It does surprise me now when I think of it, the disregard with which I have treated the Russian language. I’ve been so careless. I guess I never thought I needed it, and I am still not sure if I do. Actually, I probably don’t need to learn it, but, whatever, I have learned some of it along the way.
This may amuse you, as I live in a country where 25 percent of the population considers itself Russian. The reality though is that a significant chunk of that minority gets along just fine in Estonian, so I’ve never really felt a dire need to know the Russian language. If someone accosted me in Russian on the street, I usually just shrugged and said, “Ma ei tea,” which was most often the truth.
I’ve found the alphabet to be particularly prohibitive to learning Russian. I am an audio learner, not a visual one. I picked up most of my Estonian by ear. People complain about cases, but before I knew anything of cases, I was listening to the radio. I developed a feel for the swing of the language, the music of its sounds. And since Estonian is written quite fortunately in the Latin alphabet, it wasn’t that hard for me to match sounds with newspaper headlines and signs.
This is not the case in Russian. I have had no formal introduction to this language and so I have had to learn as I go along. And what fun it is. Welcome to a magical world, where ‘S’ has become ‘C,’ ‘V’ has turned into ‘B,’ and ‘P’ is suddenly ‘R.’ But it doesn’t end there. ‘Z’ is ‘3,’ ‘E’ is ‘Э,”H’ is ‘N,’ and this crazy-looking thing — д — is ‘D.’ I don’t know how Russians refer to these letters. I am sure they all have charming diminutives, like Alyosha and Kolya and Maša.
To cope, I have invented my own names. I call и “the backwards N,” for instance. It, quite logically, makes an ‘I’ (ee) sound. Backwards R — Я — makes a ‘ya’ sound. The letter that resembles W — Ш — makes a ‘sh’ sound. Й — which I have dubbed the ‘Christmas present’ for the cute little bow on top — makes a y/j sound. And then there’s the matter of this sucker — Ж — which sort of looks like an insect, at least to me. Read it quick before it crawls off the page!
Got that all down? Great. Now read Таганско-Краснопресненская through the window of a metro train as it speeds down the tracks. Maybe reading Cyrillic is easy for some people, but it isn’t for me. I’ve always been a little dumb in this regard. When I was a kid, I used to listen to my brother’s cassette of Billy Joel’s 1987 live album КОНЦЕРТ, which I pronounced as KOHLIEPT (“koh-lee-ept”), and couldn’t figure out why my fellow Long Islander would give an album such a stupid name. Later I discovered the Russian alphabet in the series of Encylopedia Britannicas in his room and tried to spell my name, but couldn’t find a ‘J.’ In my visa, they started it with the equivalent of a ‘D.’
My wife has accused me of both whining and complaining when it comes to learning the Russian language. But she, like other Estonians of her generation, became acquainted with it as children, when their minds were hungry for new symbols and sounds. My wife remembers the 1980 Olympics when they released the mascot Misha the Bear into the air. (They are still selling Misha merchandise in Moscow, by the way). The trip to Russia for her was like a journey back in time, way back to a place where Kino was still playing on the radio and every shop sold Тархун (Tarkhun), a super sweet green soft drink that is flavored with tarragon. She met a man in the market who used to be stationed in Viljandi 20-something years ago. Those were the days.
Kino was, somewhat ironically, the soundtrack to my trip. Everywhere I went, someone was playing the songs of the late, great Viktor Tsoi who died outside of Riga, of all places, in a car accident in 1990. Tsoi’s voice is rough, resigned. The music has a heavy beat, the sparkling math of the guitar runs drags the songs through to the end. It’s not pretty, but it grows on you, and it seems to make sense when you are standing in the middle of an urban jungle of 10 million people. As enjoyable as it is, Kino isn’t exactly an advertisement for learning Russian. It just makes it seem more impossible. But neither does Singer Vinger make you want to reach out for that T nagu Tallinn book, does it. Maybe post-punk isn’t the proper gateway to language learning.
The most comical aspect of learning to read Cyrillic is that the Russian language nowadays contains so many English loan words. And I’m not talking about МакДональдс (McDonalds) or данкин донатс (Dunkin’ Donuts), I’m talking about sounding out a sign on a parking garage that looks like this ПАРКИНГ, only to discover that it says “Parking.” This reminds me of the time I sat at a railroad crossing in Tartu watching the trains to Russia, trying to decipher the text painted on each carriage as it zoomed by, only to determine in the end that it read “Trans Service.”
But now I am back in Estonia, explaining to people where I have been. To some, Moscow sounds very foreign and vaguely threatening. When my wife announced to a little girl that she had visited Russia, the girl reacted, “You went to Moscow? But why? Don’t you know that they kill Estonians there!”
Some Estonians of my generation have been to Moscow, though, mostly as children a long, long time ago. They are a little more forgiving.
“So, say something in Russian,” said Margit, standing behind the cash register of the local cafe.
“Advin cappuccino, brazauska,” I said, drumming my fingers on the counter.
“It’s not ‘brazauska,'” she said turning toward the cappuccino machine. “It’s puzhalsta.”
“Oh, I thought it was ‘brazauska.’ You know, like that Lithuanian guy. Algirdas Brazauskas.”
“No, no,” she steamed the milk. “Puzh-al-sta. At least, that’s what I learned in school.”
Some time passed as she finished the cappuccino. Then she placed it on the counter.
“It sounded like Brazauskas to me,” I shrugged.
“Damn it, Russian is hard!” Margit said and rubbed her temple, as if a headache was fomenting. “Fucking hard.”
I took a sip of the hot drink and smiled, but only a little bit, because at least someone else agreed with me.
“Maybe, you’re right,” I said. “Maybe it is puzhalsta.”