students for an instructor to focus on, “you get all the attention on you all the time to practice, to speak the language.” It’s “a huge advantage that some of the bigger languages unfortunately don’t get.” He also points out that Russian is a useful language to know in general. “Russia has always been involved in the world events.” Even today, for many Asian and European countries, “a lot of political and economic issues all lead back to or are connected to Russia. For anyone who is doing international relations or political science or many other fields, Russian is extremely useful to know.” Even for those students interested in the arts, “Russian music and literature play a big part in world arts and world culture … [so] knowing Russian would be extremely helpful.” Besides, the unique setup of the 3 College Russian Initiative means that Smith can offer more with fewer resources, including advanced courses that would normally not be available due to lack of interest. By holding joint courses with Mount Holyoke and UMass Amherst, “students are able to continue their Russian learning at [a] high level and [do] not hav[e] to skip or wait until that course is available.” In terms of study abroad opportunities, Smith has recently begun to offer a J-term in St. Petersburg program, which has been very popular among students. Despite the small size of the REEES program, students have accomplished impressive achievements — just this month, Smith student Caroline Dunbar ’20 received the Lorna M. Peterson Prize at the Five College Consortium, and UMass students Alison Dimaio and Margot Powers were winners at the New England Olympiada of Spoken Russian at Harvard this February.
I asked him if interest in Russian and Russian studies has spiked since the 2016 elections and the accusations of Trump’s collusion with Russia. “That certainly was our hope,” Dengub said. Though many have compared the current United States-Russia relationship to that of the Cold War era, Dengub thinks this comparison is exaggerated. “In the Cold War there was a genuine sense of threat — [the] Soviet Union was seen as an actual enemy that could harm and attack the U.S. Now, I don’t think Russia is seen as a imminent threat. There are many other threats that are more pressing.” Dengub mentioned that after 9/11, people learned Arabic so that they could join the government or the armed forces to combat the perceived threat of terrorism, but he doesn’t see that happening for Russian because “people don’t necessarily feel the need to study Russian just so they can protect their country.”
That said, there are other career paths for those in the REEES program than just international relations or national security. Regardless of what your future career might be, taking a Russian class or another REEES class can lead to interesting things. Dengub gave the example of Andrew Roth, a past student of his at Middlebury College’s summer Russian School who “was not sure what he was going to do.” Now Roth is the Moscow correspondent for the Guardian, having written for The Washington Post and The New York Times. This spring, Roth was a keynote speaker at the Third Annual REEES Symposium held at Smith. “He started small,” Dengub emphasizes. “[Roth] learned some Russian, he went to Russia, spent some time abroad teaching English. He did the little things, he was working at some newspapers, and then his career took off. He’s now a big deal in the mass media world.” Another student, Natalie McCauley, is now a Russian professor at the University of Richmond. “Different students are doing different things, and knowledge of Russian or any foreign language helps. You can focus on Russian studies as your main interest or have Russian help your other interest.” He said that students have gone on to get Ph.D.s in Anthropology (e.g.: Lauren Woodard ’11), to collect data on infectious diseases in Russia or to work in the public sector of government agencies.
Before wrapping up the interview, I asked Dengub if he has any advice for graduating seniors.
“It’s tough,” he said. “Honestly, these are not easy years to live through. But I know from my experience, things somehow work out. Miraculously. Or not so miraculously. We are harsh to ourselves for mistakes we make, for failures we encounter, but they’re essential for growth and development. It’s really important to look at all these missteps and little difficulties we encounter as opportunities to learn about ourselves and the world and as opportunities to be better.” Dengub strongly believes in “ … the importance of dreaming and imagining your ideal future everyday until that becomes your reality. It takes hard work to get to your ideal dream life, but dreaming, thinking about it, writing about it, talking about it is extremely important, and we forget we need to do that.”