Admitting Defeat

There are no defeats—only temporary obstacles.
–Admiral Alexander Kolchak

Almost a year ago now (I’m embarrassed to even type that), I started reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The White Guard in Russian. As I write this right now, I still haven’t finished The White Guard. I haven’t even made it halfway. In fact, I’ve decided to give up on it for now.

I feel bad giving up on it because I like Bulgakov. His magnum opus, The Master and Margarita, is amazing. We read that during second semester of my advanced Russian class. It’s fabulous and fantastic and I can’t say enough in praise of it.

I did not feel this way about The White Guard. I found most of the story plodding and the characters tiresome. I may have been able to power through that, though, if I had a better Russian vocabulary. I felt like I was looking up every other word. Bulgakov writes a lot of complicated sentences, too, so once I’d looked up all the words I didn’t know, I’d have to figure out the sentence structure. By the time I figured out the sentence structure, I would have forgotten some of the words already. Imagine this repeating with every page I read. It was enough to drive one mad!

So that is why I must bid до свидания (goodbye) to this book. I’m not saying I’ll never give it another try. After all, my lack of Russian vocabulary is just a temporary obstacle, right? For now, I’m going to read something else. What that something else is, I don’t know. Suggestions are welcome in the comments—either contemporary literature, nonfiction, or the classics. I’m open to suggestions.

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Ivan Bunin

While reading the weekly roundup of Imperial Russia-related news over at Royal Russia News this weekend, I found this great quote about Russian author Ivan Bunin, a White émigré, fervent anti-Bolshevik—and the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

[Cursed Days] is regarded as one of the very few anti-Bolshevik diaries to be preserved from the time of the Russian Revolution and civil war.

His scathing account of his last days in Russia recreates events with graphic and gripping intimacy. His criticism of Bolshevik leaders is unparalleled, referring to them as “pitiful, dull, mangy-looking creatures”.

On hearing of the death of the Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, in January 1924, Bunin gave an emotional speech in Paris, in which he dubbed Lenin a degenerate by birth, who committed the monstrous crime of crashing the world’s most powerful nation and killing several million people

[…]

Bunin was the first Russian writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1933). He was revered among White emigres for his anti-Bolshevik views, and regarded him as a true heir to the tradition of realism in Russian literature established by Tolstoy and Chekhov.

Ivan Alekseyevich Bunin died in Paris on 8 November 1953.

I’ve wanted to read Cursed Days for years, but still haven’t got around to it. However, that little excerpt I quoted above makes me want to read it even more. I have so many Russian books on my to-read list, it’s ridiculous. And I take forever to read in Russian, so I often avoid doing it. Meanwhile, the list grows and grows and grows… That’s just the Russian to-read list, by the way. I have a to-read list of English books, too.

Sigh. So many books, so little time.

99 Years / 99 лет

The tsar with his family / Царь с семьей

Dear readers! 99 years ago today, Nicholas II, Emperor of all the Russias, along with his family and faithful servants, was cruelly murdered by the Bolsheviks. Let us take a moment to remember the last tsar.

Дорогие читатели! В этот день 99 лет назад, жестко убили императора Всероссийского Николая II с семьей и верными слугами большевиками. Давайте запомним последнего царя.

Вечная память.

The Coolest Video on YouTube

You guys, I’ve discovered what just may be the coolest video on YouTube.

That’s quite a claim to make, so let me explain. My readers probably know I’m very interested in the Russian Empire. (Obsessed may be a better word!) While browsing the blog of a person I’ve talked to on Goodreads who, judging by her reading choices, seems to share the obsession, I found this amazing video embedded in a post. It’s a recording the voice of Tsar Nicholas II.

Tsar Nicholas II died in July 1918 (which means I need to prepare a post in commemoration of him since that’s coming up next month), so recording technology was in its infancy back then. The quality of the recording is horrible, but you can clearly hear his voice. First, here is the video:

Here’s a transcription of what’s going on, For reference, a person named Lieutenant-General Baron von Eck Eduard Vladimirovich is commanding the parade in honor of the tsar’s birthday. Also, I am unsure what year this recording was made.

0:01 – 0:04: Lt. Gen. Edward V. Eck:
“Listen to (inaudible)! Brothers! I drink to the health of our dear Sovereign Leader Emperor Nicholas Alexandrovich [i.e. Tsar Nicholas II]! Hurrah!”

0:39 – 0:41: Children’s voices, probably the tsar’s son Aleksei:
“Hurrah Hurrah!”

0:05 – 1:02: The orchestra plays the national anthem of the Russia Empire.

1:03 – 1:12: Lt. Gen. Edward V. Eck:
“To the ceremonial march – rifle on his shoulder! Quick march!”

1:13 – 1:48: The orchestra plays military march, “Homesickness.”

1:49 – 1:53: Tsar Nicholas II:
“Brothers! Thank you for the nice parade!”

2:08 – 2:13: Tsar Nicholas II:
“Thank you, brothers, for a excellent apprenticeship!”

If that isn’t cool, I don’t know what is. Now you know what the last tsar’s voice sounded like. You may not have been wondering… but I was! It’s the prerogative of a historian to wonder such things.

April Fools’ Greetings from the Russian Foreign Ministry!

I found this excellent post on a blog I follow… Seriously, listen to the recording (there is English around 0:30 if you don’t speak Russian). It’s nice to know Foreign Minister Lavrov has such an excellent sense of humor! Also, to hear the recording, you’ll have to go visit the full post by clicking on the title below. I can’t figure out how to embed that in my own post, thanks to Facebook’s confusing interface!

Dispatches from the Asylum

Leave it to Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, for a little humor on this April Fools’ day.

(Skip to the 0:30 mark for English)

“You have reached the Russian Embassy. Your call is very important to us. To arrange a call from a Russian diplomat to your political opponents, press 1. To use the services of Russian hackers, press 2. To request election interference, press 3 and wait until the next election campaign. Please note that all calls are recorded for quality improvement and training purposes.”

Choice!

Photo credit:  I, Sailko [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Russian Word of the Day: гнездо [gnezdo]

A couple Fridays ago, while having a nice relaxing afternoon, I realized I hadn’t done much intensive study of Russian grammar recently. Now, I read in Russian every day and listen to podcasts regularly, but I hadn’t done any of the focused that I used to do. I immediately had to rectify the situation, so I looked up the declension of a noun that I was unsure of. (Longtime readers may recall this post in which I explain what exactly makes Russian nouns so… frightening to English speakers.) The noun in question is гнездо [gnezdo], which means nest in English. So let’s study some Russian together. First, here’s the declension. I always found declension tables useful while learning Russian, so I’ve put one together here. (As an aside, why are tables so difficult to make in HTML? To me, they’re just not intuitive. It’s like someone invented them in 1990 in a completely illogical fashion and the code hasn’t changed since then.)

падеж [Case] ед. ч. [Singular] мн. ч. [Plural]
Им. [Nominative] гнездо [gnezdó] гнёзда [gnyozda]
Р. [Genitive] гнезда [gnezdá] гнёзд [gnyozd]
Д. [Dative] гнезду [gnezdú] гнёздам [gnyozdam]
В. [Accusative] гнездо [gnezdó] гнёзда [gnyozda]
Тв. [Instrumental] гнездом [gnezdóm] гнёздами [gnyozdami]
Пр. [Prepositional] гнезде [gnezdé] гнёздах [gnyozdakh]

The stresses in Russian are marked with bold letters because I couldn’t figure out how to get those nice accents over the letters the way I did with the transliterations. I’ve put transliterations in Latin characters in case you can’t read Cyrillic. (Though if you can’t read Cyrillic, I definitely think you should learn!) Before doing this exercise, I also hadn’t realized that гнездо was irregular in the plural with that stress shift. As an avid bird lover, nests are a pretty important thing for me to talk about, so I’m glad I found that out.

Now, for the fun part: some related words.

There’s a verb form гнездиться [gnezditsa] that means to build a nest or to live in a nest. It conjugates as follows:

  • Я гнежусь [Ya gnezhdus]
  • Ты гнездишься [Ty gnezdishsa]
  • Они гнездятся [Oni gnezdyatsa]

(I am too lazy to code another table with the full conjugation. Those three forms should be enough to show the verb’s conjugation. 🙂 )

Have you ever heard of the Swallow’s Nest castle in Crimea? Crimea was a favorite vacation spot of the Russian imperial family and other nobles and this crazy castle belonged to a Baltic German noble at one point. In Russian, it’s called Ласточкино гнездо [Lastochkino gnezdo]. Here’s a picture of it. It’s amazing and absurd-looking!

Source. Click to see larger.
Source. Click to see larger.

See how much you can learn when you dive into reading about just a single Russian word? I’ve barely even scratched the surface here. There’s a lot more to this word than I’ve talked about here. There are adjectival forms, different verb forms I don’t fully understand, and (probably) a lot more nuances to the word. Now you understand why I had to spend hours and hours studying Russian in college. Imagine going through this declension exercise on a whole group of nouns for homework.

If that didn’t scare you off… stick around for more Russian-related posts. And if you enjoyed that, consider studying Russian! The whole language is complicated like this! 😉

The Hard Work Of Learning Languages

You guys, this article, How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math, means everything to me. I discovered it earlier today and it’s written by a woman who’s an engineering professor at a university. However, before she became a professor, she learned Russian in the Army (at the Defense Language Institute, no less). One of my favorite things about this article is that she talks about the hard work and rote memorization that you have to put in to learning a new skill, whether it’s math or a foreign language.

Something that bothers me about the language learning blogosphere is that language learning has to be “fun” all the time and that the rote memorization you have to do to learn many grammar concepts or vocabulary words is useless because it’s not enjoyable. This article belies that fact, because even though there are a lot of interesting aspects about learning a foreign language, there are parts of it that are just really, really hard. Sometimes, you have to just sit down and memorize the declension of a noun or the conjugation of the verb, and that isn’t always the most fun thing. I can remember many an afternoon during my freshman year sitting for hours at my desk, declining nouns and conjugating verbs, and then having to do it all over again the next day. I’m not trying to scare anyone off from learning a foreign language—just trying to say that it’s not something you can just do for a few months and become fluent with little effort.

Anyway, here are some of my favorite parts of the article. You really should read the whole thing because it contains some excellent advice for learning languages (and learning in general!).

As a young woman with a yen for learning language and no money or skills to speak of, I couldn’t afford to go to college (college loans weren’t then in the picture). So I launched directly from high school into the Army. I had loved learning new languages in high school, and the Army seemed to be a place where people could actually get paid for their language study, even as they attended the top-ranked Defense Language Institute—a place that had made language- learning a science. I chose Russian because it was very different from English, but not so difficult that I could study it for a lifetime only to perhaps gain the fluency of a 4-year-old. Besides, the Iron Curtain was mysteriously appealing—could I somehow use my knowledge of Russian to peer behind it?

After leaving the service, I became a translator for the Russians on Soviet trawlers on the Bering Sea. Working for the Russians was fun and engrossing—but it was also a superficially glamorous form of migrant work. You go to sea during fishing season, make a decent salary while getting drunk all the time, then go back to port when the season’s over and hope they’ll rehire you next year….

I began to realize that while knowing another language was nice, it was also a skill with limited opportunities and potential. People weren’t pounding down my door looking for my Russian declension abilities. Unless, that is, I was willing to put up with seasickness and sporadic malnutrition out on stinking trawlers in the middle of the Bering Sea.

[…]

What I had done in learning Russian was to emphasize not just understanding of the language, but fluency. Fluency of something whole like a language requires a kind of familiarity that only repeated and varied interaction with the parts can develop. Where my language classmates had often been content to concentrate on simply understanding Russian they heard or read, I instead tried to gain an internalized, deep-rooted fluency with the words and language structure. I wouldn’t just be satisfied to know that понимать meant “to understand.” I’d practice with the verb—putting it through its paces by conjugating it repeatedly with all sorts of tenses, and then moving on to putting it into sentences, and then finally to understanding not only when to use this form of the verb, but also when not to use it. I practiced recalling all these aspects and variations quickly. After all, through practice, you can understand and translate dozens—even thousands— of words in another language. But if you aren’t fluent, when someone throws a bunch of words at you quickly, as with normal speaking (which always sounds horrifically fast when you’re learning a new language), you have no idea what they’re actually saying, even though technically you understand all the component words and structure. And you certainly can’t speak quickly enough yourself for native speakers to find it enjoyable to listen to you.

[…]

As I forayed into a new life, becoming an electrical engineer and, eventually, a professor of engineering, I left the Russian language behind. But 25 years after I’d last raised an inebriated glass on the Soviet trawlers, my family and I decided to take the trans-Siberian railway across Russia. Although I was excited to take the long-dreamed-of trip, I was also worried. I’d barely uttered a word of Russian in all that time. What if I’d lost it all? What had those years of gaining fluency really bought me?

Sure enough, when we first got on the train, I spoke Russian like a 2-year-old. I’d grasp for words, my declensions and conjugations were all wrong, and my formerly near-perfect accent sounded dreadful. But the foundation was there, and day by day, my Russian improved. And even with my rudimentary Russian, I could handle the day-to-day needs of our traveling. Soon, tour guides were coming to me for help translating for the other passengers. When we finally arrived in Moscow, we hopped in a taxi. The driver, I soon discovered, was intent on ripping us off—heading directly the wrong way and trapping us in a logjam of cars, where he expected us ignorant foreigners to quietly acquiesce to an unnecessary extra hour of meter time. Suddenly, Russian words I hadn’t spoken for decades flew from my mouth. I hadn’t even consciously known I knew those words.

I will say this, too: I’ve largely left the academic study of Russian behind for a career in an unrelated field, but I hope I never forget my Russian. I think I’ve been doing a pretty good job of maintaining it it, considering the circumstances. I read and listen to it every day, so that’s an accomplishment (I think). Now if only I could find a group of Russian speakers to practice with…

A Documentary About Pyotr Wrangel

I watched a fascinating documentary this weekend. Unfortunately, it’s in Russian, so if you don’t speak Russian, this post may not be all that useful, as neither video has English subtitles.

Anyway, the documentary aired on the channel Russia-24, which was once banned in Ukraine for being too pro-Russian. (I don’t know if it’s still banned.) I’ve embedded both videos below.

Wrangel in his uniform. From here
Wrangel in his uniform. From here

Baron Pyotr Nikolaevich Wrangel was a Russian general who fought on the side of the Whites during the Russian Civil War. His ancestry was Baltic German, hence the non-Russian last name. After suffering great defeat at the hands of the Reds (the Bolsheviks), he then escaped the country and went into exile and worked with other White emigres to form a group called the Russian All-Military Union that was meant to unite White Russians living abroad. This organization was active for many years, and depending on who you ask, may still exist. Since I love anything and everything to do with the Whites during the Civil War, I really enjoyed this documentary.

I haven’t really been watching many Russian-language videos recently, so it was nice to take some time to watch this documentary. I’m trying to get back in the habit of watching Russian documentaries since it’s a really fun way to keep up passive understanding of the language.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Maybe I Should Be A Language Blogger After All…

I used to blog about languages more than I do now and I’m starting to think I should return to language blogging again. I’ve been getting quite a few hits this past week or so from an iTalki article. Yes, an article from the popular language learning website iTalki linked to this blog! The article has some good advice if you’re a language learner, so you should go check it out. Then go check out my post that it links to. It’s an old one from 2013, but still relevant, I think!

How Many Summers, How Many Winters!

Hello, comrades! The title of this post is the literal translation of the Russian equivalent of the expression in English “Long time no see.” The expression is Сколько лет, сколько зим [skolko let, skolko zim] and I’ve always liked it. Luckily it’s a bit of an exaggeration in this case, as the season hasn’t changed since the last time I blogged. (It has been almost three weeks, which is sort of embarrassing!)

Anyway, three weeks ago I took a short vacation, then I checked out a bunch of books from the library and have been reading a lot. What else is new, right?! I even started to neglect my own writing because I was reading so much, which is a problem I’ve had before. I started to not miss my blog so much and I even considered not blogging again. (Though I would have come back to say goodbye if I’d made the decision to quit.)

I think part of the problem is blogging hasn’t been fun for me recently because I haven’t been writing what I want to write. I know I’ve changed my blogging focus a lot since I first started this blog four five years ago. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, though, because people change. Their interests evolve. Heck, many blogs aren’t even in existence after five years. I guess it’s a good thing I’m still writing after all this time.

Ultimately, I was sad at the prospect of quitting blogging, so I think I’m going to keep it up. I’m going to worry less about what I post, though. I know I have an audience (and I love my readers!) to consider, but this is a personal blog and I want to have fun writing it. 🙂 For example, I stopped posting my writing reports because I was worried they were too boring. I liked writing them, though, and I liked publicly committing to and talking about my fiction writing, so I think I’m going to bring those back. I also like writing about Russian literature, culture, and history, so I want to do more posts of that nature, too.

Anyway, I’m back. Or as we’d say in Russian, я вернулась [ya vernulas]. And I promise if I do decide to quit blogging, I will make a final post informing you of the decision. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s kind of sad when people abandon their blogs and don’t say why.