This is the story of how I got fluent in Russian. It’s post number four in my new “Dr Popkins Method?” series of articles. I got the idea for the series when I was down in Tenerife with some of my fellow language learners and teachers, bloggers and vloggers. They challenged me to help you better by sharing more my language learning journey.
If you prefer video, you can scroll straight to the bottom for the link to the companion vlog about my experiences learning Russian (and, in the second half, German). This post covers roughly the same ground, but has a bit more detail (and only covers Russian. German will be up next.).
First steps learning Russian
I started learning Russian in late 1988 or early 1989 for my upcoming graduate studies in history…..I was half-way through a graduate gap-year in Wales when the main focus was supposed to be getting fluent in Welsh.
Now, I don’t advocate trying to learn two languages at once… There was a risk that this foolhardy enterprise would ruin my Welsh year and leave me no further forward with the new language….On the other hand: my motivation was high…..There was a clear need on the fast-approaching horizon.
When I’m working on a language, I like a one-volume “complete course” textbook in the sense of one that covers all the main structures and core vocab. In Wales, following a recommendation from a retired linguist I’d met on my intensive summer Welsh course, I started working through the Penguin Russian Course by John Fennell.
I made flashcards of the vocab and key phrases to learn using spaced repetition, just as I’d done with French and Welsh.
I was also working though another textbook, Horace Lunt’s Fundamentals of Russian.
“Lunt” appealed to me as more comprehensive than the Penguin. It had short sentences and many more exercises. I gave that the flash card treatment too. There was no audio at all, though.
These two books introduced me to all the structures of Russian and gave me a core vocabulary. What I didn’t yet have was any speaking practice (or any listening beyond the muffled cassettes you could get to go with the Penguin course).
What was difficult as I started Russian…and what was easier
The new alphabet had turned out not to be difficult to learn at all. The language was spelled phonetically. The chief challenge then (as now) as the difference between hard and soft consonants and a new “i” sound.
There were familiar international words (mainly Latin or Greek) but, as in Welsh, there were far, far fewer of these than in French.
What was most challenging was learning a language in which nouns, adjectives pronounce and demonstratives declined across three genders and six cases.
Then there was the complex Slavic verb system…..Let’s move swiftly on 🙂
Back to Oxford to specialise in Russian history
Back in Oxford, I moved from Hertford to St Antony’s, an all-graduate college.
It was a very international and multilingual place. I was there at an exciting time. That Autumn, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet puppet regimes in eastern Europe fell one after the other. It seemed like East European Studies was the place to be.
As a first year research student I had two tasks: to define my thesis topic and to get good enough at Russian to be able to research it.
Doctoral studies in Oxford were very unstructured. A lot depended on the informal relationship with the supervisor and an inexhaustible ability just to get on with stuff on your own without any positive feedback.
For me, there was the added challenge of needing to get a pretty solid reading knowledge of Russian before I could even get going.
Inspiring help with my Russian
One of my supervisors was Professor Stone, who was known for his linguistic prowess. He was of view that anybody could pick up a working knowledge of a language in six months. He’d cheerfully taken me on to study Russian history without Russian where a more cautious don might have sent me away and told me to go off an learn the language first.
His can-do approach – on top of my previous self-study success with Welsh and French – gave me the self-belief to make it with Russian.
This was all the more important because there was no framework for beginning graduate students to learn Russian intensively at the university.
All that was on offer was a Russian reading class aimed at graduate students of Soviet Politics. The focus was on the turgid, formulaic language of Soviet newspapers. I told the teacher straight out that it wasn’t for me.
During the year I used to call on the professor once a week for one-to-one help with Russian. This mainly involved us sitting at his kitchen table while him correcting my exercises from Lunt. I was also doing translations from Russian Prose Composition, by Borras and Chritianson.
There was a small community of Soviet graduate students in Oxford on an exchange programme funded by the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros.
Alexei from Kiev was one of them. He’d been an outstanding undergraduate linguist and was doing doctoral work on the origins of Islam (and had the languages necessary for that).
I also took weekly lessons with him in his room, paying him five pounds (which I could barely afford). He helped me with my spoken Russian, though I still couldn’t say very much. I remember one particular low, when it emerged I still hadn’t learned the word for “Russia” in Russian.
That all changed in summer of 1990 when I was Alexei’s guest for a couple of months in the Soviet Union. This was when things started to move with my conversational Russian, thanks to constant practice.
The challenge of listening practice in the pre-internet era
On this first trip to the Soviet Union, I found understanding was actually more difficult than speaking. I think that was due to inadequate listening practice before the trip.
Nowadays, if I were to start Russian, I’d be getting hours of audio exposure on MP3 and the net and lessons with native speakers on Skype.
Then, the technology just wasn’t there.
The college had just got (somewhat temperamental) satellite TV and you could book in to watch the “Vremya”, the evening news programme.
I also tried to listen to broadcasts in Russian on my crackley shortwave radio receiver. One evening when I was doing this, Alexei called round, heard the broadcast and informed me that it was the Ukrainian service.
Amazing hospitality and lots of practice: my first trip to the Soviet Union
The summer trip started in Leningrad, where I stayed with his wife’s cousin and her mother in a wonderful old Imperial period apartment on Chernyshevskii street
We then went to Moscow where there were still a lot red flags a-flutter. There were very few adverts or bill boards (just Communist banners and slogans), hardly any western brands. The shops may have been empty, but the museums, theatres and concert halls were full. We stayed in run down dacha about forty minutes out in the country as guests of a typical Moscow intellectual and academic architect who lived off ideas (and fried potato and onion, black bread and tea, cigarettes and vodka) and who gave me a copy of his latest lavishly illustrated volume.
Next, on by train to Kiev. For a month I stayed with Alexei’s parents in their large apartment in very centre of town. Looking back, that was quite an imposition and I remain extremely grateful to this day. Neither of his parents spoke any English. I saw all the sights and was also invited for several long meals at friends of Alexei’s among the Kiev intellectual elite – both Russian and Ukrainian speaking.
By end of summer I could had functional conversational Russian. Sure, that was in no small measure due to all the exposure and practice. That wouldn’t have got me nearly as far without all the previous eighteen months’ work on the basic vocabulary and structures, though.
Don’t go to a country with basis in the language hoping to pick it up. You’ll get further, faster, if you’ve already done serious groundwork.
I was travelling and making real progress with my Russia and that was about to get even better. In my second year, I started learning German and in January 1991 went off for eight months to Freiburg in Germany on the Erasmus student mobility scheme.
Struggling with life as doctoral researcher
In terms of morale, I really needed these exhilarating wins. The thing was, for the first two years, there was next to movement at all on the academic front.
I’d say that the first two years of my time as a doctoral student were far more difficult than my later period of intensive study at law school and the stresses of working as a junior lawyer, pulling all nighter on multi-million pound financings.
I several times came close to giving up the research.
It was only well into the third year, half way through my time in the Russian archives, that I could see that success had became only a matter of time.
One early problem was the lack of structure of the doctoral student life or of any meaningful feedback (because I wasn’t producing anything to give feedback on).
It didn’t help that the college was full of much more self-confident students one- or two-year masters courses in economics or international relations. Some of them already had jobs lined up in UN or the World Bank.
Among the handful of serious, research-focussed Russianists, I was the only who wasn’t already fluent in the language at the beginning and didn’t have a masters degree in either in it or in wider Russian studies. It felt like I was running to catch up.
Money worries dogged me during the first year. With no debt from my undergraduate years (student fees were twenty years in the future) and a three-year post-graduate maintenance grant from the British Academy, my position was much better than it would have been today.
All the same, I was having to earn extra money just to make ends meet (even though technically this breached the rules of the (inadequate) maintenance grant. I took on quite a lot of paid teaching work. I enjoyed this, but it was hugely time-consuming, slowing up my work at Russian and on the history.
I also started working several evenings a week at a news company which took advantage of the latest fax technology to produce a daily type written brief on world affairs for leading decision makers. I had two tasks. One was to cut up out the foreign news reports from the day’s papers (ready for analysis by the writers the following day). The other was to fax out that day’s report to the clients.
By now it was Christmas 1990. I was over a year in (with only two years funding left). I was ok with conversational Russian but I still couldn’t read my sources. My “research”, which at this stage mainly involved digging out and photocopying printed materials in the Bodleian library but not actually reading and analysing them.
Eight months in Freiburg
In Freiburg I started to read the main source I’d collected from Oxford library: decisions from the “Governing Senate”, Russian Empire’s highest court.
These were stilted reports in nineteenth century Russian legalese. Each was about a six hundred words long. While I could now read something like that in, erm, about thirty seconds, it used to take me a day to read one or two and make notes on record cards. Sometimes I’d have to look up the same words again and again.
By this stage, I was no longer actively studying Russian…..It was just a matter of ploughing through the texts and noting vocab as I went (and doing spaced recall on it with flashcards).
On 18 August 1991 my Freiburg time came to an end. By this stage I also had intermediate German, but that’s a story for another post.
The next stop, in September 1991, was to be Leningrad on a British Council scholarship for my “archival year”.
First I’d planned a two or three weeks turnaround in the UK.
The abortive coup launches my media “career” in Welsh
I awoke on 19 August 1991, my first day back in England, to the news that a coup d’état was underway in the Soviet Union. In a last roll of the dice, Soviet hard-lines staged a putsch, seizing power and arresting Mikhail Gorbachev at his dacha in the Crimea.
It briefly looked as if the game was up not only for Soviet reforms, but also for my hopes of a year working in the archives in Leningrad.
It was at this point that my career as a media pundit took off, in Welsh 😉 Well, yes, that’s an exaggeration, but somehow BBC Radio Cymru got my number and I started doing commentary on events in Russia.
I continued during the year and then when I was an academic back in Wales.
The coup collapsed on 22 August and on 1st September, I flew out to Leningrad according to plan. I was one of the last to go on the old British Council/Soviet exchange programme that had been set up during Khrushtsev’s thaw.
A year in the USSR….Erm, make that the Russian Federation
That year I was mainly working in the Central State Historical Archive in Leningrad. Until the late 2000s, the archive was in the Senat-Synod building on the banks of the Neva, next to Catherine the Great’s famous Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great (the building is now the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation).
I was mainly reading files from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. They were written in copperplate script, which really wasn’t too difficult once you got used to it. Then, in 1906, the Ministry got typewriters 🙂
I also worked in the National Library on Nevsky Prospekt, where I was mainly looking at newspapers from the 1860s to 1917.
I also spent some time in the Leningrad provincial archive. The last month – with the Olympics in full swing in Barcelona – I flew south-west for a month in the provincial archive in Tambov.
In these local archives, my main sources were hand written village court records from the period 1861 to 1917. These were pretty difficult to decipher….even for the Russian archivists. By the end of the year, I was better at it than they were.
The year was extremely eventful in Russian history and the history of the other former Soviet republics. At the end of 1991 there was a vote for independence in “the Ukraine”, as we then called it. (I still think it should be called “Ukrainia” in English if we’re going to drop the article, as in “the Argentine”/”Argentina” but I suppose Ukraine does rhyme with cheerfully un-articles Bahrain.)
In December the Soviet Union was formally dissolved. In early 1992 prices were freed as part of the Gaidar government’s “shock therapy” economic reforms. It was tense and difficult time for Russians.
In retrospect, perhaps I should have ditched my studies and just gone around with a camera and tape recorder, recording the rapid changes that were taking place and people’s perspectives on them.
Making more Russian friends and travelling to Moldova and Crimea
After a couple of abortive (though story-rich) starts with accommodation, I finally ended up living in the Academy of Sciences Hall of Residence in the north of the city, where I was exposed to a lot of, erm, colloquial Russian.
In spring 1992, one of my friends from the hall of residence invited me to travel down to his home town of Kishinev. The sleeper train snaked down through Belarus and through the self-proclaimed Prednestrovia Republic, where fighting was taking place (I didn’t see anything, but we weren’t allowed to get out at Tiraspol).
From Kishinev we went on to Odessa and Crimea.
I was speaking only Russian at the accommodation and on such trips. I was also only using Russian with the archivists and academic historians. I was speaking quite a lot of English and some German too with fellow foreign students (ten Americans and a German).
To Finland and then Heidelberg
On 1 September 1992, a year to the day after my arrival, I left Russia by train for Helsinki, where I’d secured a Finnish Ministry of Education scholarship to work in the Slavonic collection of Helsinki University Library and at the Renvall Institute.
In summer 1993 I moved on again, this time to Heidelberg. My other supervisor, Professor Löwe, had just got the chair in Russian history there and had offered me a part-time post for a year as a research assistant.
I stayed for two and a half years, working as a waiter and English teacher once the research job came to an end. All the time, I was analysing my archival notes and other materials and writing up my thesis.
Teaching Russian history (in Welsh) and more research trips to Russia
I’d handed in my thesis in summer 1996, though I wasn’t examined in March 1996. In January that year, I’d left Heidelberg to become a Welsh-medium history lecturer in the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
As well as lecturing and tutoring on Russian, Soviet and wider history through the medium of Welsh, I was, of course, also expected to continue research and to publish.
My ongoing research provided a reason to returned to Russia and I made three or four such trips during 1996 to 1998, each time for a month or two. I would always go back to the archives and libraries of St Petersburg and, during summer 1997, I also worked in Samara and Tambov.
These trips provided more chance to use my Russian.
Living in Moscow as an international finance lawyer
In August 2000, I chucked my dream job in Aberystwyth to train as a lawyer.
When I chose to be a lawyer it was very much to continue my engagement with Russian culture, but to engage in a different way.
The immediate transition period 2000 to 2004 turned out to be the least active period in my Russian. I was busy at law school and then as a trainee solicitor, and still doing some writing and attending conferences in Russian history on the side.
Once you get to a solid upper-intermediate level with a language, though, my experience is it doesn’t go away. Yes, you may go a little rusty, but it all comes back remarkably rapidly with use.
In September 2004, eight years after my last visit, I returned to Russia. This time, to work in Moscow as an international lawyer. There I stayed until April 2009.
I didn’t actually need Russian for my legal work in the law firm and most of my ex-pat colleagues didn’t speak it.
I chose to speak just Russian with the support staff, though, and used the language quite a lot informally with lawyer colleagues (so long as I could win the battle of wills and stop them switching to English).
An active social life on the upper intermediate plateau
My social life was overwhelmingly in Russian.
None of my old academic Russian-speaking friends were based in Moscow, but I was still in touch with them and paid visits to Kiev, Kishinev and St Petersburg to catch up.
I met a lot of new friends in Moscow, too. With them, I had a very active social life, tempered only by the exhausting long hours at the law firm (working most evenings till midnight, occasionally all through the night and more but, luckily, only three or four weekends a year).
There were also new renewed opportunities to travel round Russia. I made trips to Vladimir, Suzdal’, Tver, Nizhnii Novgorod and Kazan’. I still haven’t been to Siberia, though.
I also went to the cinema and theatre quite often, watched a certain amount of television and listened to lots of Russian radio.
My Russian was consolidating all the time but on something of an upper-intermediate plateau.
Force of circumstances (long days spent in front of a screen reading and writing in English) meant that I wasn’t reading much Russian for leisure or writing at all. I certainly didn’t want to spend my precious free time in active study. Nor was I getting any corrective feedback on my spoken Russian.
Back in the UK and working on my Russian again
My time in Russia came to an abrupt and unexpected end in early 2009 when my mum deteriorated and died after a late cancer diagnosis. I decided to take a break from the law and return to the UK.
My Russian stayed as it was, until 2015-6, when I started actively studying again (for the first time since the mid 1990s). I started taking one-to-one lessons and did summer night class in London.
I began to use exams as a motivational goal and to provide an objective yardstick, however imperfect. In summer 2015 I did the TRKI/Test of Russian as a Foreign Language upper intermediate (B2) second certificate and then the advanced (C1) TRKI third certificate.
Since then, I’ve continued to engage with the language. I’m not having lessons at the moment.
I’m not really speaking much at all either and I’m not writing at all again. Those are things I need to sort out yet again. When the time is right, a new phase will begin.
In the meantime, I am reading more than ever and still listen to the radio a lot and watch Russian drama, comedy and follow Russian YouTubers.
It’s nine years since I was last in Russia. That’s the longest gap since I ventured to the Soviet Union for the very first time back in 1990. A return to Russia, or another Russian speaking land, is long overdue and I hope to remedy this, even if only for a holiday, in 2019.
As with French and Welsh, learning Russian has been an on-off project for me…but one that has become a serious, long-term strand in my life. It’s opened me to all manner of life-enriching and perspective-widening experiences and there’s still so much more to learn and discover.
I’ve written quite a bit about Russian on the site in the past, but there’ll be more to come for learners of all levels. Are you learning Russian or thinking of doing so? Let me know in the comments below how your experiences have gone so far (or drop me an email with your comments or questions – address under the “About” tab). Do you already see parallels with mine or things that have been (or you plan to make) completely different for you?