Back to the Basics

Today, September 1, is the Day of Knowledge — the first day of school — in Russia and some other post-Soviet countries. As it happens, it was sometime around the Day of Knowledge thirty-one years ago that I began studying Russian. My first Russian teacher was a Hungarian woman named Zsuzsa, at Portland State University. She was only the first of many wonderful guides to the language over the next five or six years (the time it took me to achieve relative fluency), including Nora, Sergei, Zoya, and an amazing Chinese grad student who explained Russian grammar — in Russian (speaking English in class was forbidden at UDub) — better than anyone I’ve ever met; all the lovely, patient and generous lecturers and instructors at the Herzen Institute, who were selflessly dedicated to their profession at a time when working conditions for teachers in Russia couldn’t have been worse; the incomparable Katya Vidre, who introduced me to the work of Alexei Khvostenko and Sergei Dovlatov and so many other things; and countless other Russians, especially the cast of bohemians who helped me with my thesis project, a translation and line-by-line commentary of Joseph Brodsky’s long poem “Predstavlenie.”

Although you might not always guess it from this blog and its prevailingly grim subject matter, learning (and reading) Russian has been immensely liberating. Becoming a Russian reader and speaker has made me a different person, a person capable of seeing the world, however darkly or brightly, through other eyes.

I was reminded of this tremendous gift and the sheer joy of plunging into a new language by the four “Russian pedagogical moments” below. I hope they inspire some of you to learn Russian. At very least, you can read through this post and learn your first twenty-seven words and phrases in the language. ||| TRR

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“V or B? Fill in the missing letters.” This is a worksheet made by the RFL teacher extraordinaire Natalia Vvedenskaya for the immigrant children she teaches at the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center. The words are banan (“banana”), yabloko (“apple”), vaza (“vase”), kolbasa (“sausage”), divan (“couch,” “sofa”), sobaka (“dog”), rebyonok (“child”), and morkovka (“carrot”). This was originally posted on Ms. Vvedenskaya’s Facebook page.

The words and phrases on the second page of the worksheet are velosiped (“bicycle”), avtobus (“bus”), baton (“baguette”), volshebnaya palochka (“magic wand”), gruzovik (“truck, lorry”), banka s vareniem (“jar of jam”), rubashka (“shirt”), and baklazhan (“aubergine, eggplant”).

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Some of Bridget Barbara’s favorite Russian words are arkhiologicheskikh (“archaeological”), zharko (“hot”), delala (“[a female subject] was doing/did”), kavychki (“quotation marks”), prikol’no (“cool”), kuda (“to where”), sovremennyi (“modern,” “contemporary”), ping-pong (“ping-pong”), bifshteks (“beef steak”), and dostoprimechatel’nosti (“sights,” “landmarks”).

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Vadim F. Lurie, “Russia for the Sad.” Posted on the photographer’s Facebook page on August 13, 2021, and reproduced here with his kind permission. The textbook in the photo is open to pages headed with the word grust‘, “sadness.” As Mr. Lurie informs me, “The boy is examining a special book about emotions and discussing it with his mother.”

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Natalia Vvedenskaya playing language bingo with her pupils at the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center. She writes: “We discussed transport today. Bingo is still the best game for all levels of knowledge of the language and ages. Only it’s very exciting. The screaming is fearsome.”

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