When Nikander Strelsky was growing up in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, he adored the American Indian stories popularized by James Fenimore Cooper. In a lengthy 1939 profile of Strelsky, the Poughkeepsie Sunday Courier described how he and his best childhood friend reenacted Cooper’s romanticized tales:
The two boys played Indian war games; built wigwams, became so fascinated with Indian lore that they killed two fat turkeys in order to get tail feathers for their war bonnets. One day they took an oath with the raising of the right hand that, when they grew to be men, they would come to America to help the poor Indian fight.
When Strelsky did indeed come to America some 30 years later, his admiration for the stories had not faltered. One of his first trips was a pilgrimage to Cooperstown, NY, to visit Cooper’s grave.
He later said about his arrival in America: “it might have seemed that I was running away from the Bolsheviks to save my skin, but this was not the case… I wanted America. I knew they welcomed people here who were willing to work… I wanted to live here. I was not wrong.” His Vassar colleague, Professor of History Lucy E. Textor, recalled that when Strelsky first arrived in Poughkeepsie in 1931, “he came with no resources except an incomparable courage and an equally incomparable wife, able collaborator in everything he undertook.”
He also came with a colorful history. Born in 1893 under the reign of Alexander III, Strelsky grew up in a Russia considerably different than the one he fled in the 1920s. A native of Kharkov, the second-largest city in the Ukraine, he attended the Kharkov School of Agriculture, and in 1914 he graduated from the Polytechnical Institute of Kiev. After six months of officer’s training at the Alexis Imperial Academy in Moscow, Strelsky joined the Kexholm Regiment of the Imperial Life Guard in 1915 as a second lieutenant. Stationed in Warsaw, Strelsky’s regiment saw much action in the Eastern Front of the First World War, but with the outbreak of Revolution in St. Petersburg in October of 1917, the regiment swiftly retreated to fight a new enemy, the Red Army.
A seasoned soldier, Strelsky fought bravely in the army. During his five years of service for the Russian Empire, he was twice wounded and once gassed. Ultimately promoted to staff captain of his regiment, he was decorated six times. During the fall of Kiev to the Reds, Strelsky and 2,500 White Russian officers were marooned in the city’s Pedagogical Museum. The Courier described what happened next:
Finally driven to the roof of the building, he and another officer jumped into some shrubbery. Stunned by the fall, they lay there until nightfall, and crawled some distance away. Here they ripped the decorations, the braid and the epaulets from their uniforms, tousled their hair, and, speaking the language of the Ukraine, they swaggered past the three cordons of Red soldiers.
Still very much in danger, Strelsky relied upon disguise and good fortune to evade capture:
Through German sympathizers, two hundred of the White Army officers were smuggled German uniforms and were told that they could march out of Russia with the German army. Nikander Strelsky was one of them. In the uniform of a German private, tin hat and all, he goose stepped with the German army down the main thoroughfare of Kiev, and on to Danzig.
But after the White Army’s brutal defeat at Sevastopol in 1920, Gerneral Pytor Wrangel ordered the survivors, Strelsky among them, to seek refuge in Constantinople. Having fought on the losing side in the Civil War, and now an “anti-revolutionary” in the eyes of the new regime, Strelsky remained stranded in the crumbling Ottoman capital, unemployed and hungry.
Opportunity struck in 1922 when he was appointed manager of the Russian Imperial Ballet, a recently-formed group of Russian émigrés who were preparing for an international tour. After playing the major cities of Europe, the troupe set sail in 1923 for New York City and the American leg of their tour. Almost immediately upon arrival, however, Strelsky fell seriously ill and was forced to abandon the dancers and tend to his health. He spent the next six years, from 1923 until 1929, in the Adirondack Mountains, in the medical facility at Saranac Lake. While recuperating from his illness he earned a living by doing research work for a doctor at the hospital. Also at Saranac Strelsky met his future wife, Katherine Anderson, who attended the University of Rochester and later received a degree in English from Radcliffe College. In 1928, they married in Garrison, New York.
Although permanently weakened by his illness, by the early 1930s Strelsky had regained enough strength to pursue a new career. He began giving private Russian language lessons to Vassar students, and in 1934 he became the college’s official Russian tutor. During the summers of 1933–1935, he studied as a fellow of the Kosciuszko Foundation, an institute for Polish-American scholarly and cultural exchange co-founded in 1923 by Vassar president Henry Noble MacCracken and Dr. Stephen Mizwa. The Foundation sent him to the universities of Krakow, Warsaw, Lvov, Prague, Lljubljana and Belgrade, where he pursued study in his chosen field, Russian and Slavic studies.
During the school year, while maintaining his tutoring schedule, he drove to Columbia University to attend night classes, earning his master’s degree in 1935. In 1934 the U.S. Department of Labor commissioned him to compile a manual of Russian grammar for federal use, and the following year, the government asked him to translate the U. S. Constitution into Russian use by the Federal Immigration and Naturalization Service.
That same year he joined the faculty as the Vassar’s first instructor of Russian. The addition of Russian to its curriculum made Vassar the first woman’s college to do so and one of the few American colleges offering Russian language courses. A Miscellany News editorial remarked on his “unique place in our scheme of existence, because for many of us he was the first Russian we had ever known!” And, The Misc asked, in awe, “How many of us, leaving America and settling in Russia, would in the short space of twelve years master the language sufficiently to win our Master’s degree and official appointment to one of the great Russian universities?”
Only a few students enrolled in Russian 105, Elementary Russian, when it first appeared in the curriculum, but over the following ten years the language enjoyed a steady growth in popularity. In Strelsky’s second year, he began teaching Russian 210, Intermediate Russian, and in 1939, a Russian Drama class began. By the 1941-42 academic year, students could enroll in a course focusing on Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and the following year Professor Strelsky taught the art of translating from Russian to English.
In the first postwar academic year, 1945-46— a watershed moment for Russian at Vassar—freshmen and sophomores could officially major in Russian Studies. The major required 24 points in the study of the language in addition to six points from the Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky courses, which were given in English. In 1945, the Russian department had 30 students on its roster.
Professor Strelsky dived headfirst into campus activities: he joined the Film committee, held Friday afternoon colloquia where students and faculty mingled to discussed art and literature, and, in the words of his colleague Professor Textor, “used his fine histrionic talent to add zest to many campus plays.”
When two of his students translated the text of Soviet realist playwright Alexandr Afinogenov’s Fear, his friend Hallie Flanagan, the director of the Experimental Theatre, produced her acting version as the play’s American premiére. The Miscellany News praised Strelsky’s “abandon,” “energy” and “impetuosity” as “Kimbaev,” a “Cossack fresh from a little country town trying to catch up with everything.”
Meanwhile, Strelsky was making professional strides of his own outside Vassar. The 1940 publication of Saltykov and the Russian Squire, based on his doctoral dissertation, garnered a great deal of praise and established his reputation as a scholar of Slavonic studies. In 1945 he compiled his Russian Reader, a collection of seminal Russian texts meant for Americans already somewhat familiar with the Russian language. Containing an overview of Russian history, a collection of Soviet songs, and excerpts by Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol, the Strelsky Russian Reader quickly became an important resource for American students of Russian.
On June 20, 1946 he suffered a fatal heart attack while he and his wife were enjoying a vacation at Lake Saranac, where they had met nearly twenty years earlier. The faculty was shocked and saddened by their remarkable colleague’s sudden passing. “Nothing that he did could outshine the personality of Nikander Strelsky,” said Professor Textor. “There was a radiance about him that kindled warmth wherever he went. His buoyant spirit recognized no obstacles. His sense of humor never left him. It was his joy to give his strength, his time, his experience, his vision to whatever they might serve.”
Strelsky had done much, during his time at Vassar, to build the Library’s collection of Russian and Slavic material. Through his efforts, a Kansas City friend and Slavic bibloiphile, Dr. Matthew Pickard, gave the college nearly 1,000 volumesn—many of them unique—from his superb collection. In his will, Nikander Strelsky left his own large collection of Russian books to the Vassar library—1,035 volumes in all. In a Vassar press release about this influx of Russian texts, the college boasted that certain books “were extremely rare, not to be found in the libraries of Columbia or Yale.”
Although his time at Vassar was relatively brief, Strelsky single-handedly founded the Russian program and—through his hard work—ensured that many future generations of students would learn to speak and study his native tongue. Six years after his death, the Russian program was teaching over 120 students each year.
In 1954, as part of a memorial service to Strelsky, Vassar planted a Crimean tree close to the Russian classroom—between Avery Hall and New England building. The Ukrainian tree stands as a testament to his steadfast dedication to the growth and nurturing of a strong Russian program at Vassar.
“He was an incomparable friend,” said Professor of Sociology Joseph Folsom. “He liked people for themselves. He saw the best in that they were trying to be.” Folsom proclaimed his late friend the exemplar of Dostoyevsky’s definitive identification: “To become a true Russian, to be a Russian fully, means only to become the brother of all men, to become, if you will, a universal man.”
“Experimental Theatre Presents Afinogenov’s Fear, A Moscow Success, in American Permiere,” The Miscellany News, January 17, 1934
“Dr Strelsky, 53, Russian Scholar,” New York Times, obituary, June 21, 1946.
“Nikander Strelsky Completes Requirements for His Doctorate,” Poughkeepsie
Courier, April 16, 1939.
“Strelsky is Lions’ Guest,” Poughkeepsie Eagle, January 26, 1938.
Textor, Lucy E. “Nikander Ivanovitch Strelsky,” Russian Review (Autumn 1946).
“Vassar Vignettes,” Vassar Alumnae Magazine, October 1936.
“Strelsky, Nikander,” Biographical File, Vassar College Special Collections, folders 1-3.