Great, Powerful, Cynical: Why Americans Love Russian Language

PHOTO by Afisha.Daily
Three students from United States talk about phonetic roughness of the Russian language, the horror of vinaigrette and omnipresent Mr. Putin

Megan Bott

20 years old, from New Orleans, Louisiana

Am 1

“As I read most of Dostoyevsky in translation, I decided to learn the language and try to read in its original form. Basically, it’s Dostoyevsky who pushed me towards Russian. Probably, the 'Idiot' is the most important book for me. Until recently, when I opened this novel in Russian, I saw that the main character's name was Myshkin. It derived from the word “mouse”. In translation which I read, Prince Myshkin was actually Prince Mushkin.

“I visited Dostoyevskaya metro station where the interior is decorated with scenes from the writer’s novels. It was interesting to guess who is portrayed on the walls of a station. I lenjoyed one illustration from ‘Crime and Punishment’ episode, when Sonya reads the Gospel to Raskolnikov.

“It was difficult to deal with cases at first, but then I realised that this problem is easily solved with practice: when you speak and listen more, it is somehow intuitively clear where the case is. Although, I still make a million mistakes. The most ridiculous one – I confuse the words ‘was’ (был, byl) and ‘killed’ (убил, ubil). Russian from the outside seems very harsh, as if you are always being rude to each other. Before my trip to Russia, I expected that every Russian is like that – severe and cold.

Dostoyevskaya Station of the Moscow Metro

“It’s funny, because when I was in Moscow, I realised that people are very friendly and sympathetic. When I took my first ride on the metro, I was very surprised that everyone was so silent – people who sit together do not pay attention to each other. But, when people find out that I’m from US, they begin to communicate with great enthusiasm – “Oh, an American!” – and start asking questions.

“In everyday life, in fact, there are not so many cultural differences between Americans and Russians except some minor ones: for instance, there is a separate teapot for tea – we do not have such teapot. And, a tea we drink is usually very cold and sweet like lemonade. I also saw how Russian vinaigrette is made. I was shocked to see all these sliced ingredients to go into one bowl and mixing together! The same evening I told my friend about it – I just couldn’t keep silent.”

Teapots mentioned by Megan

Farah Noah

18 years old, originally from Jordan. Studied in Canada, now lives in Colorado


“In college, we had a block system: we study only one subject for about three months and then we choose the next one. In my freshman year, I had to choose something and I joined the Russian group. At that time, my acquaintance with something Russian was limited to a couple of episodes: while I was living in Jordan, we had familiar Circassians who spoke Russian and I already have exposed myself to ‘Lolita’ by Nabokov. I loved it.

“Russian language is interesting in many ways, because it is the language of great writers and artists. It seems that I visited more museums in Moscow than in my whole life!

“The most memorable masterpieces were Malevich in MMOMA and Serov at the Tretyakov Gallery (in particular, his Korovin portrait). I love Gogol and admire Tolstoy, although, to be honest, I haven't read any of his works yet. We went to Krasnaya Polyana (a resort in Sochi, Krasnodar region), and I just fell in love with this place.

A scene from "Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession," a Soviet comic science fiction film based on a novel by Mikhail Bulgakov. The film tells a story about an engineer who accidentally sends Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible to Moscow of the 1970s

“In Colorado, we did a lot of interesting things in Russian classes: singing songs (my favorite is ‘Ah, it's not an evening yet’), watching movies like ‘The Irony of Fate’ and ‘Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession.’ Those are really great films, although here in Moscow, many were surprised when I praised these films: it is thought that people who haven't lived in the Soviet Union will never understand its plots.

“For most of my friends, Russia is some kind of a mythical space, something that it is not real. We constantly hear about Russia, practically every day, but it seems that all we know is Communism and Putin. When I came here, I realised that in general, we are not so far away with this mentality: there are still many things left since the communism days, and Putin is really everywhere. But, there are many other different aspects that I had no idea about. Everybody is constantly rushing somewhere. You see so many couples everywhere that it catches your eye. And by the way, they serve a very good coffee in Moscow, or I was just lucky enough to find the right places. It's surprising how Russian restaurants and cafes are stuffed with American paraphernalia – I did not expect this at all.”

Jessie Dylan

19 years old, from Annapolis, Maryland


“I am a musician striving for fame and fortune but doing nothing for it. In college, my major is philosophy, and I chose Russian because I like Russian culture and history – all these tsars, serfs and endless wars.

“The grammatical structure of Russian is similar to English – at least I see patterns which are common to most European languages. But, the way we express our thoughts is very different. In English, deliberate rule violation plays a huge role, and articles help us to emphasise exactly what we want to say. On the other hand, in Russian it seems that everything is constructed on words manipulation; on complex combinations that give rise to many meanings.

“I like the intricacies of the Russian language: it sounds like poetry in everyday speech. I learned some Russian swear words and they sound very expressive, even though I don't understand their meaning. Some expressions are simply difficult to pronounce, which makes them even stronger.

“I went to several Moscow bars and pubs – I can't say anything special about it. I hated the fact that when you ask for water, they bring you a bottle of mineral water from the menu and you have to pay for it. Russian guys are like many of my friends in America. I was treated to vodka and pickled tomatoes, we talked about music a lot. Our sense of humor has successfully coincided, so I don't feel like an alien here.”