With more than 250 million speakers on this planet (and in space), Russian is the sixth most spoken language worldwide, the most spoken in Europe, and the second most used language on the Internet. Learning it may be very useful for communication not only in the Russian Federation (with a population of more than 140 million), but also in the former soviet spheres of influence in Europe and Asia, from Tallinn to Belgrade and from Warsaw to Astana. Learning Russian gives access to a fabulous literature, a very active scientific community, and an emerging economy expanding its presence on the international stage.
And impresses. But what do we actually know about this language, besides communist reminiscences and espionage associations? We learn it is Slavic (its closest relatives being Ukrainian and Belarusian, and having significant lexical similarities with Bulgarian), uses the Cyrillic alphabet, and is said to be singularly hard. For many foreigners, Winston Churchill’s famous description of Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” could also apply to its language. It has been called a matrioshka language, as it forms its words by wrapping prefixes and suffixes around a small solid core. But this is not the only trial for learners, who first have to acquire a seemingly exotic alphabet, and then often agonize over Russian pronunciation, including tricky consonant clusters, stress placement, and particularly over grammar, with its variety of noun endings, a full six-case system, and two verb aspects. However, although it seems discouragingly impenetrable at first, once you start learning Russian you will find countless reasons to love it. Here are some of ours:
First of all, we love Russian because it is the means of expression of a great literature, the language of Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Bulgakov, Turgenev, Solzhenitsyn, and many more. Even Nabokov, who wrote his most famous novels in English, felt the need to translate himself into Russian two of his works: Speak, Memory (which he felt was imperfect in the original version, as the writer had to explain many things that were well-known to Russians) and Lolita (of which he imagined that “every paragraph, pock-marked as it is with pitfalls, could lend itself to hideous mistranslation. In the hands of a harmful drudge, the Russian version of Lolita would be entirely degraded and botched by vulgar paraphrases or blunders”, so he decided to translate the novel himself). The founder of modern Russian literature is considered to be Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837), whose birthday is celebrated as UN Russian Language Day, and who not only wrote about life as it was known, which was unusual at the time, but also wrote in Russian as spoken by the people rather than in the more formal language of most of his fellow-authors. He revolutionized Russian literature by rejecting archaic grammar and vocabulary and adopting day-to-day Russian in his writings, which pose little difficulty nowadays, even to younger readers, as relatively few words have become obsolete or changed meaning since his time. Many expressions used by Pushkin and other 19th century writers like Lermontov, Gogol or Griboyedov are frequently found as sayings or proverbs in modern colloquial speech. Pushkin managed to combine the structures of the formal style with Gallicisms as used by the upper class and contemporary spoken colloquial Russian, while employing a variety of calques, double meanings and parody. Such a complex style renders translation, and capturing its original beauty, highly difficult. Yevgeny Onegin, his best-known work, has been translated into English more than ten times, but no version is acknowledged as managing to render the lyrical essence of Russian.
Russian also seems to be an inexhaustible source of “untranslatable” words, i.e. terms whose meaning cannot be rendered by one word in English, the most famous of which is definitely тоска (toska). As beautifully defined by the same Vladimir Nabokov, “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.” Other charming untranslatable words are однолюб (odnoliub), referring to a person who only has one love in their life, and почемучка (pochemuchka), a term of endearment used to designate someone, usually a child, who asks a lot of questions. And since, stereotypically or not, Russians are notorious for their vast knowledge of drinking, there are several imaginative alcohol-related untranslatable words, including сушняк (sushnyak), the Russian name for “that really dry feeling you get in your throat when you wake up after a night of drinking”, and недоперепил (nedoperepil), meaning under-over-drunk, or someone who “drank more than he or she should have, but less than he or she could have (or wanted to)”. Words like пропить (propit’), translated as ‘to squander on drink’ or ‘to drink away’, illustrate the amazing flexibility and synthesis capacity of this language: in just two words, propil kvartiru, a Russian speaker can say that somebody sold their flat and spent all the money on alcohol.
On a related note, we tend to associate Russians with vodka, which is perhaps the most popular Russian word worldwide. What few people know is that vodka (водка) is a diminutive of voda, which means ‘water’, suggesting that consumption thereof is like drinking light or beloved water. However, few Russians would ever admit that the origins of the drink itself may actually be Polish. What is clear is that the first written mention of the word was in a 1405 court document from the Palatinate of Sandomierz in Poland. At the time, wódka designated chemical compounds such as medicines and cosmetics’ cleansers, whereas the beverage we call vodka was named gorzałka (from Old Polish gorzeć ‘to burn’). The earliest known Cyrillic writing of the word was produced in 1533, referring to a medicinal drink that merchants brought to Russia from Poland. The first aqua vitae (‘water of life’) had been introduced in Russia by Genoese ambassadors, who presented it to Grand Duke Dmitry Donskov in Moscow. Obtained from the distillation of grape must, the liquid was thought to be a spirit of wine, a belief which engendered its name in several European languages (e.g., English spirits, Russian спирт, Romanian spirt). The recipe of the first Russian vodka, however, is said to have been created around 1430 by a monk called Isidore from Chudov Monastery inside the Moscow Kremlin. Having special knowledge and distillation devices, he invented a higher quality alcoholic beverage, which was originally known as ‘bread wine’. Until the era of industrial production, it was produced exclusively in the Grand Duchy of Moscow, hence its close association to Russia’s capital.
Russian is famous for its exceptionally challenging grammar, which turns foreign learners into modern epitomes of Sisyphus. By way of proof, two of the best known grammar quirks of this language involve the simplest verbs, ‘to have’ and ‘to be’, whose presence seems mandatory to speakers of languages like English or Romanian. And yet it is not. Although there is a Russian counterpart for ‘to have’, иметь (imet’), it is rarely used to express possession. Instead, Russians use the genitive case for the possessor, introduced by the preposition y (u), plus an optional есть (yest’) (‘is/exists’), followed by the possessed object in the nominative. Thus, instead of saying ‘I have a key’ in Russian, one literally says ‘At me is key’: У меня есть ключ. As for ‘to be’, which is быть (byt’), it is omitted in the present tense: Я учитель, literally ‘I tutor’, translates as ‘I am a tutor’ in English. And if you noticed there is no a in the literal translations above, you have just discovered another essential absence of Russian: it does not make use of definite or indefinite articles. For instance, the sentence Дерево упало на комиссара (literally ‘tree fell on commissar’) has four possible context-dependent translations in English: ‘The tree fell on the commissar’ / ‘A tree fell on the commissar’ / ‘The tree fell on a commissar’ / ‘A tree fell on a commissar’. However, the implicit nuance of Russian nouns is definiteness or specificity, rendered by the in English. Thus, У кого газета? (literally ‘who has newspaper’) will translate as ‘Who has the newspaper?’. To convey the indefiniteness of English ‘Who has a newspaper?’, the same existence verb есть has to be introduced: У кого есть газета?
We also love the Russian language because, following the Soviet and Russian substantial contribution to the space era, it is inextricably linked to space exploration and feats. Even if you have never heard Russian spoken before, you must know the meaning of cosmonaut, sputnik or Mir, all of which are Russian in origin. In most languages, a cosmonaut is a Russian astronaut, and the term is preferred in Russian as well. For instance, Yuri Gagarin, the first human to journey into outer space in 1961, is a космонавт, whereas Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon in 1969, is an астронавт. Before Gagarin’s exploit, the Soviets were the first to send into orbit an artificial Earth satellite, called Sputnik 1, in 1957, although it was Sputnik 2 which was more famous, as it carried Laika, the first living creature to orbit the Earth. In English, the Russian word for ‘satellite’, спутник (sputnik), became a byword for many unmanned objects launched by the Soviets during the space race. It literally means ‘fellow traveller’, and consists of s- (‘with’), –put- (‘path’ or ‘way’) and the suffix –nik, which had already been borrowed in English to form words designating a person associated with a specific thing or quality, including realestatenick and allrightnick. It was the success of Sputnik which popularized the suffix, with produce such as peacenik, refusenik, and even Muttnik to refer to Laika’s carrier. Mir, the name of the first consistently inhabited long-term research station in outer space, means both ‘peace’ and ‘world’ in Russian. A perfect choice for the space station that welcomed astronauts from all over the world during its orbit time (1986-2001) and turned Russian into the language of space. Even nowadays, although the working language of the International Space Station is English, astronauts need to learn Russian, because it is a Russian ship, Soyuz, which delivers them to the ISS. The commander of Soyuz is always Russian and the Mission Control Center gives its commands in Russian, so the astronaut in the left seat, the flight engineer who has to duplicate all the commander’s operations and communicate with the Center for the six hours of the ascent, has to speak this language at a level no lower than Intermediate High. Space tourists also need a basic level of Russian, and train for six months before take-off.
(to be continued)