Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Getting to Know Mother Russia, Then and Now

I majored in Russian Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania back when Perestroika had paved the way for an economic rebirth and an overall feeling of friendship. After Mr. Gorbachev had “torn down” tangibly oppressive walls, he also opened the floodgates for idealistic young people to master Russian and embrace Russian culture. I am not sure how I intended to actually APPLY my degree. At one point, I fantasized about the romantic life of a career diplomat. Working for a profitable American company that needed Russian-speaking employees to forge further economic ties also seemed possible. As it turns out, my degree was good for two things.
Our childhood conception of Russians.

First, I fell in love with Russian literature. Russian poetry is a bit too hand-wringingly dramatic (too much beating of the breast) for my tastes, but Dostoevsky and Tolstoy so perfectly capture the nuances of not just the Russian spirit but the universality of the human condition as well. I read and re-read the major works of each. The second benefit of my major was that my pronunciation was almost “biz aktsenta” (without an accent). Cute Russian guys would tease me that I was a spy; I flirted back; and so on. I may be a very good mimic, but I never advanced beyond conversational Russian.

Our Russian textbooks in college had not been updated since Leonid Brezhnev died. It was as if they were forever frozen in 1980. Casual conversations often centered on the quality of one’s combine harvesters. Vladimir Lenin came up a lot, but Trotsky--Trotsky who?. The Little Octobrists wore star-shaped pins, and if they were good they could advance to join the Young Pioneers! Of course, some aspects of Russian life had not changed between the pre- and post-Soviet eras; blintzes, farmer cheese, little pickles, and open-faced sandwiches were all exchanged between good-natured passengers as the Trans-Siberian railway quietly and proudly (тихо и гордо) chugged across Mother Russia.
Feel the warmth! The Cold War melts.

Today, I can watch FX’s The Americans during the Russian-only scenes and understand nearly half of what the characters are saying without looking at the subtitles! However, a Russian friend informed me recently that the Russian the actors are speaking is kind of dumbed down. I’m trying to convince my husband that there is no better time than the present to venture to Moscow and St. Petersburg, now that President Trump and Putin are on-again, off-again buddies.

In preparation for my desired but not definite trip, I downloaded the Duolingo app on my iPhone. I tested out of the most basic skills, like knowing the Cyrillic alphabet. After that, I tried my hand at common verbs, phrases, and vocabulary. You are asked to translate from Russian to English and vice versa and to transcribe a spoken phrase using the handy Cyrillic keyboard. I’m intrigued by the wide emotional range conveyed to the user within a single lesson.

“I already have a table” is a somewhat annoyed response to a kind offer. The odd question, “Do you have a horse?” is one unlikely to pass the lips of a Muscovite in 2017. But if you are a peasant living in Novosibirsk in 1917, this inquiry may be an acceptably righteous boast (“I am prosperous enough to own a horse; are you, tavarish?”).

Then the mood grows ominously defensive. “We have everything!” and “Everything is perfect” sound like a Soviet official circa 1980 vigorously denying the existence of bread lines and shortages. On the other hand, “Our egg” is historically accurate given the scarcity of such essentials; I guess that a single egg had to be parceled out to two or more diners. The declaration “This is not milk” is strange indeed. If it looks like milk but does not taste like milk, might it be poisoned? Oh, la mystère! Finally, Duolingo ventures into the realm of the conspiratorial (“Here is our plan”), right before it veers toward bizarro land: "Our cats eat eggs."
"Here's our plan...But first, where are my apples?"

I’ve heard Spain is lovely in August.

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