Most of her neighbors on campus are Native Alaskans, mainly of Yup’ik Eskimo, Aleut and Tlingit origin, whose cultures she is trying to understand. She is also trying to learn Alutiiq, the first language of Kodiak Island.
Safronova, 35, also teaches Russian at the Kodiak College.
As an archivist, Safronova is continuing the work of the late Lydia Black, who also was from Russia.
Safronova is a linguist who studied Latin, Old English, Gothic and ancient Germanic languages at the University of St. Petersburg, where her parents were professors. She is a doctoral candidate at the Ohio State University Department of Slavic Languages and Literature.
“All of my degrees, to some, may seem chaotic, but they are needed here,” she said.
Safronova considers her move to Kodiak and the way things have worked out, “miraculous and providential.” Those are unlikely words from someone who calls herself a “Soviet child.”
You couldn’t be incorporated into (Soviet) society without being a Communist.”
Born in St. Petersburg in 1976, Safronova “grew up the epitome of a Soviet child, caring about other children. I didn’t live for myself. We were good Soviet people. I never had much money but I did not really need it.
“We had all the Christian values without the doctrine of Christianity. We didn’t have Jesus Christ, but Marx and Lenin. The Bolsheviks, during the Russian Revolution, substituted the concept of Christ with Lenin and Marx and Engels. They created an unholy trinity.”
Her father “became an important man from an obscure Siberian village,” she said.
Serving the Russian Army during World War II, he lost both legs below his knees after stepping on a land mine. Yet, after he was equipped with prosthetic legs, he could dance and drive a car. He became the dean of St. Petersburg State University. He taught history of the Slavs and the influence of Orthodox missionaries, Cyril and Methodius.
Her mother taught Russian at the university.
In spite of living in a supposedly atheistic family, Safronova was exposed to people of faith.
“I never read a Bible as a child, but I knew it through the works of Feodor Dostoevsky.”
Through reading Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” Safronova understood that something was missing in her life. After the main character in the novel reads the Bible, he is converted.
“You couldn’t find Bibles in Russia.”
That changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Safronova’s father started publishing Bibles and created a society for biblical studies at the university.
“Our house was filled with Bibles. Someone stole a railroad wagon of Bibles from my father.
“He said it was impossible to study the Slavic culture without understanding the mission of St. Cyril and Methodius, missionary to the Slavs. They united the tribes of the Slavs.”
Like many of her peers, Safronova was baptized into the Orthodox Christian faith.
Expected to continue her parents’ legacy as a university professor, Safronova studied language and literature at the University of St. Petersburg.
In 1998, she received a master’s degree in the department of English philology and translation studies.
While she was in the process of writing her dissertation, an acquaintance called her out of the blue, asking her to go to America to teach one year.
“You must give your answer in five minutes,” her friend said. Without hesitation, Safronova, a true adventurer, said “yes.”
She spent the first four years in the Massachusetts teaching Russian language and culture, English and Russian literature and translation studies and taking courses that she liked.
“I started a Russian club. It was an incredible time. Everyone loved me. It became my home.”
She learned that it’s best to “operate by what you have in common,” she said. “That re-defined my life. One shouldn’t focus on differences but similarities.”
The same principle applies in Kodiak, she said. Whether Baptist, Catholic or Orthodox, “The language of the Gospel can unite us all.”
Once Safronova left Massachusetts, she taught at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and finally, Ohio State University.
She worked at the Resource Center for Medieval Slavic and taught Russian literature while pursuing a doctorate in Slavic languages and cultures.
While at OSU, “My mind opened,” she said. Instead of focusing on the Slavs, she saw them as part of a larger cultural production.
During her time at Ohio State, she went to Arizona and traveled on bicycle to a Navajo reservation.
“My heart was with the Native people,” said Safronova who was given the name “white dove.”
She also visited St. Anthony monastery, where the chapel displayed an icon of St. Herman of Alaska, who lived and died on Spruce Island near the city of Kodiak. When she learned about St. Herman, a Russian from Valaam, she was inspired to come to Kodiak.
Arriving on the island in summer 2010, Safronova taught Russian at Saint Innocent Academy for three weeks
Father Paisius DeLucia, dean of St. Innocent, is “strict but loving,” Safronova said.
“Mary (his wife) is the gentlest spirit and best cook in the world. Anna Spencer (the secretary) kindly gives to lost pilgrims in her wonderful house.
“The souls of these often troubled boys and girls who attend the academy seem to undergo a miraculous transformation. They transform into a team of do-gooders.”
While in Kodiak, Safronova made contact with St. Herman’s Seminary dean Father John Dunlop, whose college friend happened to be the director of the research library at OSU.
When Safronova returned to OSU, she started preparing to return to Kodiak where she was assured of work. She also changed the focus of her doctoral dissertation from Scythianism, a Russian literary movement associated with Mongolia, to the revival of Eastern Orthodoxy on Kodiak Island.
On the island since September of last year, Safronova said it feels like paradise here. She lives in a campus apartment which she calls her Russian Corner.
“From my bedroom window I see the chapel, I see the Near Island Channel, the Holy Resurrection Cathedral.”
She is learning Alutiiq and trying to reintroduce part of the church service into the Native language, as it had already been done by St. Innocent of Alaska a century and a half ago.
“I never imagined in my life that within two a months after I arrived, that I would be reading the Trisagion (a standard hymn in the Orthodox divine liturgy) in Alutiiq.”
She said she is discovering “sacred knowledge,” including prayers and Gospel translations written in Alaska Native languages.
“The Alutiiq culture has been miraculously preserved,” she said.
Safronova, who has long been absent from her native Russia, has adopted Kodiak as her new home.
“This is my village,” she said. The students and their families are her neighbors, her family.
She cooks for the single students at the refectory. She takes banya with the seminarian wives. She has people over for tea.
“I came here to stay,” Safronova said. “I’m not a tourist or a passerby.
“I’m learning to read, I’m learning how to sing, I’m learning how to be Orthodox in Kodiak, Alaska."