A few years ago, a sophisticated CEO at a large German coffee company asked me why I live in Russia. I answered, because of the vodka, women and the money. He was unhappy with my answer and said he didn’t believe me. In fact, he was correct. There is a fourth reason, the Russian language.
I began studying Russian in 1968 at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon. At the time, the US had a common enemy, something lacking these days, perhaps one reason why we are taking out our frustrations on each another. That enemy was of course the USSR which was poised to overtake the US economically, bury it and then blow everything up. Let’s not forget Sputnik; it went into outer space first, to our horror. Suddenly, the US discovered it had too few Russian speakers in its midst. This could not stand. High schools were provided across the land with Russian teachers including the one who taught at my high school, Wilbur Poole.
Studying a language for two years was required at my high school at the time. The day came when I needed to decide what language to take. At the time, I had read a novel called Fail-Safe in which a Russian-English translator’s role in saving the world from nuclear annihilation was crucial. I decided I’d too become a translator for the US President, as in Fail-Safe, and the way to do it was by studying Russian at Lincoln High. My fate was sealed. If ever the expression ‘be careful what you wish for’ had any merit, that moment was it.
Wilbur Poole is much to blame for my lifelong fascination with the Russian nation. Being 13 years old, I was in no position to disagree with what Wilbur had to say. Wilbur had oversized forearms like Popeye and he was all business. He said that Russian is an easy language to learn. The alphabet is completely phonetic. Its grammatical rules, as Wilbur claimed, have far fewer exceptions than English grammar. It is possible to make a perfectly understandable sentence without being encumbered by a verb, a distinction that I didn’t find very impressive at the time, having not given verbs much thought. Wilbur taught us, and eventually, we saw the light. Another advantage of Russian is that a sentence can be put together in almost any kind of word order. There is no need for the noun to be placed at a certain spot in a sentence, as is true in English. In fact, backwards word order is a way to improve one’s power of expression. Wilbur made us believers in the simplicity of Russian, despite its complexity, and we believed him.
During the four years I studied Russian under Wilbur’s regime, I never knew that Russian is a difficult language. After all, we were learning it and there wasn’t a genius among us, except one kid who knew several languages and he wasn’t any better at Russian than the rest of us. Our attention was focused on backwards sentences and we were not threatened by Russian grammar. We learned other expressions as different from English as Russia is from Portland, Oregon. When saying no in Russian, we’d say “yes, no” (da nyet) meaning absolutely not, because in Russian da is used to say yes and also to express emphasis. Take that, Portlanders.
Wilbur Poole ran a tight ship. Every day, we were expected to come to class prepared, having learned at least 10 new words and a grammar rule or two. In class, he’d grade every answer we gave, claiming this was how the vastly superior Soviet education system worked. The grade he gave was either a plus, a dash or a minus. These were worth 2 points, 1 point and a minus point respectively. The better students had to work harder to get a plus. On Friday, he’d add up the points and announce who won. We lived for Fridays. We’d have monthly and quarterly written tests as well. It was a tough class. My other teachers were lightweights, compared to Wilbur Poole.
The genius in our class was a kid whose father was a professor at Reed College. He knew two languages other than Russian and English. I’ve never known a more competitive person in a scholastic setting, then or since. Every day he and I would try to psych each other out before class. I’d tell him, I’m going to get more pluses today than you’ve gotten all month. He’d say, no chance, threatening to wipe me out. When the class started, he and I would throw our hands in the air and beg to give an answer. Wilbur would give everyone a chance and probably rigged the results so that the genius kid and I would win often enough to keep our linguistic knives sharpened. The genius and I never studied together or socialized. We couldn’t afford to; why tip our hand to the enemy? At any rate, I couldn’t stand the guy.
Wilbur Poole was a socialist who believed that the USSR was superior to the United States in every way. He would explain how the Soviet Union’s health, education, transportation system was essentially free. Needless to say, the education system was much better, his own Russian language class being factual proof. While I was 13 and 14, I was a socialistic Commie as well. After that, I became a capitalist progressive, remaining one from then on out.
To prepare for battle every day meant carrying around a list of new Russian words that I would memorize all the time. At the time, I had several buddies who didn’t see the point of learning anything as completely foreign as Russian. It made me an oddball, in their conformist eyes. Conformity is important among most adolescents and we were no exception to this general rule. We all wore nearly identical clothes, had similar part time jobs and thought that perhaps something like practicing the law would come next. These guys thought studying Russian was ridiculous. When I murmured Russian words to myself as I memorized them, it infuriated them. They could not comprehend the importance of my daily battle with the genius kid. We were rebelling against our parents and I was rebelling against my friends, making me a double rebel and one with a cause.
From time to time, Wilbur would play Russian folk music for us on his own record player that he’d haul into the classroom. He preferred purely traditional songs sung in multi-part harmony, without instruments. It conjured up peasants in snug villages on the steppes, the wind whistling by and birch trees. Also, snow. For some reason, this appealed to me. I was the only kid in Lincoln High School who was a fan of Russian folk ballads, along with the Sly and the Family Stone, the Kinks and Marvin Gaye.
Wilbur would bring a short-wave radio to class and play Russian broadcasts for us. He told us that Russian is a symphony. We spent a long time learning how our voices would rise or fall, and become louder or softer when asking a question, expressing surprise, making an argument or reciting poetry. It might as well have been music to us, since we didn’t understand much of what was being said in the radio broadcasts. But we had learned the music of the language. The rest would follow.
All of this set me apart from others in my high school. It was as if, by speaking Russian, I could enter another world where nouns, verbs, adjectives and the kitchen sink are conjugated, and only I knew how to do it. Cats were no longer simply cats, they were feminine, just like a dog became masculine and a feather – neutral. In English, cats were simply cats. My friends’ rejection of my insistence on learning Russian fed my pride in being an outlier. I saw the advantages of being different and when that happened, I wasn’t merely studying Russian, I was setting myself apart.
I discovered Russian in 1968 and have not stopped studying it since. Following its maze of meanings and nuance has never lost my interest. It’s the best thing going. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve got several decades of learning Russian ahead of me. I’m not sure it is a gift from the universe, due to Wilbur’s involvement. I do feel fortunate to have learned so early in life what fascinates me for so long. Luckily there are plenty of women, money and vodka to go around.
Daniel Brooks, copyright, 28 January 2019