Russian Lessons

The beautiful, new Ministry of Agriculture building in Kazan, Russia
The beautiful new Ministry of Agriculture building in Kazan, Russia

For the past several weeks I’ve had the privilege of traveling on a train from Vladivostok (in far eastern Russia), through Siberia to Moscow and then on to St. Petersburg. One of the more delightful aspects of the trip was five or six Russian language lessons, taught by a Russian train-tour guide who is also an English teacher. She was engaging, entertaining, purposeful and smart. Here are some highlights from her lessons and from this extraordinary journey.

  • In Russian, you do not say, “Would you be so kind as to…” It is perfectly polite to say, “I want…” Our guides (almost all women) were equally (and refreshingly) direct in language and affect. In a similar way, Russian food (potatoes, beets, meatballs, a delicious array of garden vegetables and fruits) is unpretentiously delicious. Plus, there’s vodka (more about vodka ahead).
  • Regarding those Russian women, when we were at the Siberian Academy of Sciences at Academgorodok (an entire city-like complex for scientific research just outside the Siberian city of Novosibirsk), another wonderful female guide noted, “Not only are there many extremely intelligent women working here, but they are all beautiful.” A far cry from the statement I heard many years ago about women at Northwestern (my egg-head alma mater): “All the women there are ugly.” Reflecting, I think, Russian vs. American notions more about gender equity than intelligence OR beauty.
  • Speaking of beautiful women, it occurred to me that maybe I don’t get out enough—or can it be that Siberian women dress a hundred times more fashionably than their Minnesotan counterparts? Tall, thin, wearing short dresses and long boots, some on the arms of jeans-clad, wiry young men, some with beautiful tow-headed children (the girls’ hair inevitably intricately braided) obediently (and clearly lovingly) in hand…these are the sights in the cities of Siberia—Khabarovsk, Irkutsk, Novosibersk (populations 600,000; 600,000; and 1.6 million, respectively. Yes, in Siberia).
  • And did I mention that those lovely children, including small babies, are as often to be found in the arms of their young fathers as mothers?
  • Lest you think I paint too rosy a picture, let’s return to our Russian lessons. We learned how to say “Good morning,” “Good day,” “Good evening,” “Good night,” but were cautioned about asking, “How are you?” “In many instances,” our teacher informed us, “you will get an answer that keeps going. In any case, the response will likely not be ‘Excellent.’” Russians live, for example, in small spaces; another guide told us you could reach the refrigerator from the living room in the apartment in which she grew up (and still lives, with her mother). We heard dimensions difficult to believe: ten square meters for a whole family? One in four Russian families still retreat on weekends and in summer to a dacha, but these “country houses” are far less vacation cottages than small working farms. And while apartments are somewhat more spacious today, only in one city (before we arrived in Moscow, that is)—the oil-wealthy, prosperous and breathtakingly beautiful city of Kazan—did we see single-family homes like those found in the US.
  • Other hardships abound. One tour guide’s husband is currently out of work because while his construction company frequently made the lowest bid on a project, “extra fees,” (like a 70% bribery mark-up) resulted in his inability to take on jobs. Bribery and corruption are, unfortunately, a way of life in Russia today.
  • Russian language lessons lead, of course, to Russian economics and history lessons. I was ignorant of much of it but I’ve learned a lot. By the 1970’s it was evident that the Russian communist state was failing, unable to supply its citizens with what they needed to live. Consumer goods became more and more scarce. Russians lined up for whatever was rumored available for sale on any given day. One guide told us her mother queued up and bought it, no matter what it was; if it didn’t fit a family member or was otherwise unneeded, it could always be traded on the black market for something they did, in fact, need.
  • “When something belongs to everyone, it belongs to no one,” one guide said; we heard (more than once) that in Soviet times “Some were more equal than others.” Guaranteed employment, it seems, can lead to people taking their jobs for granted: lunchtime raids of movie houses and restaurants yielded scores of idle workers. Productivity was often poor and almost always improved when people were allowed to keep some of the profits of their labor for themselves.
  • In the 1980’s the last Soviet communist leader, Mikhail Gorbachov, introduced “glasnost”—the “opening” (a kind of owning up to Russian citizens that the country was in deep trouble)—and perestroika—a “restructuring” of the very fabric of soviet life. Gorbachov’s popularly elected successor Yeltsin, who apparently liked his vodka a little too much (and yes, we will get back to vodka) was the perhaps poorly chosen mediator of a subsequent decade of monumental social and economic change.
  • Russia’s shock-treatment shift to capitalism in the early 1990’s left a lot of former Soviet citizens unprepared to deal with the vouchers they were given to invest in now-private companies, including formerly state-owned oil, coal, and mining operations. Stories abound from the Russians we met as to what happened to the vouchers: some folks were so ill-informed as to exchange them for a bottle of vodka. (Yes, more about vodka in a minute.) Many people traded the vouchers away in similar inexperience and exploitation. As a result, the wealth of Russia became (and to some degree remains) concentrated in the hands of a small number of oligarchs, very rich businessmen with significant political influence.
  • The shift to capitalism was particularly hard on older Russians, who had lived a lifetime with cradle-to-grave economic security. The notions of losing a job (which did not happen in Soviet times) or planning for one’s own retirement were understandably frightening.
  • In the year 2000 Yeltsin handed over the reigns to Putin, in 2008 Putin to Medvedev and in 2012 Medvedev back to Putin in a series of elections disappointingly undemocratic to some of us in the West. My unofficial poll of Russian guides characterizes Putin as strong and having guided Russians through some very difficult times (an apparently satisfied majority), and KGB-military-bully.
  • I was surprised to find the Russian Orthodox Church so integral a part of present-day Russian life. Much church property was returned in the 90’s, and many churches destroyed by the Soviets have been rebuilt. Something like 70% of Russians identify as Russian Orthodox, and although a much smaller per cent actually attend church services, that number is growing
  • It is extremely difficult to get any Russian to say, “The future is definitely bright.” The reasons for this are many. One, as spoken by one of our favorite guides, is the wish for the US and the west “to simply leave us alone” while Russians work out their transition to democracy and a market economy. Another is (I told you we’d get back to it) vodka. Few are aware that the Lenin quote, “Religion is the opiate of the people,” was actually more like “Religion and vodka are the opiates of the people.” Alcoholism is a problem in present-day Russia.
  • And yet I’ll suggest that vodka is also one reason the Russians have hope for the future. Well, maybe not vodka per se but the congenial, passionate, life- and music- and literature-loving, if somewhat melancholy, Russian heart. That Russian heart, I’ve learned, tends to reveal itself after the second or third vodka toast of the evening. It’s a good heart, a big heart. A heart worth getting to know, should you, too, have the chance to visit this vast, surprising and complicated country.



  1. I love this. We adopted our daughter from Russia 17 years ago, and much still sounds the same. I loved St. Petersburg. Thanks for sharing this!

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