u3a - Russian

Contact the adviser

When it comes to languages, Russian is well represented in the u3a, with around thirty or more groups across the UK. Language levels range from beginner to advanced, and there are also groups in Russian history and culture. A handful of groups have gone quiet however and are surely ready to be revived. I am here to help you do that!

Why Russian?

My own interest in Russian started at school. I then went on to study it further and have been visiting the country fairly regularly since then – in Soviet times and after 1990, as the fifteen republics became independent and started to develop market-based economies. It will be fascinating to hear from members about what made you join a Russian group. For me, my interest has been kept alive by the language itself, along with the music, art, literature and truly eventful history – and, of course, the Russian soul, русская душа, which gets inside you and is never far from the surface.

I see, incidentally, that the motto of И́скра, the pre-1905 newspaper of the Russian Social Democratic Party, was "из искры возгорится пламя" – "from a spark a flame is ignited". Right on! And if you have a moment, read through Родина, by Mikhail Lermontov (see the link, below) as it really does evoke the feelings you experience when venturing beyond the capital, into Russia’s countryside and villages.

Babbel’s top reasons

There’s no need to google “why learn Russian?” because I have done it for you! For one thing, it is the world’s seventh most spoken language – 154 million according to Wikipedia. It is, too, the world’s largest country, so more than enough to keep you occupied when we are able to visit again. You also have plenty of opportunities to speak the language as English isn’t as widely spoken as might be expected; and it is far more accessible than in the Soviet era, when you needed permission to travel outside Moscow and Leningrad. Alternatively, head for the Baltics, especially Latvia where, in my recent experience, they are the most willing of the three Baltic countries to speak Russian. As for difficulty, America’s Foreign Service Institute found, in its much-quoted study comparing twelve major languages, that Russian comes roughly in the middle. It means it is definitely within reach, even with its alphabet and grammar.

Then there is sheer beauty of the language, which you can best enjoy in the work of poets such as Pushkin and the operas of Tchaikovsky. (A magically symbolic moment in Evgenii Onegin comes when, later in the aria he sings to Olga, his-bride-to-be, Lensky changes to addressing her as “ты” instead of “вы”. Only u3a students of Russian would pick up on that!) The intonation and stress give the language a lyrical quality. Also remarkable is its vocal clarity and articulation which, I have come to realise, are due in large part to the hard and soft – palatalized and unpalatalized – consonants and which are worth mastering if you want to sound like a Russian. I have an untested theory about that, which I need to turn into something worth sharing.

As for whether Russian will ever become a true world language, that would depend mostly on economic factors. One thing is certain, though: it’s illustrious history and its similarity to other Slavic languages. Bulgarian, written in Cyrillic, is one of the nearest. In fact, in Soviet times, Sofia, Plovdiv and other Bulgarian cities were often used as alternatives to the USSR for study visits as you were also more likely to hear Russian being spoken than in other Soviet satellite states.

What am I about, as Russian Subject Adviser?

The essence of the role of language subject advisers is to help set up new groups and to support those that are already up and running. I have an interest in and some knowledge of the pedagogical and linguistic aspects of second language acquisition and plan to write something about this as the more recent research has some real potential for enhancing learning. I would also like to promote Russian culture and history more widely.

The main focus, though, is on sharing best practice and learning experiences of group members and leaders. So do let me know about the challenges and successes you have had as a learner or group leader. It would good to share it across other groups. Similarly, with so much available on the internet, your recommendations and thoughts about on-line materials and resources, as well as textbooks, will be sought and are welcome.

Zoom and Skype

It has become commonplace to say that we are living in unusual times. We are indeed. Using Zoom and Skype for language and other groups in these circumstances has been a bit of a learning curve. Again, a discussion about this is planned. I am, though, also attracted to setting up a longer-term, on-line Russian language group – probably on Zoom rather than Skype. A number of members around the country have already told me that their local group has gone out of business or they don’t have one to join. What better, then, than to reach out across local u3a boundaries and form a virtual group? Let me know what you think, using the e-mail address below.

Bперёд, товарищи!

I am really looking forward to building on the work and dedication of my predecessor, not to mention the enthusiasm of group members and leaders. We have a great Russian tradition in the u3a, a legacy which will continue to develop and grow. It will, too, remain very much a collaborative endeavour so please get in touch as often and in as much detail as you wish.

Chris Rock, Russian Subject Adviser

November 2020