Let’s Talk Pусский (That’s Russian for “Russian”)

Each week on the Let’s Talk series, I’ll be featuring a language learner who will share their heroic process of mastering a foreign tongue. Next up, Katie talks Russian.


Страдание. /strɐˈdanʲɪjə/ n. Language: Russian. Meaning: SufferingLike in English, this is a universal, existential, and therefore lofty word. As in, “Raskolnikov, the anti-hero of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, had to suffer (страдать) for his sins (ie. murder) at a Siberian labor camp in order to purify his soul and seek redemption.” 

Hi, my name is Katie. I am a 26 years old and originally from California. I currently live in Brooklyn where I work as an artist as well as a professional Russian translator and hostess to support my art habit. I graduated from Reed College in 2012, where I majored in Russian literature. I spent a semester studying abroad in St. Petersburg in 2010, lived there for the summer after I graduated, and then returned to live and work in Moscow for the fall and winter of 2012. Now I fill the Russia-shaped void in my heart by surprising (and usually delighting) tourists with my Russian-speaking skills at the restaurant where I work near Times Square, eating pickles and kielbasa at Brighton Beach, and having confusing conversations with grizzled old Romanian and Belorussian men in my neighborhood.

Russian is the 7th most widely spoken language in the world; there are approximately 170 million native speakers. It is an East Slavic language, and holds status as an official language in five countries: Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. (Now go look at a map.)

Numbers for Words

1. How many years have you studied it? 3 years in college; now I still use it in my job. I was first acquainted with Russian 8 years ago.
2. How would you describe your fluency? 1–10 (0, a houseplant speaks this language better than me. 5, I’m just barely fluent; 11, I could write the dictionary.) This changes A LOT depending on context. I’d say when I’m drunk and with friends or reading I’m a 7 or 8, just stepped off the plane in Russia I go down to a bumbling 3, so maybe on average 6 or 7.
3. Rate difficulty in learning this language, on a scale of 1-5 for each of the following categories: 

     a. Pragmatics/communicational competence. (Appropriate use of language in context.) 4. Russian has both formal and informal registers and genders, which isn’t too big a deal if you’ve ever studied another language. However, it also has 6 different case declensions, so meaning is determined primarily by morphological word endings (meaning the subject of a sentence may be embedded in the middle or end of a sentence rather than the simple subject verb predicate structure we have in English—though spoken Russian tends to be more straightforward).

     b. Grammar 4. See above. While definitely not on par with Finnish or Hungarian’s 16 case declensions, these do get tricky. For some reason Russian has an immensely difficult numbering system that I’ve never really mastered, so I try to avoid asking the price of things or saying years in their full form (so I was born in ’88, not 1988), and tend to round up to whole numbers (I’d like 200 grams of that candy is usually a safe bet). In addition, Russian has a unique set of rules for about 22 verbs of motion that require different words (to go, walk, fly, swim, carry, etc.) and prepositions to describe whether a motion is unidirectional or multidirectional, present or past, habitual or part of an ongoing series of actions, on foot or by vehicle.

     c. Pronunciation 4. There are certain words that English speakers—myself included—pretty much just can’t pronounce correctly (or even hear the subtleties), such as the letter ы—sort of like a cross between the short English y and i. Other letters are silent and determine whether the preceding consonant will be hard or soft. I think Russians move their mouths a lot more when they speak, so it can be hard to get our timid American mouths to properly articulate what I find to be Russian’s very pleasant, robust, and rounded vowel sounds.

Dnieper river Kiev, Ukraine | Let's Talk Russian

With my coworker on the Dnieper river in Kiev, Ukraine

     d. Vocabulary 3. One of the great features of the language is that many of the words are linked by common roots. Whenever I get stuck translating a word I don’t know, there’s usually something that sounds very similar and is somehow related—it’s very fun to puzzle this out. For example the word stradanie (suffering, as previously discussed) sounds a lot like strast (passion) and strakh (fear). In my mind these concepts are closely related, and the Russian language lets us see these connections quite distinctly.

     e. Spelling 2. Learning the Cyrillic alphabet is easy—it took my first two weeks of class as a college freshman. I love that Russian is a completely phonetic language so that every sound has its own unique symbol (letter).

Language Meets Culture

1. Reinforce for me in ONE way or ONE example, from your own experience, the idea that language and culture are inseparable. 

Russians have a reputation for being a deep, poetic, if not melancholy people—perhaps this is due to the fact that Russian literature is such a potent cultural force and that a lot of Russian originated in Old Church Slavonic, which was merged with the vernacular Slavic languages when the Cyrillic alphabet was created to translate the Orthodox Bible. I have a very nice memory of one summer I was staying in St. Petersburg and living in this beautiful old crumbling communal apartment with a lot of artists. Usually we just taught each other slang and swear words, but one day my housemate tried to explain the world vospriyatiе (perception) to me. I can imagine an English speaker giving the definition in terms of the five senses and especially sight, but she went so far as to make a little diagram in my notebook explaining how vospriyatie of the world and a nation is related to attitude and ones response to the word (be it cultural, geographical, emotional, political—in other words a cocktail of things). I don’t think I understood the precise meaning of the word until later but it’s safe to say I have never forgotten it.

2. Did language inspire you to travel? Or did travel inspire/force you to study language?

It took me a while to coming around to major in Russian at college. If I had stayed an art major at Reed I probably would have had to do a program in France or Italy or somewhere with an art program sponsored by the school, but none of these places felt true to my passions. I had wanted to travel to Russia since I was sixteen, and I think studying the language not only gave me the chance to study abroad where I really wanted to go, but to do so in a very meaningful way.

3. Provide an example of how this language has helped you integrate yourself or become more invested in your travels or your life abroad. 

Being able to speak Russian allowed me to see and experience so much more of Russia than I would have otherwise. I don’t think Russia is a place like Spain where you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a great time eating tapas and taking siestas surrounded by sun and beautiful architecture and amazing food. People I know who have gone to Russia purely as tourists either come away with stereotypes left intact, or they’ve partied at expat bars and gone to the Hermitage but missed everything else!


Moscow, Russia. Source: Mariusz Kluzniak, Flickr Creative Commons. (Photo edited by me.)

4. You are this language’s lawyer. Build a case for it. Why should people study this language?

Notice how often Russia is in the news these days? America’s propagandistic and often negative attitude toward it is not going away anytime soon. I think there is (and should be) a huge need for people who are curious about the country and wish to demystify it for people who mainly see it as the media’s portrays it: a depressing, violent, and repressive backwater place full of gangsters, alcoholism and snow-covered Soviet high rises, as if we are still in the midst of the Cold War. I think it’s extremely important for people—Americans especially—to learn all the complexities both beautiful and sinister about Russia and to bring new experiences and outlooks to Russian-American relations and ultimately change the stereotypical views and destructive narratives that we have now.

Some Fun Stuff

1. Favorite word in the language. 

Probably yozhik (little hedgehog) and mishka (little bear) and maybe sosul’ka (icicle…or literally “thing you suck on.” I heard that in St. Petersburg they had a campaign to get rid of the diminutive ending because the icicles there get really huge and deadly during the winter!)

2. A word that doesn’t translate directly to English, and approximately what it means. 

In situations that are extremely perplexing or extremely funny, I’ve noticed a lot of my Russian friends exclaiming the word жесть (zhest’–not to be confused with the word жест, or zhest, meaning gesture) while they are doubled over with laughter. I think it sort of translates as WTF (a sentiment we English speakers can only express in three words, or an abbreviation) and expresses some sort of disbelief and ironic amazement at what is unfolding before you. 

3. A gesture in this language that differs from English.

Sometimes people will use their fingers to flick at the skin between their neck and chin to denote drunkenness, though I haven’t seen this very often. I think it’s a point of interest that foreigners are told to look out for.

St. Petersburg, Russia: Let's Talk Russian

With friends in St. Petersburg, Russia

4. Tell us a funny story or mistranslation you made in your language learning process. 

I think a lot of language learners experience wishful thinking when it comes to making up cognates on the fly–when you just cross your fingers that the word you’re looking for sounds pretty much the same in both languages. And sometimes you do get lucky! But when I was in St. Petersburg a couple of years ago I noticed that the city government had instigated a campaign to encourage native Russian speakers to cherish their linguistic heritage and dissuade them from bastardizing their own language with English words and calques (pronounced with a heavy Russian accent of course, and written in Cyrillic). Here is a list of some examples I saw on the subway:

“Давайте говорить как Петербуржцы” (Let’s Talk Like Petersburgers”)

“Instead of foreign words, you may use Russian:”

(See if you can recognize any of these words spelled in their transliterated form)









massmedia–>sredstva massovoi informatsiya

You can see more of the posters here. They are pretty hilarious—but helpful for language learning when you’re on the train with nothing to do.

And in conclusion. . . .

A warning, in limerick form, for when the next revolution occurs (this was written by the great Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky in 1917):
“Ешь ананасы, рябчиков жуй,
день твой последный приходит, буржуй!”
I’ve translated it very loosely to preserve the rhyme scheme: “Eat pineapples, gobble grouse / your last day is coming, bourgeois louse!” So basically: live large while you can!

A huge thanks to Katie! To check out her amazing art, go to her blog. And to read more about eroic language learners in the Let’s Talk series, click here.

Are you a foreign language learner? Email me at athingforwords (at) gmail (dot) com to be part of the interviews!

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  • Love this! I did my thesis on the importance of foreign languages to philosophy, focusing on Russian and Japanese. One of my favorite things about Russian is how interconnected the words are. Though it has still been a really difficult language for me.

  • Mikaela Swedlund

    This is great! I tried teaching myself Russian one summer. I got as far as ‘my name is’. Haha! oh well. I am currently living in South Korea, and trying to add Korean to my list of ‘I-sort-of-speak-this-language’ list. I loved reading this post, and am very excited as I plan to visit Russia next year.

    • Ha, well that’s farther than I’ve gotten in Russian (I’ve nailed ‘da’ and that’s about it.) My best friend is currently teaching English in South Korea and she’s picked up a few words of Korean here or there, but I’m sure it’s difficult. Hats off to you for trying!

  • Really enjoying this language series you’ve been doing this month, Jenny; I’m a linguaphile myself but I’ve really learned a lot of on-the-ground, insider’s-scoop-type information about the languages you’ve covered. I had no idea Russian had so many declensions…eek! But I am in love with the fact that Cyrillic is completely phonetic. If only the English alphabet could be that way…

    • Thanks Trevor, so glad you’re appreciating the posts! I agree, I’m loving reading the first-hand view these posts are providing, since I know what it’s like to learn Spanish but can’t even wrap my head around some of these more “foreign” tongues.

  • Red Velvet Voyage

    Very interesting Interview… Im sure that Katie’s experience in Russia was an amazing experience that no words in any language could ever truly capture Katie’s emotional journey – through Russia, cultural obstacles, and learning the language! Great perspective!