Honest Language Lessons: Русский

In which we explore the idiocy of foreign language instruction and how it could be vastly improved.


The first problem with this Soviet-era primer is the unrealistic title: Russian for Everybody. Anyone who has ever passed through a Russian border control checkpoint at 3am, spent a night in a provincial hospital, or attempted to board a Moscow tram without understanding the proper protocol understands at once that Russian, indeed, is not for everybody.

But for those hardy travelers wishing to penetrate the prickly outer shell of Russian bureaucracy, to find their way to the mushy interior of the Big Russian Soul and its attendant bouts of heavy drinking, let us embark upon a study program that may actually come in useful.

Lesson 1: Writing a Letter!

Lesson critique: In the scenario portrayed at the far left (in the above panel), we see Nina reading “not a newspaper, but a letter.” Why not tease out this scenario a bit, so that it feels a bit more true? For example: “Nina reads a letter, not an email—because she is a human rights activist, and her computer is being monitored.” 

grammar note: The verb читaть takes the accusative case, which, considering the dangers inherent in perusing even the most seemingly innocuous “literature” in the Soviet era, seems apropos.

Lesson 2: Shopping! 

It is bewildering that a language text published in 1984 would feature the above unlikely scenario. Why is the shop attendant smiling? Why is there so much bread available? Where is the queue of exhausted and resigned comrades standing behind Anton?

grammar note: Although Anton “buys” using the imperfective aspect in the first panel, he “bought” it in the second, using the past perfective—a verbal aspect which is not accepted as hard currency, even today. Not to mention that the perfective suggests an easy fait accompli that would seem to gloss over the many sullen hours Anton probably spent on queue before his purchase. “Anton was buying the bread all afternoon” would describe his actions more effectively, and would certainly call for the imperfect past.

Lesson 3: Sightseeing!

Let us now turn away from the Utopian Russian for Everybody ideal and create a scenario that a first-time traveler to Moscow might actually encounter.

Dialogue: A Visit to Red Square

Teenage Policeman: Ваши документы, пожалуйста(Show me your papers!)

Tourist #1: Tenses sphincter. Wh-what “Документы”? 

Teenage Policeman: Распорт. (Passport.)

Tourist #1: Почему!? What for? I thought this was a free f***ing country now. I haven’t done anything wrong. Gets in policeman’s face. Notices he has not yet had his first shave.

Tourist #2: Kim, chill! What’s the deal?

Teenage Policeman:  Распорт, пожалуйста! What izz problem, little girl?

Tourist #2: Kim, please just show him the f***ing passport! He’s heavily armed!

Tourist #1: I’m not showing him s**t! This dude is a shakedown artist—

Tourist #2: Sir, here is my passport.

Teenage Policeman: Спасибо. Все документы в порядке. (Thank you. Your papers are in order.)

Teenage Policeman: You have beeg problem with wife.

Tourist #2: Да. (Da.)

cultural notes: If you’re traveling as a couple, and a teenage policeman decides, just for fun, to put a beatdown on one of you, it’ll probably be the man who gets it.

Lesson 4: Dining!

Never heard at a restaurant: “I’d like meat, vegetables, and fruit please.”

Dialogue:  At Table with New Friends

Friends: Давайте выпьем за здоровье! (Let’s drink to our health!) They kill a shot.

Tourist: За здоровье! (To our health!) Takes a sip.

Friends: Laugh, point to their empty glasses.

Tourist: Целый стакан? (The whole thing? But—)

Friends: ДААААААААА! (Yeeeeeaaahhh!)

Tourist: Submits.

A number of shots later:

Friends: Давайте всегда наслаждаться жизнью, как этим бокалом водки! (Let us always enjoy life as we enjoy this bottle of vodka!)

Tourist: Давайте……..не могу больше пить. (Let us…..Please don’t make me drink any more. I am going to die.)

Friends: ДАВАААЙТЕЕЕЕЕ! Numerous claps on back, songs.

Tourist: Spinning lights, rising gorge. 

Tourist: Takes a deep breath.

Tourist: Submits.

cultural note: If you’re having trouble keeping down that last shot, just sniff this stale bread. You’ll be fine.

Honest English lessons for immigrants following their American Dream to the bright land of Arizona, U.S.A.

10 thoughts on “Honest Language Lessons: Русский

  1. As a language teacher I found this very entertaining to read. I love the conversation with the teenage policeman. I don’t have the added difficulty of a different alphabet.

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