Madame Gulnar. Russian scholar and translator Olga Lebedeva @Beyazit State Librar Hakkı Tarık Us Collection

In Turkey the study of literary translations of Russian literature is largely unwritten as yet – or rather – it is contained in just a few brief pages. A Bulgarian- Turkish scholar Türkan Olcay produced an extensive research on the first Russian female orientalist Olga Sergeevna Lebedeva (1854–after 1912),  who under the pseudonym ‘Gülnar’, first introduced the Turkish reading public to the treasures of Russian literature, thus making an invaluable contribution to Turkish–Russian literary connections in the Ottoman Empire in 1890s.  Lebedeva was also the founder of the Society of Oriental Studies in St Petersburg, a researcher of the place and role of women in Muslim society, a translator and mother to six children. In a way, she was some kind of Russian Lady Montagu. Lebedeva was also known for her working relationship with the Ottoman writer and publisher Ahmet Mithat Efendi who was among the first to notice her talent.

Here we shall quote the opening of Prof Olcay’s article, which starts more like an intriguing novel and is a fascinating read:

“On the third of September 1889, at the reception in honour of the delegates of the Eighth Congress of Orientalists in Stockholm (hosted by Countess Landsberg), the Russian Consul–General introduced a ‘no more than forty year old woman of medium height’ to the official representative of the Ottoman Porte and member of the Turkish delegation, the writer and publisher Ahmet Mithat Efendi (1844–1912) with the words ‘The Madame is a Russian aristocrat and polyglot who speaks several languages, including Ottoman Turkish, wishes to meet you.’ The lady called herself Gülnar and held out her visiting card. In clear Ottoman she added that following his speech at the opening of the Congress her desire to meet him increased during the day’s conference after his lecture in French on Eastern women. Ahmet Mithat’s attention was drawn both to the name of this lady and by her melodious Ottoman speech and they struck up a friendly conversation. It turned out that: “apart from Russian, her mother tongue, the lady also spoke French, German, English and Greek fluently, had a good knowledge of Italian, Arabic and Persian languages […] and she was also very talented at playing the piano and painting”.

Madame Gülnar spoke to the Turkish educator about the greatness of Russian literature and when he asked ‘Is it really so great?’ she gave him a manuscript of her own translation into Ottoman of Leo Tolstoy’s short story Ilyas. Amongst those pages of translation, that she had put on the table, Mithat Efendi noticed by chance the envelope with her real name preceded by the title ‘Excellency’. Having received from him the promise that he would for the time being not divulge this information to his associates – as Mithat had informed her about his plans to publish his European travel notes – she informed him that her actual name was Olga Sergeevna Lebedeva….”

You can read the rest of the article by following this link.

Meanwhile, our contributor Borimir Totev met with Türkan Olcay and asked her how her interest in Lebedeva became the subject of her scholarly research.

Borimir Totev: How did you initially end up on the path of looking at Russian literature?

Türkan Olcay: I was seven when I became a participant of the Russian vocal group in the primary school. I did not understand words, I was thrilled with their melody. They seemed magical to me. The head of the group was the school’s teacher of the Russian language. Probably it was the time when she noticed my passion for the language and began to give me Russian books and souvenirs. When I began learning Russian at the 5th grade again with her, I knew I would  be nobody but a teacher of the Russian language. This was the reason why I started a Russian gymnasium, where I first entered the fascinating world of Russian literature. I was lucky again. My teacher and class teacher was Idea Semizova – a deep connoisseur of Russian literature. My first study was conducted under her leadership at the age of 14 in which I compared the images of Napoleon and Kutuzov in the “War and Peace”. Thanks to her, I got acquainted with almost all forms of Russian classical and Soviet literature. Then, naturally, followed the training at the Department of Russian Philology of the Plovdiv University. Since 1994, when I started working at the Department of Russian Language and Literature at the Istanbul University, Russian literature, classical literature in particular, has become the main object of my occupations and interests.

What was the most fascinating part of studying Madam Gulnar? 

I learned about Olga Lebedeva, known in Turkey as Madame Gulnar, for the first time in 2002 when I was invited to Russia to make a speech. It would be somewhat frivolous to read a standard lecture on Russian literature to the Russian-speaking audience, wouldn’t it? I wanted to find a topic for the report that would really interest the audience. I looked into the history of translations of Russian classics into Turkish: who started translating for the first time and what, what goals interpreters put, which path they followed. Among the first translators was Olga Lebedeva, about whom there was an article in the Islamic encyclopedia. I became interested, and started to find more and more information about her in the Turkish archives. It turned out that Madame Gulnar was much more than an ordinary interpreter. She was the first female Russian orientalist to study the status and roles of women in Muslim society, for which she was awarded by the Turkish sultan, as well as the founder of the Society of Oriental Studies in St. Petersburg. In spite of all her activity she remained obscure and her name was soon forgotten after the Revolution. That is why I am deeply touched by every trace, every piece of information about her, every mention of her name in periodicals and personal correspondence of Turkish intellectuals of that time. I do not cease to admire her cosmopolitan outlook, far-sightedness and energy. At the end of the 19th century, she was one of the first to talk about the dialogue between different cultures and religions and advocated their rapprochement and mutual understanding. It is all very, very fascinating, is not it?

Your thought on the Russian psyche / Russian art and culture in general

Russia is the birthplace of Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Repin, Levitan… . This list of names can be continued to infinity. Creations of Russian literature, music, painting and other forms of art became masterpieces and entered the annals of the world culture. But the concept of “Russian culture” is embodied not only by this unique spiritual heritage of Russian traditions and customs. Russian culture is at the same time a way of life for Russians, their way of thinking. It is a whole world – original, rich, multifaceted. It is also incomprehensible like the mysterious Russian soul. I am close to the idea of V.O. Klyuchevsky that the formation of the Russian character was influenced by Russia’s location on the border of the forest and steppe – elements that are opposite in all respects. Berdyaev wrote that the landscape of the Russian soul corresponds to the landscape of the Russian land, the same infinity, formlessness, aspiration to infinity, breadth. In addition, the very position of Russia between Europe and Asia is also a reason for the combination of signs of the Eastern and Western civilizations in Russian culture. But this, of course, is the topic of another conversation.

Concluding remarks/perhaps anything you’d like to share about future works that may be relevant to Russia.

November the 7th will mark the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia. The Civil War that followed the revolution led to the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of people from the country. The main starting point of the evacuation was the Black Sea coast, and the destination was Istanbul. For many years I explored their arrival and accommodation in Istanbul districts, entertainment facilities they used to open, the artistic and cultural life of “White” emigrants and their publishing and literary activity. And recently I came across with a detailed report of the director of the First Constantinople Russian Gymnasium founded here in 1921. After tracing its foundation and further destiny, I learned that the Russian gymnasium in which I myself used to study in Bulgaria had been established on its model. The fact has determined in many ways one of the main themes of my research for the near future. In parallel, I am going to continue working on individual and joint international projects, all of which are directly related to Russia, in particular, to Russian literature and culture in Turkey.


Türkan Olcay

Türkan Olcay graduated from the Department of Russian philology at the Plovdiv University. She has been teaching her major and counseling master’s and doctoral dissertations at the Department of Russian language and literature in the Faculty of Letters of Istanbul University where in 2012 became a full Professor. Beside that Olcay served as a guest professor at Anatolian University, visiting professor at “L. Gumilev” Eurasian National University and also gave lectures at Sofia University and Masaryk University of Brno. Her fields of specialisation are 19th century Russian literature, Turkish-Russian cultural and literal relations, as well as the life and activities of the Russian emigrants in Istanbul in the 1920’s.  She has participated in many international conferences and written numerous publications including above seventy articles and four books (Spoken and Written Expression, Chapter 1; The Naturalist School in Russian Literature; Ivan S. Turgenev; Russian Literature of the First Half of the 19th Century). Her published works include a wide range of articles on reception of the Russian literature in Tukey, the contribution of Russian Emigrants to the cultural life of Istanbul in 1920s, Chekov’s plays on the Turkish scene, and Russian traces on the Istanbul scene, amongst many others. Türkan Olcay is currently working on projects concerning the history of Russian literary translations in Turkey from 1884 to the present day, as well as being a foreign participant in the project “Russian Literature in the World Context” by The Gorky Institute of World Literature.