It occurred to me just the other day that I’ve wasted eight years of my life learning to speak Russian. Not that there’s anything wrong with learning Russian, especially if you aren’t Russian by birth and can’t already speak it by default. Russian is a beautiful language closely related to my own native tongue. It’s just that, a few nights ago when I sat in front of my TV mesmerized by a Russian movie about life on the vast steppes of that fantastic country, I realized with a shock that without proper subtitles I could understand nothing of the plot or dialogue, despite the many years I spent as a diligent student of a language enormously similar to my own.
This isn’t just shocking. Shock is a word lacking strength to describe the state in which I found myself that night. I was appalled, in fact, by the simple fact that I spent a good part of my formative years learning Russian in school (and at home, through the massive amount of homework I was assigned), and that I sat through countless classroom lessons by various teachers whose educational methods I now seriously doubt, all resulting in nothing more than a very limited ability (pitiful, really) to say only “Hello” and “Goodbye” in a language I should have been fluently speaking long ago.
I started learning Russian in the 1st grade. I don’t know who came up with that brilliant educational plan. Our schools basically forced a foreign language (because that is what Russian is to us, despite it being very similar to Serbian) on children barely able to sign their names or write out simple words like “house” or “cat” in their own tongue. I don’t know who that educator was, but I think it’s safe to assume the man was a total idiot.
This method of early learning, a technique I presume could potentially work if applied properly, failed miserably in the case of my entire generation. The early lessons we were put through consisted of little more than forced memorization of short Russian poems, all of which involved the same small boy and his faithful dog. They then moved us on to the Russian Cyrillic, which we actually conquered with relative ease and expediency, having already mastered the basics of our own Serbian Cyrillic. With the exception of a few differences, major though they are, the scripts are practically the same. Once our teachers felt we had managed to achieve a firm grasp of that essential knowledge, we progressed on to the next phase, which involved the mindblowingly repetitive, and therefore incredibly tedious daily task of translating short paragraphs of written text from Russian into Serbian, and vice versa. These brief “translate this” sections in our textbooks consisted of stories starring, again, the same small boy and his dog. To this day I am convinced every young Russian boy grows up seeking adventure in birch groves near his grandparents’ village, accompanied by his trusty Siberian Husky named Laika.
This copy-and-paste method of learning, for that is what it boiled down to after a while (one student translating, 29 others simply making copies and pasting them into their notebooks), ended abruptly in the 8th grade for me. Today, as then, students enrolled in various types of high schools we have here usually move on to English and, in rare cases, French. Russian is decidedly out.
As a result of these poor educational methods we now have a nation suffering a serious cultural identity crisis. We cannot speak Russian, except to (like me) awkwardly salute someone with improperly pronounced greeting “Zdravstvuy.” Yet Serbians have always been major Russophiles. To us Russians have never been just another Slavic people, like Poles or Czechs (sorry Poles and Czechs!), but in fact something more like older brothers. This is not just in a broader sense of feeling that we are all brothers who inhabit this world, but in a narrower view of Russians as our almost-blood relatives from the same, though distant family. This sentiment (overblown, for sure) stems from our shared religion, similarities of our languages, and certain cultural traits one might argue are common to both our nations. When a Serbian says “brother Russian,” he actually means “This man, this Russian, is my kin from whom I have been forcefully separated by geography.” During the 1990s, a time of difficult change for both Russia and Serbia, one often ran into Serbs fond of expressing the romantic idea roughly translated into “Serbs and Russians number 300 million people” (Nas i Rusa 300 miliona), meaning that at a time when we felt threatened by the outside world and needed to seek shelter in the arms of a more powerful “relation,” our comfort rested in the fact that our population of 7 million, joined with superior Russian numbers, totaled a mass of people who would be difficult to push around in Europe. We believed (and hoped) that decisions about Kosovo, for example, couldn’t be summarily made by “others” if this immense brotherhood of Slavs stood firmly together.
Sadly, our warmth towards everything Russian hasn’t always been reciprocated with equal fervor. Older siblings rarely have time for their younger brothers (or sisters). Russia has been our friend on various occasions, though never quite such a staunch supporter of our internal politics or our foreign affairs as we thought we were right to expect. Our relationship, for the most part, has boiled down to a business arrangement in which the stronger nation protects her interests however and whenever that may be needed or prudent, while our concerns sit on the back burner of world politics in which, it seems, Russia has little need to count us into her 143 million (the official population, as it turns out, with or without us is nowhere near 300 million).
Having said this, I am a Russophile to the bone. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than an hour spent listening to a Russian voice droning about some trivial daily event. Everything they say in that beautiful language (so like my own, only more melodic) sounds like a song to me. My bookshelves are stacked with Russian classics. Some are dusty, having long assumed the role of near-sacred objects not to be touched with fingers soiled by other, less worthy works. Others are creased, with broken spines and earmarked pages. One of these is “Anna Karenina,” the book I’ve read every single year for over a decade. I can’t stop myself. It’s the best soap opera ever written.