Today I’m going to talk about my experience with understanding Russia, and about how I started to learn Russian. I’m going to begin by explaining a bit about Russia and Russian culture as I perceive it. I had mentioned in my video about learning French, that the French like to be very logical, at least that’s what they teach at school, they’d like to be very precise in how they explain themselves and so forth. The Japanese are not at all that way. Also, there’s a lot of understatement in Japanese. They don’t say no. They say we’re going to certainly consider your suggestion, which means no. The Russians aren’t like that. The Russians say no. If it’s no, they say no.
Now, the good news, Russian is fascinating. It’s a beautiful language. The country is fascinating. The culture and history are fascinating. The people who appear somewhat stoic are, in fact, very warm. They tend to speak their minds, say what they think and not worry too much about the details, but that’s what makes them so fun to be around. I would say, too, that in Russia there’s no compromise. I think that’s how they approach even artistic creation or sports. That’s why we see a lot of artistic creation in Russia, outstanding ballerinas, musicians and scientists. Certainly in hockey I find the Russians are just magicians. They’re artists and so they have a tendency to really commit themselves in one direction.
All people generalize, but in Russia there’s no political correctness there are just generalizations. They’ll say anything.”что угодно” as they say in Russian. They’ll say anything based on knowing the subject, not knowing the subject, getting the facts wrong. I hear this all the time on Echo Moskvy — the most amazing statements, but with tremendous drama and conviction. So I’m going to do the same, I’m going to make very generalized statements about Russia and Russians without worrying too much about my facts.
So, how did I start to learn Russian?
Well, I was about 60 and I had really two reasons for getting into Russian. One was that I had read books by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy when I was 17-18 and I thought it would be really cool to read those books in the original language they were written in. The second thing was that my approach to language learning is to de-emphasize grammar. Not to ignore grammar, but to not put it up front and to focus on exposing one’s self to the language through lots of listening and reading, noticing patterns, rather than complicated grammar rules, explanations and so forth. I was sort of challenged and said you can’t do that with learning Russian because the grammar is too complicated.
Okay. The grammar is very complicated, Russian is a difficult language. To some extent, some people say no language is more difficult, blah, blah, blah. In fact, some languages are more difficult than others. It all depends on the language you’re starting from, of course, but for people without any background in Slavic languages Russian is difficult and I’m going to explain why. Before that, I’ll talk a little bit about Russia.
Russia is a phenomenal country. I mean the scale; the size of Russia is mind boggling. If we go back in history, we’ll see that the Dukedom of Moscovy was this little area up in northern Russia where a mixture of Slavic, Finnish-type people and Baltic-type people and so forth were up there doing their thing. I can’t remember whether they were actually conquered by the Mongol Tartar Hordes that dominated Russia for 300 years. I think they were, but I can’t remember. Whatever it was, the prince up there eventually defeated them.
So, really, the growth of Russia, even though the people in the area of what’s now the Ukraine were also Russians, Kiev is called the Mother of All Russian Cities and so forth, was very much under the rule of the Mongols for 300 years. This Moscovy was up there interacting with Baltic countries, Germans, Swedes and stuff like that. Not very different perhaps, other than they spoke a different language, but culturally very much in that sphere and from that it expanded to the Pacific. From the moment they defeated the Mongols, within a few hundred years they had expanded south right down to the Caspian Sea. I think they reached the Pacific in the late sixteen hundreds and they overthrew the Mongol Yoke, as it’s called, in the mid fifteen hundreds. Again, with history, you read it, you forget it, but roughly. It has become this tremendous continental country and you’re very much aware of this. Of course, subsequent to that under Catherine the Great and other Czar’s they consolidated their hold on these central Asian areas and Caucasus.
There was a significant expansion in the nineteenth century south and east. Russia was very much an imperialist power, an imperialist power on somewhat weak legs because they expanded too quickly and they were defeated by the Japanese in 1905. From that, largely because of the First World War, the czarist empire collapsed and they had their revolution and became the Soviet Union.
All of that is still very international with people from central Asia, Turkish-type people, the Caucasus with all of their different languages and culture, some Islamic, some very early Christian and so forth and, of course, they were always meddling on the western side of their border participating in the partition of Poland and chipping away at Romania. It’s kind of been involved in all these different areas, so it’s absolutely fascinating.
That’s one of the things you sense with Russia, that the scale is just huge. Even now if I listen to Echo Moskvy, there are a lot of people there with Georgian names that are no longer Georgian. So even with the disintegration of the Soviet Empire, you’re aware of these influences. There are issues with all the different minorities within Russia, plus immigration from countries in the former Soviet Union. That’s the world, it’s very much a Eurasian world and we have to understand that they’re not just some European country that speaks a Slavic language.