Which of the following would you like to do someday:
- teach English in a tiny arctic town?
- assist at a remote science station in Siberia?
- travel the taiga with reindeer herders?
If any (or all!) of those adventures appeal to you, you’ll definitely enjoy this interview. Meet Odin, an Alaskan grad student with a knack for finding unusual opportunities to visit Russia. Odin is another veteran of the Alaska-Yakutsk university exchange program and also one of my best friends on the planet. The photos in this post are all from his travels within Russia.
Давайте познакомимся с Одином!
Odin, what’s currently your favorite word in Russian?
Hmm, it’s tough to say, there are so many cool words! Even some day-to-day words I rather like the sound of, like раковина, сковород, калокончик. I love the exclamation/curse бляха-муха—actually there are a lot of cool curse words, but I won’t go into them here!
I hate the word учреждение—so difficult to pronounce!
Do you use Russian for work, for play, or for something else?
Sadly, the past year or two I’d have to say none of the above! There’s only one person I know with whom I regularly use Russian, and lately I’ve noticed that my skills have gotten rather rusty. I don’t think it would take too much to get them back up to speed, though—just more practice.
Over the years I’ve used Russian for a variety of purposes. I’ve used it in my travels to Russia, which have been both educational and recreational. I once also got a gig going over to Russia for scientific work. I don’t have a background in science, but they sent me because I knew Russian.
I’m currently a graduate student in cultural anthropology, and there’s a language proficiency requirement as part of the program. It’s useful that I already have enough knowledge of Russian to meet this requirement.
How long have you been studying Russian? What first attracted you to the language?
I began studying Russian in fall, 2003—where Katherine and I met! All in all I’d say I studied it for four or five years at university. I was drawn to it because as a lifelong Alaskan, it seemed pretty relevant. After all, I grew up being able to look out my living room window and see Russia off in the distance!
I wanted to learn a foreign language, and I think I’ve always been interested in people and cultures of the Far North. So at the time I decided to begin studying Russian I didn’t know all that much about Russian people or culture, but it just seemed sort of natural.
Have you ever had your level of Russian tested?
I once took an online test, but I can’t remember what my score was. I think it was pretty good, but not at the level of full-blown fluency.
Is there anything that you really struggle with, like grammar or pronunciation? Do you have a plan of attack for improving your skills?
Pronunciation can sometimes be a challenge for me, especially with things like the soft R’s (again, учреждение!). Another challenge has been vocabulary: there are still quite a few words I don’t know. The last time I was in Russia I started making lists of words I’d run across in reading that I didn’t know, and was able to learn few of them that way. Right now, I think I need a plan of attack to get back into the practice of using Russian regularly. Even making a point to read a book or two in Russian would be a start.
Can you describe some of your travels in Russia? Which memories really stand out?
I’ve been to Russia three different times, in 2006-2007, 2010, and 2013.
2006-2007 was when Katherine and I both went on exchange over to Yakutsk. After she went back to Alaska I worked teaching English for several months in the small arctic town of Verkhoyansk. During that trip I also had the opportunity for quite a bit of extracurricular travel—I visited Irkutsk (together with Katherine), Vladivostok, Kamchatka, Lake Baikal, Kazan’ and St. Petersburg. All told, I was in Russia for about 9 ½ months that trip. Later that summer I traveled in Scandinavia for six weeks and then met up with Katherine and her husband in Crimea (it was part of Ukraine at that time).
My second trip, in 2010, was a gig I had for an ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who studies methane and permafrost. For that trip I traveled to Cherskii, on the remote Kolyma River, together with a colleague who didn’t speak any Russian but had a scientific background. There, a Russian scientist runs a science station together with his wife and son. We stayed with them for a month, and then I stayed in Yakutsk for another month on my own.
My third trip was in 2013, when I traveled to Tuva Republic (South Siberia) with my friend Ayanka who’s native to that region. We stayed among the reindeer herders in that region, and I also had the chance to do some extracurricular travel—for instance, visiting Katherine and Denis in Kharkov. I later wrote about that trip: Siberian adventures, On the road in the Tuva Republic, Life among the reindeer herders.
A lot of the memories that really stand out are of the hospitality and kindness of strangers that I met along the way. In the first trip we took together, I was rather naïve and reckless. I remember running into a complete stranger in Neryungri, Sakha Republic. He asked, “do you want to come back to my apartment and drink some vodka?” I said, sure, and accompanied him back. Nothing bad came of it, but I did get into a bit of trouble on some other occasions from doing things like this. My first trip I was young and didn’t know how to drink very well, so I got into some trouble because of that.
I would regularly meet kind and interesting people on the train– elders who would feed me food from their gardens, muzhiki who wanted me to drink some vodka with them.
I’ve also been impressed by the diversity of different peoples and cultures throughout Russia. In my travels, I’ve gotten to know ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Sakha, Even, Tuvan, Yukaghir, Chukchi people, among other ethnic groups.
Odin, I remember you taking Yakut language lessons during our study abroad. How would you describe that language and culture? Have you studied any other languages used in Russia?
Yes! I studied Yakut, also called Sakha, for one semester. The language is in the Turkic language family, along with a variety of languages across central Asia and even down into the Middle East—Turkish, Uzbek, Tatar, Kazakh, Tuvan, etc. The Sakha people (and their neighbors, the Dolgans) are at the extreme northeastern fringe of the Turkic languages. Sakha people are traditionally horse and cattle herders, and many of them still live in small towns or villages and have livestock. However, a lot of modern Sakha people also live in Yakutsk, a city of about 300,000, which is their cultural center. In Yakutsk, you can find Sakha language newspapers, pop music, performing arts and all sorts of modern culture. Icons of Sakha culture, like the choroon—a particular style of cup that they use for drinking kymys (fermented mare’s milk, a traditional drink throughout central Asia) are everywhere.
I’ve never studied any other languages used in Russia. When I was in Tuva Republic I tried to pick up a few words and phrases of Tuvan. Like Sakha, Tuvan is a Turkic language. I’m currently taking Yup’ik, an Alaska Native Language. It has several hundred words that were borrowed from Russian from the days when the Russians were in Alaska—things like maslaaq (butter), sakhalaq (sugar), stuluuq (table), yasik (box), sapogiit (boots).
If someone wanted to improve their Russian quickly and only had 15 minutes a day, what would you advise them to do?
I guess it depends on what level they were starting out at. Reading things like newspapers is always good. One of the main mistakes I think people make in learning languages is when they’re too shy to use them. It seems like being enthusiastic about speaking Russian—even if it means making a lot of mistakes—is very important.