Dead Poets Society, Russian Style

Before the semester started, I was told that I could teach one course on anything I wanted to. Although the possibility to teach “anything” seems nice at first glance, the vagueness really wasn’t helpful in narrowing down ideas, and I was glad to get advice from other teachers during our Moscow conference on what topic might be a winner. My fellow Fulbrighter Stephen gave me the great idea of modeling my class after The Dead Poets Society, a thought-provoking film in which a teacher played by Robin Williams inspires his students to push past rigid analysis to find the heartbeat of literature while encouraging them to question convention and think for themselves. The film gets its name from an old school tradition that the students resurrect in which they sneak off to a cave in the woods to read poetry.

The class has been both exciting and challenging for me as a teacher. Each week, we read either a short story or poem that is connected to a broad theme, such as “Suffering” with W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” then discuss the piece of literature, its themes, and its implications for our lives. I have really been impressed by this group of students’ desire to discuss these big issues and their ability to express complex thought in a second, or for many who speak Tatar, a third language. My fifth year students are about my age and for the most part have read more American literature than I have, which was intimidating at first, but I have to remind myself that a good teacher should have the attitude of a learner, and I really have learned so much from my students 🙂

The second Americano cameo in this post goes to my beloved neighbor in Naberezhniye Chelny, Hanna, who gave me the idea of hosting a poetry reading at my dorm, which totally fits into this Dead Poets Society frame. I haven’t had students over before, because I don’t have a kitchen or really very many chairs, but, excuses, excuses…how could I not do this? It was the best idea ever.

So, I invited my students over for banana-chocolate chip pancakes fried on my hot plate (which were devoured in minutes) and asked them to each bring a poem, in Russian, English, or Tatar, that they would like to share with the group.

First, a few girls shared some spoken word poetry by Neil Hilborn from the Button Poetry Project, which I had never heard of. It made me want to try my hand at some spoken word.

Most people drank tea out of glasses or used jam jars because I only own 3 mugs.

Next, students shared their favorite Russian poetry, both classic and modern. Some were familiar to me, like Pasternak, Yesenin and Brodsky, but I learned of some new poets such as Severyanin and Poloskova. Although my conversational Russian is pretty good, it was really hard to catch the meaning of most of the Russian poems that were read. One of my students shared some poetry that she had written, and I also shared a few of my poems.

My favorite one of the night was a piece by Boris Pasternak called “February,” which makes an appearance in a few lines of one of my favorite Regina Spektor songs “Apres Moi.” The first verse of the poem has been the perfect soundtrack to the slushy, wet introduction to the Russian spring.

Here is the first verse with a translation:

Февраль. Достать чернил и плакать! 
Писать о феврале навзрыд, 
Пока грохочащая слякоть 
Весною черною горит. 

February. Get ink, shed tears. 
Write of it, sob your heart out, sing, 
While torrential slush that roars 
Burns in the blackness of the spring. (http://www.kulichki.com/poems/Poets/bp/Rus/bp_3.html)

Sveta and her jam-jar mug.

Прекрасный вечер с прекрасными людьми 🙂

 

 

Spring’s Not Green Here, But…

Spring’s not green here, but for now, the melting will do.

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And though some might consider the in-between a muddy mess, littered, mushy,

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I’ll compare it to Oreo pie, confettied, since it means that green exists,
just
not
yet.

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I’ve walked
and walked
in steps of fear
joy
uncertainty
prayer
shaking
strong,

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and today is the 3 month mark,

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June is closer than I ever thought possible,
haven’t I always lived here?

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Haven’t I always lived here, or is time just not as linear as I thought?

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Learning Tatar

Although Tatarstan is politically a part of the Russian Federation, I am constantly reminded that at the same time, it is a country and culture all its own. Beautiful mosques share the scene with Orthodox churches, Tatar delicacies such as chak-chak and mantiy are served just as often as  borsch and kasha, and most exciting for a language lover, the beautiful yet still-unintelligible sounds of Tatar can be heard alongside Russian on the street, on the radio, and (yikes) even in my classroom.

Tatarstan May Finally Get Lyrics For Its Anthem

The Flag of Tatarstan*The green represents Islam, the red, Russia, and the white line, the peace between the Muslim Tatar majority and the Russian minority.

Over half of the population did not learn Russian as their first language, but rather acquired it in their early years at school while continuing to speak Tatar at home. This bilingual balancing act, although the norm for many teachers and students I’ve talked to, has made a huge impression on me. I find it amazing to watch those at my university speed through a phone conversation in Tatar, answer someone in Russian, then address me in English. When I found out I would be living in Tatarstan for 9 months, I made it my goal to at least learn the basics of Tatar while I was here, and I’ve finally had the time to devote to the study of this difficult yet fascinating language.

Altay-what?

To give you an idea of just how different Tatar is from English, take a look at this wonderful little tree diagram of the world’s language families. Although the Foreign Service Institute ranks Russian as of higher difficulty to learn for an English speaker than the Romance languages, what many people don’t realize is that English and Russian are actually in the same language family, Indo-European. Although there are significant linguistic differences between the two, there are actually more similarities than you might think. But Tatar, oh Tatar…Tatar isn’t even in the same language family as English. At the bottom of the diagram, you’ll see a tiny little branch reaching to the left: this represents the Altaic family, of which the most familiar language is Turkish.

Photo Credit: http://bashapedia.pbworks.com/w/page/13960889/Language%20Families

Chart Credit: http://bashapedia.pbworks.com/w/page/13960889/Language%20Families

What this means for the language learner beginning from an Indo-European frame of reference is that he has to open his mind to a extremely different way of processing language both grammatically and phonetically. A difficult task, but so far it’s been as fun as it has been frustrating.

Take out that IPA chart and get cracking!

The sounds of Tatar have been more difficult to produce than I expected, since when I first arrived and I was taught how to count to 5, I was praised on how good my accent was. This was due to a few phonemes that exist both in English and Tatar that are not found in Russian, such as [ae], the vowel sound found in “bad,” “cat,” etc. Note, this [ae] sound is written as ә, which was confusing at first.

But as I’ve analyzed the phonemic inventory more closely, it’s become clear that Tatar has sounds I’ve never attempted to make before, except perhaps in Dr. Bird’s phonetics class 🙂  The language is written in Cyrillic, but because there are sounds that do not occur in Russian, there are the added letters:

һ (close to an English h.)

ө (close to the vowel sound in the British “bird,” “word.”)

ә (a as in “back,” “cat,”)

ү (an “oo” sound pronounced further back than the English version.)

ң (ng as in “sing.”)

җ (in between j in “Johnson” and zh in “rouge.”)

These extra letters though, do not represent all of the different sounds. For example, what is written in Cyrillic as г (g) can be pronounced two different ways. Most difficult for me so far has been producing a sound that is close to the English k, but is pronounced further back. In linguistic terms, English the English k ([k])requires you to touch your velum with the back of your tongue, but in Tatar, the k, realized as [q] is often produced by touching the back of your tongue to the uvula. When I hear native speakers do it, it sounds like a k with a popping noise. And that is just one sound out of many; I won’t even get started on vowel harmony.

Let’s Agglutinate!

Although the phonetics of Tatar are difficult, the core of the difficulty for a speaker of an Indo-European language comes in making the mental transition from an inflected grammatical system  to a system of agglutination. In college, we learned the definition of agglutinative by remembering that in these languages, grammatical components and words were glued together (And if I remember correctly, both “glue” and “agglutinative” share the same root.) Both inflected and agglutinative languages use affixes to express grammar, but agglutinative languages are different in that you take a root word and keep stacking suffixes on the end until the word is about a page long. An exaggeration, of course, but that’s what it seems like to a beginner.  Prefixes and prepositions do not exist in an agglutinative languages, but their functions are rather expressed in suffixes that must be added in a specific order. One nice thing about agglutinative languages though, is that a morpheme codes for just one meaning, rather than many, like in Russian. For example, in Tatar, the suffix -ка always denotes that a noun is the direct object, whereas the Russian  -у can denote masculine dative case, feminine accusative case, or even prepositional case.

Here’s an example of this agglutinative magic:

English: In my books

Russian: В моих книгах

Tatar: book: китап (kitap),  plural morpheme: лар (lar), possessive morpheme: ым (iym), time/locational case: да (da)

Order of agglutination: root+plural morpheme+possessive morpheme+case morpheme=

китабларымда (kitablariymda)= in my books

As you can see, what is expressed by three words in both English and Russian is expressed in Tatar in one long, complex word. The system of verbs is similarly complicated, and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of understanding Tatar grammar. However, I am happy to say that I have learned quite a few new words and phrases to balance out the intensity of learning grammar. My strategy has been similar to it was when I started Russian, in a word: songs. When I decided I wanted to speak Russia, I printed out song lyrics, translated them, then listened to the songs and practiced them over and over. This was great for pronunciation, memorization, and was much more enjoyable than slaving over a textbook. In addition to learning some basic phrases, such as “исәнмесез” (isanmesez, hello), “рәхмәт” (rakhmat, thank you), and “әйдә” (ayda), I’ve been listening to and translating a simple song with to broaden my vocabulary and become familiar with the phraseology and grammar. It’s already working: today I found this Tatar music video and I was able to pick out the phrases: “You are my love,” and “you are my destiny.” Give it a listen if you’re curious as to how Tatar sounds. Well, that’s it for now! Сау булыгыз! (sau bulighiz, goodbye!)

*Flag of Tatarstan credit: http://kazantimes.com/politics/tatarstan-may-finally-get-lyrics-for-its-anthem/ 

Russia in Color

Russia is often wrongly stereotyped as a depressing land devoid of color and life. Although the Russian winter is  long and there are definitely periods where the dominant colors are white, brown, and grey, I have found Russia to possess an understated beauty that continues to stun me when I least expect it. I’ve selected fourteen of my favorite photos I have taken since I arrived in September, and if you have never been to Russia, I hope that they will give you a broader picture of the beauty and character this country has to offer! Note: many of these photos have been filtered, i.e. Instagram, but I really haven’t altered them that significantly.

1. Moscow night, September 2013. 

I took this photo from the corner of Red Square to capture the contrast of the jewel-toned sky and church. The building to the far left with the red star on top is the Kremlin.

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2. Feeding swans in Gorkiy Park, Moscow. September 2013.

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3. View from my dormitory porch, Elabuga. October 2013.

4. Wisdom from a Student, Elabuga. October 2013.

I asked my students to write an essay about the differences between higher education in the United States and in Russia. After praising the United States’ use of syllabuses (which my students had never heard of), she contrasted it to the Russian system with the following statement that sums up my 10 year history with this place:

5. Elabuga Institute, Fall 2013.

Built in 1903 complete with a nifty onion dome, this building is arguably one of the coolest looking places to work on earth.

6. Sunset on Kazanskaya Street, Elabuga. Fall 2013.

7. Children playing by the Marina Tsvetaeva monument, Elabuga. Winter 2013.

I took this picture on the morning after one of the first snows, and I loved the excitement and energy that these children exuded.

8. Jumbo snowman outside my dorm, Elabuga. Winter 2013.

9. The Irony of Fate, Elabuga. Winter 2013.

The sign reads “The pharmacy is temporarily closed due to one of the employees being sick.”

10. Winter sunset, Elabuga, 2013.

11. Caviar and Tea, Naberezhniye Chelny. Winter 2014.

12. View from Pushkin Park, Vladimir. Winter 2014.

13. Shooting the breeze, Elabuga. February 2014.

14. “Nyet,” Naberezhniye Chelny. February 2014.

I saw a little boy scribble нет on the frosty window of the bus from Elabuga to Naberezhniye Chelny.

#SochiProblems: Russians Respond

We’ve all seen the pictures of the apparently disastrous conditions of the Sochi Olympics, and if we’re honest, many of us Westerners have laughed in glee at the “peach juice” that is actually contaminated water, unfinished hotel rooms and (heaven forbid!) separate bins for used toilet paper. The 320,000 person following of the Twitter account @SochiProblems, which, according to Sarah Kaufman is 100,000 more than the number of followers of the official Sochi Olympics account, highlights the fact that for some reason, Americans find it really amusing to make fun of the land of vodka, snow, and the gulag, as stereotypes would have it.

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Oh look, the Sochi ad in Elabuga fell down. Everyone point and laugh!

I in no way claim to be innocent of poking fun at the quirks of living in Russia. In fact, until I read this excellent article by Sarah Kaufman, titled “#SochiProblems is More of An Embarrassment For America Than It Is For Russia,” I hadn’t felt any contrition for the way I complained about not having a toilet seat in my dorm or using the line, “when I was in Russia,” as a transition to one-upping a friend’s horrific travel story. Kaufman makes the case that Americans’ gleeful reaction to less than ideal conditions in Sochi springs from “cultural misunderstandings borne out of sheltered ignorance,” which was a great starting point for discussion with my 5th year students. Since I discovered #SochiProblems, I have been curious to hear what Russians think about Americans’ snarky Sochi commentary as well as their broader perspective on the Olympics, so for газета (newspaper) class today, we discussed Kaufman’s article. Here’s what they had to say:

What do you think of Americans’ reactions to the conditions in Sochi?

One girl expressed surprise that Americans would make fun of their conditions; she had spent a summer in the US and had heard only positivity from an American gymnastics coach about the upcoming event. Her friend, who had also been in America, showed no surprise, expressing that it made sense journalists would find the place unsuitable; after all, they were used to better conditions. In fact, many students voiced understanding of visitors’ qualms at Russian conditions. The general sentiment of the class was gracious, essentially, “we are used to these conditions, but that doesn’t mean we think less of others if they are not.”

Are you offended?

Again, students were very gracious to the whining Americans, while still expressing some offense at their homeland being mocked by outsiders. They could all be diplomats! One girl loosely quoted Pushkin as saying “a man hates his Motherland, but he is offended if someone else says something bad about it.” Many students echoed this idea, and the same girl who quoted Pushkin told me, “you see, we can complain to each other about our terrible conditions, but if you start complaining to me about how horrible your dormitory is, then I will be a little offended.”

Another student added to this thought, expressing that Russians themselves perpetuate negative stereotypes about their country by constantly complaining about conditions and the government. On the other hand, she said, even Americans who rail on Barack Obama still tend to be patriotic. “As for us,” she continued, “we see the best route as a ticket out of here!” (Baba Olya, anyone?) The class laughed when she said this, but she made a great point: if Russians don’t talk well of their country, why should they expect others to?

Why do you think Americans are reacting like this?

One young man posited that Americans might view Russia as a threat, and as a class we discussed the possibility of lingering Cold War sentiments tainting Americans’ view of Russia. Embarrassingly for Americans, ignorance also may play a role. One student visited the United States, and when she told someone that she was from Russia, the American echoed heartily, “Oh, the U.S.S.R.!” I guess it’s hard to escape a Cold War mindset when you think it’s still going on.

Another girl came up with a metaphor that encapsulates what I think many of my fellow American -born Russophiles can attest to: “I think the journalists see it like a scavenger hunt. They look for what is bad, and then they write about it.”

“Why do you think they do this?” I asked.

“For amusement,” she answered.

I loved this metaphor, because I think it perfectly describes what many Western adventurers to Russia aim to get out of the experience. The first few times I went to Russia I was intrigued by the “wildness” of it, and things that would be inconvenient in the long run turned into exciting stories I could tell my friends. Part of the fuel that fed my fire for Russia, was the romanticizing of these conditions as somehow adventurous, definitely more interesting than life home in America. And it’s easier to sensationalize or make fun of conditions when you can pack your bags after being there for a week. So for all this talk about schadenfreude sparked by remnants of Cold War sentiment, I think that something simpler and more universally human might be involved as well: the longing for adventure and story.

Are the Olympics a good thing for your country?

Most students felt torn when answering this question. On one hand, as a student said, the Olympics are reviving sports in Russia, which since the fall of the U.S.S.R., have been comparatively weak. In Soviet times, she said, Russian athletics were much more competitive, but that recently, “sport has almost died in Russia.”

Many agreed that the Olympics were an important historic event for Russia, but that the costs might outweigh the benefits. Over $51 billion dollars was spent on the games, and one student quoted an estimate that if that money were divided equally among Russia’s 143 million, each person could buy his own apartment. I’ve quickly learned that when talking with Russian students, if you say the word government, a conversation about corruption is not far behind, and many voiced frustration with the financial corruption that permeates their society. Even if a gigantic sum of money was supposed to be distributed to the Russian people, one student argued, it wouldn’t get there, because pockets of corruption are not limited to big endeavors like the Olympics, but are everywhere.

One major thing I took away from our conversation is the need for Americans to stop basing their opinion of the Russian people on the actions of its government. I was impressed by the positive attitude my students had towards Americans in spite of the snide Twitter account. To be honest, if I were them , I would be doing my best to sarcastically shut down the opponent, but they didn’t seem to see America as an opponent. Rather, they were gracious towards journalists’ reactions to their homeland, that, as the poet Tyutchev wrote, “can’t be understood with the mind.”

Умом Россию не понять,
Аршином общим не измерить:
У ней особенная стать —
В Россию можно только верить

Ф. И. Тютчев