Herman S. Ermolaev, Slavic Professor Emeritus, dies at the age of 94

Feb. 7, 2019

Herman Ermolaev — known to his colleagues as “German Sergeevich” — passed away on January 6, 2019 at the age of 94. Herman had an extraordinary life; he experienced many of the cataclysmic events of the twentieth century and made them the focus of his voluminous scholarship.

            Herman was born in Tomsk, Siberia, in 1924, but he grew up in the Don region of southern Russia. This was the area traditionally associated with the Cossacks, whose traditions would later be part of Herman’s scholarly focus. Herman’s parents were well-educated; his father was a lawyer and his mother a doctor. He always remembered the first book his father read to him: Tom Sawyer in Russian translation. Herman grew up with a distrust of the Soviet experiment. His parents were not eager participants, and Herman witnessed first-hand the cruelty of the system when forced collectivization led to mass starvation. When the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union, Herman was conscripted to dig ditches for a sapper division of the Red Army. He was taken prisoner by the Nazis, but managed to escape a few days later. In the chaos of the next few years, Herman and his father made their way to the West. After the war, he avoided repatriation (and certain death) by claiming to be ethnically German. His father was not so lucky. When years later he was asked how he had succeeded in claiming German heritage with his Russian-accented and imperfect command of the German language, he replied that there were plenty of real ethnic Germans who knew the language much worse than he did.

            Herman was allowed to remain in Austria. The war had interrupted his schooling, so he finished secondary school in Salzburg and then enrolled in university in Graz. In 1949 Herman received a scholarship from Stanford University, where he completed the requirements for an A.B. in Russian literature in a year. From there, he entered graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley. The program there was led by the émigré Gleb Struve, a legendary figure in Slavic studies in the twentieth century. Under Struve’s guidance, Herman wrote a dissertation on Soviet theories of literature. Published as a book by the University of California Press a few years later, it is still regarded as authoritative. While at Berkeley, Herman also taught Russian language at the Army Language School in Monterrey. This was the era of “sputnik,” and the teaching of Russian became a strategic priority for the United States.

            In 1959, Herman came to Princeton as an instructor. He served as assistant professor from 1960–1966, associate professor from 1966–1970, and thereafter as full professor until his retirement in 2007. As a teacher, Herman’s courses on Soviet literature were legendary, at times reaching enrollments of more than 300 students per semester. Soviet novels are often not exactly page-turners. The themes of “boy meets tractor” or the cement factory settings might not seem capable of attracting such enormous enrollments. But students were enthralled by Herman’s ability to recreate the cultural and historical context of the 1930s and by his own stories of life under Stalin. For advanced undergraduates and graduate students, Herman offered courses taught completely in Russian. He was an exacting taskmaster, but at the same time highly encouraging of students willing to put in the time necessary to master such a difficult language.

            As a scholar, Herman had an extraordinary command of the material. Like the historians and social scientists, he studied the Soviet press like a mystery novel. He understood that the most important news was often tucked away in the back pages of the newspapers. In fact, when in the 1990s there was discussion about receiving Russian newspapers in digital form only, he was furious. The key to understanding Russian news, he insisted, was not simply reading the articles, but seeing where they were located on the page.

Herman had no tolerance for vague generalizations; he insisted that every conclusion be supported by textual evidence. It is precisely this fastidious attention to detail that makes his scholarship so valuable. In addition to his book on Soviet literary theories, Herman published a number of books on the Nobel-prize winning novelist Mikhail Sholokhov. There was considerable debate world-wide on whether Sholokhov had actually written all of the works that were attributed to him. Through meticulous stylistic analysis, — and this was long before the advent of the digital humanities — Herman came to the conclusion that Sholokhov had indeed authored them all. His conclusion supported the official Soviet position, and it was the only time in Herman’s career where his scholarship was lauded in the Soviet press. Otherwise Herman’s work tended to be incompatible with Soviet orthodoxy or directly oppositional. In 1968 he published his own translation of Maxim Gorky’s controversial essays under the title Untimely Thoughts: Essays on the Revolution, Culture and the Bolsheviks, 1917–1918. The book was widely read in the West and translated into French in 1975. In 1982 Princeton University Press published his book Mikhail Sholokhov and His Art. Herman’s book Censorship in Soviet Literature, 1917–1991 was published in 1997. It is a summation of work that Herman did over decades, and it reflects the type of scholar he was. As an émigré, Herman was of course not allowed into the Soviet Union and therefore had no access to the archives that scholars would now use to study the subject of censorship. What Herman had, however, was the raw data in the form of published books. Through his studies of Soviet literature, Herman recognized that you never read the same novel twice. That is to say: even when republishing their own “classics,” the Soviets found it necessary to remove things. Passages that were acceptable in the 1920s were no longer acceptable in subsequent decades. Such omissions were never indicated in the new texts, but for those who knew the first publication well, they were discoverable. Herman systematically compared numerous editions of the same Soviet classics and was able to prove with astonishing accuracy the way Soviet censors sought to direct their readers in questions both political and social. To author such a book required decades of painstaking study, but the result is a magisterial survey of one of the most important topics in Soviet culture.

When Herman returned to the Russia in the 1990s, he was greeted as a hero, interviewed repeatedly by various newspapers and feted especially in the Don region where he had grown up. Herman’s scholarship began to be translated and he even published a new book in Moscow in 2005 on the political censorship of Sholokhov’s famous novel The Quiet Don.

Herman’s office was an archive in itself, stuffed with copies of obscure articles gleaned from years of studying the Soviet press. His knowledge of the Soviet Union was encyclopedic and unreproducible. His passing marks the end of an era in Slavic studies.