Imagine moving to Russia and striking up a conversation on the street with a random stranger.
Would you fumble for words?
Would you get nervous about your grammar?
Would you be able to understand everything the other person is saying?
Now, imagine doing that times a thousand!
Meet Josh, a man who bravely spent years striking up conversations in Russian with new people.
Josh and I both took the same Beginning Russian class at the University of Alaska. After that, we kept in touch. During his time abroad, he would send funny stories about his experiences in Russia and new jokes he had learned. He even sent me what has turned out to be one of my favorite pictures of all time…
Бабушкин запас brings a whole new level of meaning to “reading in the bathroom”, haha! :p
Although Josh has been back in the US for a while now, he hasn’t forgotten Russian. Fortunately, living in Alaska presents plenty of opportunities for being around Russian speakers. (Did you know that one small Alaskan city has the highest percentage of Ukrainian people in the United States?)
Read on to find out how Josh learned Russian!
What’s currently your favorite word in Russian?
It’s hard to choose one favorite, so I am going to give a couple:
You probably expected унитаз (toilet), my favorite word when I first started learning in college. I was young and a boy.
A long-time favorite word of mine is подбочениться – to put one’s hands on one’s hips. There is just something fun about the way it sounds and what it means. I’m not sure I have ever used it though.
I also like шишка because it is a pinecone and slang for a big shot.
One of my favorite phrases is бить баклуши, sort of a waste time or do nothing kind of phrase.
Do you use Russian for work, for play, or for something else?
I have spoken with people in Russian at work as recently as last week, however I don’t use it for work right now. I mostly use it now passively, either reading things online, or listening to what people are saying around me. Recent examples of where I have actually needed to speak would be translating for a recent immigrant from Ukraine at the dump, and listening to a husband and wife talk about what they were looking at during my garage sale this weekend.
What first drew you to the Russian language?
It’s been a long time, but if I remember right I was looking at a map my senior year in high school and saw the vastness of Russia and realized how little I knew about it and how I wanted to go there. Like a few other important decisions in my life, I followed my gut and never really questioned it.
Looking back, when I was learning geography in school the Soviet Union had already collapsed and the areas were still being subdivided. The maps we used in school we had to draw in country boundaries for all of eastern Europe because our books weren’t updated yet. The Balkans wars were also going on and on my doorstep when I lived in Italy. Russia itself was then rarely spoken of.
Since Alaska is tied with Russia both historically and currently (recent immigration to communities like Delta Junction), do you think there’s anything special about learning Russian in Alaska?
This is hard to answer and my response is too long.
Learning Russian in Alaska is different, and will give you a different perspective on Russians compared to if you went to Russia. That being said, being able to speak Russian is helpful in Alaska because of the number of immigrants. Please forgive me if anyone from these communities reads this and is offended. This is also just my experience, and many people may have other experiences.
I want to start off by stating that there are good people everywhere, and similarly you get a couple of rotten apples even in the best of neighborhoods. There are a few different large Russian communities in Alaska, and the two that I have any reasonable level exposure to is the one in Delta Junction where my parents live and the one in the Valley where I live (though I am moving).
First of all, many of the “Russian” community are Ukrainian or from another Slavic country. Some of these places have accents that they bring with them that may not be what you are used to hearing in Russia. Also, some of the groups, like the old believers speak almost a creole now since they left Russia a long time ago and speak mostly amongst themselves.
Most of the Russians I have interacted with in Alaska differ quite a bit from what I experienced when I lived in Russia in that most people in Russia I met had only one to two children, and if they went to church, it was far and away predominantly Russian Orthodox or Islam. I did meet many people of other beliefs, or lack thereof, but probably 95% of the people I spoke with were either Russian Orthodox, Muslim, or Atheist. In Alaska, most of the people I meet are protestant and have large families. It is a lot more common here as well to see the Russian women who will always wear a платок and a dress, whereas I could expect that from the бабушки, I didn’t really see that amongst the general population.
I will start with the valley because it is the more favorable example. The Russian community here I feel is fairly integrated. Most of them learn English quickly and it seems like they all find jobs right away and become part of the community. Half of my neighborhood is Russian, and they are great. They are still fairly tight knit and it seems like most go to church together (my neighbor is one of the pastors at a Russian congregation). Although I do hear some complaints now and again about them from people, most of it is from people who complain about everything. By and large, twenty years from now you won’t even notice there was a large group of immigrants. Although I speak Russian, most prefer to speak in English with me.
My experience in Delta Junction is more mixed. There are many great families there who are assets to the community and are well integrated and work hard. Unfortunately, Delta is a bit more remote and a much smaller community overall and there are many families there that don’t seem to want to integrate into the community, or want the community to change around them. Many of them don’t seem to learn English as quickly or at all. There is more of a divide between the Russian/Ukrainians and everyone else. Also some of the more high profile crime has been committed by a couple Russian families there (breaking into the school and stealing the computers and vandalizing it, robbing local business and homes and burning them down afterwards to try destroy evidence, stealing mail, etc.). I don’t live there, but I visit often. There may be many things that I just don’t see as well.
Another group I run into across the state now and again are the Old Believers. They are a distinct separate group in the Russian community, and don’t really interact much with the more recent immigrants from Russia who I have heard them call not Russians, but “Soviets.” Aside from some longstanding communities, many of the Old Believers fled the Soviet Union through China or went to Mexico or Canada before the US and don’t hold high opinions of people who remained in the country their grandparents had to flee. They are a lot harder to communicate with in general in Russian for me.
I have noticed that students and professionals who moved to the US for work or school that I interact with are the most like the Russians I knew in Russia.
So long answer, but in general we tend to group everyone here as “Russians”, but really I would subdivide them into the old believers, the ones who came over with churches, and the professionals/students. I hope I answered the question.
Is there anything that you still really struggle with, like grammar or pronunciation? Do you have a plan of attack for improving your skills?
The only thing that I knowingly struggle with is my accent.
When I lived in Russia my vocabulary was large enough I was reading the dictionary and thesaurus to find new words. I have since forgotten many of them, but in the end I found knowing words that Russians themselves didn’t use or know wasn’t really helpful unless I was reading old books. I hit the grammar really hard at the beginning and worked on that daily and I think I got to a happy place with it.
It’s been 10 years since I returned from Russia, so my accent has only gotten worse and I am out of practice speaking out loud. When I do work on it, I mostly just read out loud to get my tongue back in the motions. I find reading out loud is one of the best things you can do in general to get back to speed. It is like a compound exercise, in that you are reviewing vocabulary, the grammar is built in, and you are working on pronunciation. I plan to start doing that again and see how much I have forgotten.
Can you tell us more about what it was like to live in a Russian-speaking country as a missionary? What surprised you? What confused you? Are there things you miss about it even now?
What was it like to live in Russia? I was a missionary and I lived in the Urals and Western Siberia in Chelyabinsk, Ufa, Yekaterinburg, Surgut, and Tyumen. Each of these cities were quite different, and none are really the kind you go to if you are vacationing in Russia, but I loved them. That’s like saying you want to go to America and see what Detroit and Pittsburgh are like. These are mostly factory cities with big metal refining plants.
I first lived in Chelyabinsk. I lived in the Tractor Factory neighborhood (ЧТЗ) in an apartment built by German POWs. Being a missionary is quite different from how someone else would experience the country, in that I spent all day every day talking to people. We didn’t take holidays or weekends, and only had half a day once a week to go and do things or buy groceries, and the activities we do are limited.
I spent a fair amount of time explaining that I don’t drink vodka, and that although I was a young single guy in Russia, I wasn’t interested in bringing a beautiful Russian girl home with me. If I were to go back for work or vacation, I would get to experience a different part of the culture. I had lived in other countries before, but the Urals are not like Moscow and St. Petersburg which are more European, and it felt like going back in a time machine.
I was surprised by a lot of the little things like people sweeping streets with bundles of sticks. I miss the people and my friends more than anything else. Other things to mention, would be the public transportation there was really good and some of the little kiosks on the street for things like ice cream, since I really like пломбир. Foodwise I liked the chocolate, пломбир, the juice, fresh bread, хурма, and the little chocolate covered cheese cakes.
If someone wanted to improve their Russian quickly and only had 15 minutes a day, what would you advise them to do?
Well aside from reading Street Russian, I would find something to read in Russian, read it out loud and look up any words or grammar you are not familiar with. This could be a novel, the news, a magazine, or something else. Reading out loud you practice pronunciation while getting used to saying things with the correct grammar and it builds vocabulary in the way the words are actually used, not just a dictionary.
I used to study Russian an hour every morning, then practice what I learned out on the street with people. During this time I tried a lot of different methods. I read grammar books, an English-Russian dictionary twice.
If you are looking for good books, my recommendations are as follows:
- For grammar “Modern Russian” by Derek Offord. He has another one called “Using Russian” as well, but if you had to buy one, “Modern Russian” is fantastic. I haven’t fully broken in my copy of “Using Russian.”
- For dictionaries, I will admit that Oxford does publish probably the most comprehensive ones, but my favorite desk dictionary is the one by Kenneth Katzner. I like the layout, word selection, and that it is geared towards Americans.
- For pocket dictionaries, I don’t own this one, but the Collin’s is best. I used a fat little Oxford pocket dictionary but I have since seen the Collin’s dictionary and liked it a lot more. I now buy theirs in other languages.
I highly recommend learning Russian vocabulary through word building. Rather than learning a bunch of words individually, you learn the roots and prefixes/suffixes and get a whole family of related words.
I have George Patrick’s “Roots of the Russian Language” and I like it overall, though I bought it after I returned to America and knew most of the words already. One note about it, it also lists the roots with the old alphabet, so it is helpful to be familiar with those couple of extra letters as well, though not critical.
There are also a lot of videos on youtube you can watch. My daughter likes “Маша и Медведь” for example.
I’m very grateful to Josh for agreeing to do this interview. Often, people simply associate LDS mission work in Russia with scary stories like The Saratov Approach or beat-you-over-the-head-until-you-convert tactics. But I know that Josh has always had a passion for Russian language / culture / people since those early days of Russian 101, way before he was sending funny stories from an apartment in Chelyabinsk.
Спасибо большое, Джош!!! 🙂
PS: Years ago, I read a very interesting book- Harvest: Memoir of a Mormon Missionary– about another young man who spent time in Russia. If you have Kindle Unlimited, you can read this book for free. It’s fascinating!