I started to study Russian about the time of the Beatles’ first LP. A programme appeared on British television, with an avuncular male presenter helping viewers to learn the basics of the language. I was hooked. More than half a century later I still remember some of the phrases he taught.
Город стоит на холме. The town stands on a hill.
Я играю на гитаре. I play the guitar.
Time and again over the decades the language and the culture have drawn me back.
In preparation for the Caucasus, where Russian is widely spoken, I have gone back to my studies, to all those case endings and perfective and imperfective verbs.
Frankly, it can be a relief to return to Russian after Welsh, the indigenous language of my native land. Educators in Wales have a habit of producing two different sets of language textbooks for adult learners — one set for South Wales and another for the slightly different speech of the north.
Now you can fit Wales into the territory of the Russian Federation more than 800 times, but Russian educators take a firm linguistic line. They have no truck with regional nuances and produce text books with the message “In Russian we say it like this.” For the harassed learner, the thwack of Muscovite command has much to commend it.
To take up Russian again I have beaten a path to the Latvian capital Riga, a city where you constantly hear Russian spoken. Riga has a very professional language school, in the Education Centre DURBE, and I have had a total of three weeks’ tuition in the city.
The experience has opened up a whole world. The physical landscape in the Baltic states is flat and rather featureless. But the human and linguistic contours in this part of Europe are fascinating.
About a third of Latvia’s two million people are Russian speakers, but the only official language is Latvian.
The narrative that runs in the heads of many Latvian speakers is not the same as the narrative that holds sway for the Russian speakers.
Vladimir Putin famously called the dissolution of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”. This is the point of view of the Russian president and not everyone shares it. But the least one can say is that the demise of the USSR took away a whole framework, an emotional, practical context for the lives of millions of people.
Studying Russian at DURBE this month, I stayed in the home of a middle-aged Russian speaker, Ludmila, an attentive and kindly host. She was born and raised in the city of Murmansk, in the extreme northwest of Russia, above the Arctic Circle. She studied in the city that for her will always be Leningrad, not St. Petersburg. In my bedroom the most prominent book on the shelves is entitled “Soviet Latvia”.
Over a breakfast of porridge on April 22, Ludmila said to me: “Today is Lenin’s birthday. This was a big holiday in the Soviet Union.”
It is human to feel some nostalgia. But there can be real practical difficulties for the Russian speakers who lived to see the end of the Soviet Union, which included Latvia and the two other Baltic states, Estonia and Lithuania. Ludmila’s brother still lives in Murmansk and since she is now a Latvian citizen she needs a visa simply to go and see him.
Russian speakers tend to watch Moscow television and to socialise out of work with other Russian speakers. Their points of reference are to the east.
Latvian speakers, on the other hand, mix with other Latvian speakers and their points of reference are to the west.
For them, Russia has again and again appeared in the historical role of invader. During the Soviet period, Moscow brought to the Baltic states the whole Stalinist toolkit of deportations, torture and murder. For a while last year the Latvians opened up to visitors the former KGB headquarters in central Riga, a sinister building on Brivibas Iela, or Freedom Street.
It was here on Freedom Street that KGB men shot dead Latvian “enemies”, running engines to mask the sound of gunfire.
Latvia has moved quickly to integrate itself into the European Union and NATO. For Latvian speakers, the Soviet period was a dark time and they want a very different future.
Memories of the Soviet past are still very raw, as I realise when I meet Indra Mangule, a young Latvian woman working in Riga.
Indra spent five years in Britain, studying in Glasgow and London. Her English is faultless and she lives and breathes a spirit of alignment with Europe. She remembers vividly what it was like, as a child, to live through the failed Soviet coup of August 1991 when conspirators sought to overthrow Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Shockwaves went out through the whole crumbling edifice of the Soviet Union.
Indra, in Riga with her mother at the time, says: “I remember seeing a tank, seeing soldiers.” She also remembers her mother keeping an axe under a bed. Years later she asked her mother “Why the axe?”
“Well, I would have chopped them up,” said Indra’s mother, referring to the reception that would have greeted any Russian soldiers coming to their home.
Since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea last year there has been an edginess in the Baltic states, which constitute NATO’s eastern flank.
For the language school DURBE, the new tensions between Russia and the West are a business opportunity. They now run courses focusing on Russian military terminology. The United States Air Force is one of their clients. Ludmila, a lover of the Russian classics, has hosted a USAF officer, who told her that Russian was a strategic language.