What I really learnt when I picked up the Russian language

Whenever people discover that I speak Russian, I can always count on their eyes widening in disbelief, followed by the inevitable exclamation: “But why?”

While many of my peers pursued the likes of Japanese and French as a foreign language, I didn’t pick up Russian so that I could stand out from over 260 million Russian speakers in the world. I was simply a history nerd searching for answers and itching for a challenge - and boy did I get one.

HISTORY

It all started in history class in JC, when my geeky 17-year-old self was swept away by the colourful yet tumultuous realm of Tsars, Bolsheviks and eventually Soviet dictators.

But what was once a mighty superpower that rocketed the first man into space didn’t quite match the disparaging depictions in popular culture.

Hollywood movies, for instance, were rife with Russian villains who were either Communists or mafia thugs (think From Russia With Love, Eastern Promises and The Equalizer, to name a few).

To me, Russia was a confusing yet intriguing concept - on the one hand it was an enormous, enigmatic empire spanning 11 time zones and over 100 ethnic groups, but on the other hand, so much of the world’s understanding of it was reduced to hoary Cold War-era tropes.

This discrepancy made me insatiably curious about the country and its cultures.

As the poet Fyodor Tyutchev once wrote: “Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone.”


I was not the first cosmonaut in space, but a boy can dream. PHOTOS: YEO SAM JO

COLLEGE

I finally got my chance during college, when I signed up for Elementary Russian, where, after picking up the 33 Cyrillic letters in the alphabet, I was slapped in the face with what was to be my true arch nemesis - Russian grammar.

Oh how difficult can it possibly be, you might ask. 

Well, every student of Russian will probably agree when I say that Russian grammar is more excruciating than downing a whole bottle of Zelyonaya Marka vodka or trying to cram most of Tolstoy’s War and Peace in a week because you’ve been slacking all semester.


My face when confronted with Russian grammar.

You think I’m exaggerating, but to give you a quick lowdown, Russian has six grammatical cases. Modern English has only three.

Oh, and let’s not get started on the verbs of motion, which still make me shudder till this day. Because while in English we can just say we go to Pulau Ubin everyday, are going to Pulau Ubin on Saturday, or went to Pulau Ubin once and then returned - Russian demands different verbs for each of those actions, complete with the appropriate conjugations and gendering of nouns.

Picking up the language from scratch evoked traumatic memories of me painstakingly poring over Chinese dictionaries in primary and secondary school, highlighting word pairings in my textbook and violently erasing errant strokes from my exercise books until the pages tore.

Russian didn’t make me cry, but it sure as heck made me wanna yank my hair out. Suffice to say, I had many sleepless, tea-bingeing nights trying to wrap my head around this monster. 

TO RUSSIA, WITH LOVE

Yet I was in madly in love. 

Call it masochism, but there was something exhilarating about struggling with a new tongue, getting tongue-tied, absorbing new vocabulary and expressions while fumbling along the way.

Little triumphs kept me going: My first conversation in Russian. Successfully pronouncing long Russian words (like dostoprimechatelnosti, or places of interest). My first Russian movie. Performing my first Russian song, and even dreaming in Russian.

After delving deeper into Russian history, politics and literature, I spent a year studying in St. Petersburg, where classes were conducted entirely in Russian.

Living with a host family, I had to communicate chiefly in their language, be it asking for more smetana and ukrop in my borscht (for everything in Russia tastes better with sour cream and dill), haggling with gypsy cab drivers, or ordering the best beer in the city - Vasileostrovskoe temnoe, hands down.


St. Petersburg, 2012. Yes, it was as cold as it looks.

I had plenty of Lost In Translation moments, but a few months in and my Russian had improved by leaps and bounds. It became apparent that learning a language wasn’t just about hitting the books and acing the exams - it was also about living it.

It was about forcing yourself to start a conversation even if you know you’re going to screw up the grammar and make a fool of yourself . 

It was about practising with anyone and everyone who could help you build on your encounters with the language - be it your professors, your classmates, the policeman asking for identification in the metro station or that babushka selling flowers on Nevsky Prospekt.

It was navigating the customs that are so intrinsically linked to the language - whistling in the house or giving a living person an even number of flowers, for instance, would earn you an earful from your hozyaika (host mum). 

It was also connecting the dots to all those history lessons that got you passionate about Russian in the first place, as you stroll down the street and glance up at Dostoevsky’s apartment, or the balcony from which Lenin delivered his revolution speech.

I also learnt that stereotypes, like many other things, seldom survive the Russian winter. Even on the frostiest of days, when temperatures plunged close to minus 30 degrees Celsius, I made friends who eschew vodka, met strangers who smiled on the streets, chatted with the elderly who still pine for the Soviet days, and, perhaps most notably, saw no bears on the streets.

As Russia continues to dominate the headlines today, I tend to take any sweeping statements about it with a pinch of salt.

OF RUSSIAN AND RUST

It might seem like a huge anti-climax, then, for me to sheepishly admit at this juncture that my Russian is now rustier than a sunken ship. 

Four years of infrequent usage in Singapore has rendered it somewhat rudimentary, even though I try to keep it alive by watching films, listening to songs, going to concerts and staying in touch with other Russian speakers.

Some people ask if I regret spending so much time and effort on the language, only to not find any “practical application” for it in my working life.

Well, I didn’t pick it up because I wanted to be diplomat to Russia. I did it because I had a genuine and passionate curiosity about the language and culture, and it is this curiosity that still keeps me going at it.

Just the other day I found myself frantically flipping through the dictionary because I forgot the Russian word for watermelon and couldn’t go to sleep.

Learning the language was always a puzzle I knew I couldn’t complete. You can get really good at it, but there are bound to be blind spots. The same way I am still picking up English and Chinese words from time to time (kakistocracy and being two of my recent acquisitions).


Flagging the next gypsy cab to Russia, someday.

For now, I’m happy just slurping my borscht, knowing that this journey, though far from over, has changed me for good.