Story by Matt Levie, MPA, ’18
When I was young, every day after school I would take the bus all the way across New York City to the Mid-Manhattan Library downtown, because on the third floor they had language textbooks. At my school there was a pretty good language program; you could learn French, Spanish, German or Latin, but I was fascinated by exotic languages that people don’t usually learn in American schools. I dabbled in Romanian, Welsh, Japanese, Swahili and Russian.
I fell in love with Russian and the mystery it represented: at that time the USSR still existed, although it was on its last legs. Everyone assumed I wanted to be a spy and my family, having fled Russia decades before, was puzzled.
I knew almost no Russian but I got a spot on the national team to go to the International Olympiad of Russian Language and Literature in Moscow. Ironically, we were allowed almost no contact with Russians other than our guide. The students from East Bloc countries were isolated from us in a completely different building, except the Hungarians, who at that point were considered as ideologically contagious as the Americans, I guess. I’ve now been to the USSR one more times than any Russian under age twenty-five.
For various reasons, my Russian fell into disuse, until a music shop opened up on the corner near my house and I decided to pick up the guitar a few years ago. My teacher, an immigrant from Kiev, refused to speak English with me again after I let it slip that I spoke a little Russian. And, while I wasn’t very good at the guitar, it did get me to seriously take up Russian again.
It is just as difficult to justify to Americans today why I speak Russian as it was in the days of the USSR. You can study Arabic and it doesn’t make you a terrorist; you can study Chinese and it’s a great business move; but Russia, for whatever reason, occupies a blind spot in the American mind. Russia may be the largest country on earth, but here, it seems like it will always be the place where James Bond villains come from, a place the average American knows very little about.
What I like most about studying Russian at the Middlebury Institute is that we’re not only studying the language. We’ve discussed energy security, youth culture, and military strategy, among other topics. The Institute also brings distinguished guest lecturers to campus so that we get information firsthand.
I hope that after graduating from the Institute, I can use my language skills to improve mutual understanding as well as the quality of life in the Russian-speaking world. While Russia is an immensely important country, it’s also vital to keep in mind that Russian is a lingua franca in many former Soviet countries that are critically important in their own ways, including Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.