Office Hours: Ian Helfant

Matthew Knowles

“Russian literature confronts the eternal questions head-on – whether in the frenzied novels of Dostoevsky or in the piercing humanity of Chekhov’s short stories and plays. And Colgate’s students – vocal, extroverted, intellectually adaptable – help me to see new facets in these writers every time I teach them.” This quote, which sits next to Associate Dean of the Faculty, Chair of the Russian Department and Associate Professor of Russian Ian Helfant’s portrait in the Colgate Faculty Directory, perfectly describes Helfant’s love for both his area of study and his students at the University.

When Professor Helfant graduated from Harvard University with a B.A. in the History and Literature of Russia, the world was a very different place. The days of the Soviet Union and mutually assured destruction had not yet passed, and relations between the United States and Russia were tense at best. At that time, Professor Helfant considered it his duty as an idealistic student to help improve relations between the Soviet Union and the West as best as he could. After the Union’s collapse, however, Professor Helfant continued his education at Harvard, culminating with a Ph.D. in Slavic Language and Literatures, and has since pursued a very different path in his academic field.

Currently, Professor Helfant is very involved with the Eco-Criticism movement, a unique combination of the humanities and the sciences which aims to create greater environmental awareness.

“It’s a very interdisciplinary study of what I’d call cultural studies,” Professor Helfant said, when giving a general description of the movement.

Professor Helfant’s role in this study is to highlight the Russian cultural attitude towards environmental destruction in order to demonstrate how important the environment is to humanity in general. He does this by analyzing passages in 19th century Russian literature and hunters’ journals in the pursuit of descriptions of the environment. For example, he wrote an article on A.T. Aksakov’s works called “The Ambivalent Proto-Ecological Consciousness of a Nineteenth-Century Russian Hunter,” which described Aksakov’s unique feelings on the issue.

“He would see a flock of birds and start shooting and couldn’t restrain himself and would shoot hundreds because ‘they kept on coming,'” Professor Helfant said in his article. But Aksakov was one of Russia’s biggest lovers of nature. Professor Helfant uses this to illustrate a peculiarity in human nature.

“He talks about the trespasses of his generation and he moves beyond his own individual responsibility towards associating what happened with entire generations in Russia,” Professor Helfant said, “and in this way he lets himself off the hook but he also understands his role in what happened.”

According to Professor Helfant, this same confusion about how we as individuals should act when it comes to environmental stewardship is present in our society today, and to him this is a very important question. Being one of the founding members of the Colgate Sustainability Council, Professor Helfant says that, to many people, the environmental situation “is the greatest crisis that humanity and the world in general has ever faced,” and to him it is important to become as deeply involved as possible.

Out of this love for the environment comes Professor Helfant’s unique taste in recreational activities. He spent much of his youth traveling the United States and doing everything from hiking in Washington state to ice-climbing in Vermont. Another one of his activities, which even caught the attention of a blog writer for the website, is bow-hunting for deer, from which he receives all the meat that his family uses yearly. He believes that hunting in this manner is not only sustainable, but extremely important, since it helps limit a dangerously booming deer population in the area. This is just another way in which Professor Helfant takes his work out of the realm of pure academia and applies it in real world situations.

Contact Matthew Knowles at [email protected]