why russian?


There I was…a kid in the 1970s, and for some reason fascinated by Russia. Not so much by their politics, but by the country itself: its size, its fascinating place names, its people. There was still an “iron curtain” in the 70s, and I was always told, in so many words, that it wasn’t appropriate to be so curious about, well, a Communist society. Such feedback only piqued my interest. Even though I was still a child, I knew in my heart that politics don’t really define a person, that people in Russia must be like people in the U.S. We sleep, eat, work, have families, all as a part of the Human condition. My heritage represents a swath of Europe, starting with Sweden and Russia in the north, heading down towards Holland and Germany, stopping off briefly at England and Spain. Even though Dutch and Swedish are dominant in my lineage, my inner Russian wanted…more…


I never really explored it that deeply when I was a kid though. I would look at Cyrillic letters in our Random House dictionary and marvel at their style and complexity compared to Latin script. I would look at pictures of Red Square, St. Basil’s, Siberia, and wonder what it must be like to actually exist there. Unfortunately, the Russian language just wasn’t offered as an elective in American schools, and my fascination remained in a passive state. I expressed a desire to move there a couple of times and got a stern talking-to from my parents. Crushed dreams are not unique to my existence, that much I know.


So, flash forward to 2020. I keep my visual entertainment fairly minimal…no cable TV, mostly streaming YouTube and the occasional movie from Hulu or Netflix, whichever I’m subscribing to at the time. One day, a vlog on YouTube graces my feed…”Bald and Bankrupt - Inside the Belarus Chernobyl Zone”. So I indulged, and became instantly fascinated, soon watching just about every video on his channel. Here was a content creator who was English, spoke what sounded to me like fluent Russian, wandering around former Soviet provinces, meeting and chatting with strangers, and shedding a lot of light on things that were until then unknown to me. The people he met seemed to be content with their lives, happy to be talking to a foreigner, the old-timers fondly recalling the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union as a time of relative plenty and productivity. This all really blew my mind, and still does.


Bald & Bankrupt with some local бабушки

Okay, so “why Russian”? Well, all it took to push me over the line was watching this Englishman speaking the language as if he was born into it, which he wasn’t. I figured “if he can do it, so can I”. I began to learn the fundamentals, first with Duolingo, then branching out to other apps like Babbel, LIngvist, and Busuu. Busuu stands apart from the others I listed because it engages their user-base to help in the learning process. Through the Busuu app, I’ve made friends in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus who regularly correct my exercises, and I get to correct their English. It’s been a wonderfully enriching experience, and also terribly humbling for me.

I used to think I was a fairly smart fella, but the process of learning Russian is incredibly complex. The Russian language has six verb cases, three genders, and what still seems to me like an infinite number of combinations to get it right. Ten vowels! Two letters that don’t have a sound but instead affect the letters next to them! There is so much to break down and digest. I’m six months in and still have a hard time assembling sentences, and I’m usually in need of correction to adjust to the proper case.

It’s amazing to me that Russia has better than a 97% literacy rate for people over the age of 15, when taking into consideration the complexities of their language compared to English. I have a long road on this quest. The process of correcting the English of others has really outlined how much I don’t know. Like I wrote above, it’s terribly humbling…but also wonderfully challenging. I hope to learn the language well enough to speak it without using a translation app as a crutch, and to eventually travel to that vast land. When I had a myspace page that featured my music, there was a fella from the Czech Republic who left a comment that said, in essence: “If you bring your dobro to Prague, people will open their homes to you”. Well, with that spirit, I hope to spend some time in the near future traveling across Eastern Europe with a focus on Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus with the goal of playing some music, meeting the locals, and being understood while speaking near-fluent Russian.

До скорого, России!

Thursday, September 23, 2021 by dobrohaxxor
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