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Taking Russian in Summer School


In the summer after my junior year, I still needed a course to make up for the courses I had missed during the term I was out of school, in the fall of my sophomore year. I didn’t have to take anything specific, I just needed a course. I chose to take first-year Russian, my second choice after rejecting first-year Chinese, for reasons which were discussed in previous posts (see “First Bicycle”, “Ma Mei-ling”, and others.)

I moved in to an apartment in the Yard for the summer; it was normally a two or three person set of rooms, with a big living room and two bedrooms plus a bathroom. I rented a refrigerator because I intended to eat my meals in the rooms instead of using the dining hall to save money. I didn’t get a phone because it was too expensive; the phone company required a large deposit for short-term phone hook-ups, and in those days the phone company was AT&T, known as “Ma Bell”, a monopoly.

One other thing I bought for the summer was a high-velocity window fan, a special model that cost me $30, an exorbitant price in 1973, but worth it in my opinion because it really was a high velocity fan. I remember the name on the fan: Patton, and I saw in later years that the same company made the same model, as well as larger ones, for a long time. The fan required occasional oiling with a 30 weight oil, which I found in 2 ounce squirt bottles at the hardware store.
This fan was a lifesaver because the rooms were on the top floor and it got very hot in the afternoons. I could turn the fan on high and sit in front of it to catch the breeze, and the air it brought in from outside was tolerably cool.

The first day of class, I found about sixteen other students in small classroom with the instructor, a young, bearded Russian, slender and Romantic, with long thin fingers and a long, hooked nose. Like most Russians in the US, he was anti-communist, but he didn’t admit to any Royalist tendencies. He was patient and low key, which was helpful because we spent four hours every morning drilling intensely and repetitively, and the atmosphere sometimes became tense with frustration.

The first week we concentrated on the alphabet, and by the end of the week we were expected to know how to write Russian in longhand. The Russian alphabet has several more letters than the English alphabet, and the familiar letters don’t look exactly like the equivalent English letters. In the evenings I studied for several hours to fix in my mind the necessary writing skills.
We also started on memorizing words and pronunciations in the first week, wasting no time, for we had only a few weeks to learn a year’s worth of introductory Russian.

The rooms were big and empty, with only three beds, study desks, and chairs– no other furniture at all except for the two small refrigerators, the one I rented and the one that just happened to be there. The kids who handled the rental refrigerators knew I had two, but they didn’t care; apparently they had some extras that weren’t needed. The rental service was under the control of the school housing department and they used students to do the lower level work, as part of their work-study program.
I had been offered the choice of taking out a National Defense Student Loan or joining the work-study program; I chose the loans because I didn’t think I’d be able to study and work at the same time. The work-study program used students to clean the bathrooms and halls of all the student houses, to do various menial tasks around the University, to serve food in the cafeteria, and so on. It turned out that by the time I had to start repaying the loan, when I began my residency, I was making enough money so that the $50 a month didn’t matter much.

I had just bought a classic book entitled “Light on Yoga”, by BKS Iyengar, which illustrated and described all the yoga poses. I used the book to introduce myself to yoga; the way the book was organized made this easy by starting with the simplest poses and progressing pose by pose. The illustrations and instructions were clear and complete, and I had no difficulty in replicating the poses, or at least the simple ones.
The living room was perfect for yoga practice, being practically empty of furniture and having large windows all across one wall that let in the sunlight. I used my closed cell foam sleeping mat, the one I had gotten for camping, to sit on and lie down on.
In silence, I repeated the repertoire of poses, ending with the cool down pose of just lying flat on the floor with my hands at my sides.  I didn’t have anything to listen to music with, not even a radio, and I didn’t realize at the time how much the silence could affect me.

The only visitor I had was a friend from my club, the Spee Club, a club devoted to a more oddball set of students, or at least they seemed more simpatico to me. This friend was a dealer, but not a very good one; he spent too much time drinking to be very successful at pushing drugs. I didn’t buy anything from him because I didn’t have any money, but he was generous with samples and seemed to think that I was a cool guy to associate with.
One evening he showed up at my rooms with a package in a brown paper shopping bag. He asked me if I would mind keeping this bag in my closet for a few days. I didn’t have to ask him what was in the bag. He explained that he was staying at the club and he didn’t want to take a chance on being discovered by the club steward, who was a nosy and conservative local who couldn’t be trusted. My friend was already suspect to the workers at the club; he had been warned after being discovered smoking pot on the roof.
I didn’t mind holding his product for him, and indeed felt touched that he had confidence in me. It was only later that I realized he was just using me, a convenient stooge on whom no suspicion was likely to fall.

I began to feel lonely, a single student who did nothing but go to class in the morning and study all evening. I usually took a nap in the afternoon with the fan blowing on me, and I couldn’t sleep at night so I took to studying late, which eventually made me drowsy. I would wake up at four or five AM and I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I started doing yoga early in the morning, at dawn.

The Russian quickly became an interesting problem, and I found it easy memorizing the daily words– some twenty or thirty a day– with pronunciation being hardly more difficult, aided by the native Russian, Moscow accent of the instructor. Writing in long hand, in Russian, was graceful and flowing, better than English it seemed.

I went to the bookstore and bought the biggest Russian-English dictionary I could find. It was in two volumes, the first English to Russian and the second Russian to English; each volume was about four inches thick. There was no reason to need such a big dictionary, but I liked to have books that represented the knowledge implied by the classes I took.

When it came time to write the final examination, I was fully prepared. The exam consisted of a series of English sentences that were to be translated into Russian. It was straightforward for me. I ended with an A-. The only reason I didn’t get a straight A was, first, there were two students who were better than I, and second, I got sick and missed a day of class.

More on how I got sick next time.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Eric permalink
    2015-05-07 20:38

    Did you have any memorable experiences with the genitive case in Russian? Any thoughts on the genitive, or on verb forms, in comparison with other languages?


  2. Eric permalink
    2015-05-08 19:26

    It has occurred to me now, in the absence of a response from you, that you did not continue your study of Russian after that single semester class. (I was wrong to think your blog was about the Russian language, despite your title.) I myself have continued to study all the languages that I began to learn decades ago. The reason I brought up the genitive is that I have found it to be warped and impure by comparison with Greek, arguably part of its ancestry. Greek grammar claims a surpassing beauty and clarity that is nearly indescribable. Russian’s genitive in particular, and some verb forms more generally, seems “cobbled together” by someone (Cyril) trying to build something new out of ancient forms — perhaps while drinking vodka? It has led me to long meditation on the defects of the culture itself.

    Naturally my wife, Russian-born and fluent in “only” two languages, disagrees with me about the genitive. There is nothing peculiar about it, in her estimation. I should say “LOL.” But bypassing a lengthy linguistic discussion, which doesn’t seem to be your interest, let me just say that Russian is like a bastard child … I am speaking of Russian spoken in Moscow and written in its modern literature … Even the genitive of German, rather a simple grammar by comparison, seems to me more logical and fully functional than Russian. I am not speaking of Ukrainian or Byelorussian, or any of the hundred or so dialects across eleven time zones … of which I know nothing.

    It doesn’t surprise me that Russians are, on the whole, rather brilliant, nasty, and sad. They are victims of a defective language.


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