There are some things my students would like you to know about Russia.
This all started because we were doing a mind-mapping exercise as a warm-up. Basically, you write something in the middle of the page (in this case, ‘blue’ – which was a bit funny as it’s slang for ‘gay’ in Russian) and then write things you associate with that word around it. I wrote blue>French flag>bread, and my students were outraged. ‘Why France?’ they asked, ‘bread is from Russia!’. I said that by no means did I associate bread with Russia, and they objected, saying that bread and bears are how the world sees Russia. I said that that is absolutely not the case.
I then drew a mind-map with ‘Russia’ in the centre. The first thing I wrote was ‘vodka’. Then ‘tanks’, ‘Cold War’, ‘bad guys in movies’, ‘evil accent’. Not tolerant nor educated, but they were the first stereotypes I thought of. My students were incredibly confused.
I next sat down and explained that I had only met my first Russian eighteen months ago, and up until that point my knowledge of Russia was pretty much limited to the above. Russia had always seemed irrelevant to me, boring, more a cliché than an actual place. It’s all like Siberia, they’d had a Communist government, they’d been the ‘other side’ in the Cold War, and, yes, they’re the bad guys in movies. Russian guys are ‘hard’ and Russian women are mail-order brides.
Of course, since then, it’s like a world has opened up before me. An alien world to be sure, but a world I feel the richer for starting to know.
My students then asked me at least a million questions about how Russia is perceived in Australia and the UK, the only two other countries I’ve lived in. I told them, and they were horrified. Not angry in their patriotism – and not even patriotism, but national pride – but sad. They really were distraught. All they could say was ‘but that’s so sad’. They then almost pleaded, ‘but Laura, you’ll go back and tell everyone what Russia is really like, won’t you?’.
So, here are some of the things that my Russian students would like you to know about their country:
- Some of history’s most important and well-known scientists are Russian. Studied chemistry? Mendeleev, who invented the periodic chart, was Russian. As were the inventors/discoverers of Google’s search engine, the videotape recorder (Paris should pay royalties), oil tankers, the fields of aero- and hydrodynamics, MiG aircraft, glucose and artificial sweetener, vodka (lol), Chanel No 5, and at least a zillion more things.
- Russia defeated Napoleon. They play a huge and current role in containing conflicts in the Stan area from the Middle East to India. In World War 2, for the whole war there were approx 70 million deaths. Around 5 million of those were Jews, and people are still sensitive to the extreme about even mentioning the Holocaust. The United States lost nearly half a million people, the UK around the same, representing 0.32% and 0.94% of their populations respectively. Just over 40,000 Australians were killed, so around 0.57% of the population. More than twenty-three million residents of the Soviet Union were killed, representing 13.88% of the population. And yet these are the ‘bad guys’ in movies.
- On the topic of movies, there are some brilliant Russian films. My students think you should check out films such as ‘12‘ by Nikita Mikhalkov, and I definitely agree!
- Ok, so bread and bilberries are great (they insisted).
- ‘America’s history is like a page, Russia is a whole book’.
- Russian students study the history and geography of the whole world. Mine today could tell me the history of the UK, of America, of Australia, and major geographical features of any country I’d care to ask about. By comparison, at school I only studied the history of Australia and of the UK. Granted, I work for private language schools and the students who attend are those who can afford to, but I’ve found all of my students educated, opinionated and brave.