How to Become (Nearly) Fluent in Russian

Inspired by our recent blog post How to Become (Nearly) Fluent in German, Alfa Fellowship alumnus Tom Hickerson shares his tips for taking one’s Russian skills to the next level.

I get compliments on my Russian all the time. Wait, that’s not true.  I get compliments on my spoken Russian all the time, by other students of Russian. But that counts for something, right? Seriously, though, I tend to clam up about my own Russian skill, even though it’s something I’ve been doing for about the last twenty years or so.

I got bitten by the ‘Russian bug’ in what would become the Bard-Smolny program, which at the time was sending students from Bard College to Leningrad, USSR. A few weeks after I arrived, the city where I landed in August of 1991 became St. Petersburg, but the boarding pass still said Leningrad on it.

Ever since then, I’ve traveled back and forth between the United States and the former Soviet Union, often for work, but not always. My third time back I went with the Alfa Fellowship Program in 2006, which placed me in Moscow for a year and gave me the contacts to find a job shortly thereafter.

Tom with his 1991 cohort on their way to Leningrad.

Nowadays, I spend time in Ukraine, and I’ve been here since 2009.

So, how did I do it? How did I become so good in Russian? I would put it down to three things:

  1. Humility, and a sense of humor: I still make many many mistakes in Russian every day.  People on the street can hear my accent. That business never changes. I accept that. Despite this, I can understand almost everything that I hear, and comprehend everything that I read (Google Translate helps, though). I use that to my advantage, more often than not, and can make myself understood. That’s the goal. I also have the ability to laugh at myself when I make a mistake. I’m sure there’s a blog post out there about all the similarities and differences between Russian and English. I won’t link to it here, but they are many, and they are strange.
  2. Willingness to get out there and interact with native speakers: Were there a lot of days when I thought my Russian sucked, and no matter what I would say I would sound like an idiot? Sure there were. It didn’t stop me from getting out there and talking to people. Even when I was a student in 1991 Russia, there were not a lot of Americans out there, and invitations to exchange Russian for English were plenty. Today, with my work experience, I’m invited to speak at a number of places, and I can turn that into an interaction in Russian when I want.
  3. Intellectual curiosity and the desire to find out more: Together with humility, I am always interested in listening a bit more to Russians (or Ukrainians) speaking Russian. Even turning on the TV over here is always hilarious, as there’s always something else that is being stated or said or shouted in Russian that I haven’t heard before.

Related to point #3 above, there are a number of films that helped me learn.  Over the course of the last twenty years I have seen each of these movies at least once, and they have moved my knowledge of spoken and cultural Russian ahead, if just a tiny bit:

Ironiya Sudbi, ili S Legkim Parom (1975) – Soviet comedy?  It sounds like a contradiction in terms.  However, there were a full set of films from this period that were funny and light-hearted, not even counting the Soviet animation greats (I’m looking right at you,Cheburashka). While Ironiya is text-heavy and has fewer sight gags than some of the others, it captures the spirit of the Soviet (and now Russian) theme of the ‘New Year’s Eve Film’.  Other films in this theme included Kavkazskaya Plennitsa, or Gentlemen of Fortune.

Stalker (1979) – Dark, moody Soviet science fiction, the films of Andrey Tarkovsky are rich, verdant images with few, but powerful lines. I had to watch with subtitles all the way through when I was still a student, despite that his films never disappointed.

Taxi Blues (1990) – One of the first pictures to make it out of the USSR to depict its late-eighties, end-of-empire, crumbling beauty. Every hero was an antihero, every soul exposed a dark Russian soul, a lonely loner, not worth saving. Other films in this theme include Igla, starring pop-icon Viktor Tsoy, or Interdevochka.

Brat 2 (2000) – One of the films to show off the talents of Sergey Bodrov, a young, charismatic actor who was killed too early. This film is also interesting because it films the actor in the United States, and shows how Russians viewed the USA. A similar film in this vein is American Daughter.

Nochnoi Dozor (2004) – Vampires in Moscow!  This is the film that starts to take Russian film-making to the next level, as it’s helmed by charismatic Russian actors and actresses and the very talented Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (think Wanted, etc). Compare this with the grainy shots from Brat 2 and you can already see that the film industry undergoing a turn to modern action and fantasy in under four years.

Turetskiy Gambit (2005) – Also from the same modern style as Nochnoi, but following the exploits of one Erast Petrovich Fandorin, a Russian answer to Sherlock Holmes, depicted in the novels of Boris Akunin. This film follows the adventures of Fandorin as Russia wars against Turkey and the Ottoman Empire.

Viy (2014) – My final recommendation, and ironically the one film that is related to Russian literature the most as it’s inspired by the stories of Gogol. Witches and demons terrorize a small Ukrainian village.  Somehow a foreign visitor from England gets involved. No political foreshadowing here, hmm.

This post was originally published on Tom’s personal blog King of Code Mountain. It was inspired by our blog post How to Become (Nearly) Fluent in German.

Apply to the Alfa Fellowship Program by December 1.