The Inspiration of Leonid Brezhnev by Professor Heidi Sherman

After many years of wanting, trying, and mostly failing to speak Russian fluently, I have finally reached a point where I want to share my long history of language-learning mishaps.

My first big mistake was one of assumption and pre-teen overconfidence. I set a goal at the age of 9 to speak Russian like… Leonid Brezhnev? Growing up in Minot, North Dakota in the ‘70s, I did not know any Russian speakers, and the Soviet Premier was one of the very few Russians we frequently saw on television. My Russian would be better than Brezhnev’s! Because he was old and waxy, and “future-me” already spoke Russian like a boss, I was sure Russian classes would feel like a coronation than an academic chore. So, there I was, stuck in western Dakota, marinating in certainty that I was destined to know things.

Fellow Russophile, the desire to learn is the easy part. Hit the books hard. I started college in 1987 and I do remember studying, but Russian was more challenging than I expected. Particularly the grammar. And my indifference to learning high school English grammar did not help, which meant I had to learn English to learn Russian.

Another surprise was that studying Russian did not make me less shy. Be warned that social anxiety impedes language acquisition. As a young college student, speaking with strangers in English was hard enough, but doing so in Russian? Terrifying! It seems that 9-year-old me was a bit surer of herself than me at 18. Or 30. Many years later, I can attest that to speak a foreign language, you must be open to making a fool of yourself with people you do not know. Once you unleash your words, assess the response. If someone understood you, try more words. Get comfortable with failure and public humiliation. And though it WILL terrify you, this must be done beyond the safety of the classroom.

Between 2000 and 2002, I lived with a wonderful pensionerka in St. Petersburg. We loved each other, and spent hours a day chatting away in Russian, and Nadezhda Vladimirovna’s kitchen became the penultimate classroom. For the first time, I felt like I was moving through the language with dexterity, not often struggling to be understood. Finally, I was experiencing the thrill of Russian fluency!

Though I did not realize it at the time, my fluency functioned in the company of one person, my daily conversation partner Nadezhda. With her, I did not have to worry about using the right vowel prefixes, noun declensions, or verbal aspects. My friend loved and supported my flaws and did not try to correct them because she wanted me to feel good about myself. Besides, it was not her job to teach me Russian. And Nadezhda did not have to because she understood our long conversations despite my grammatical mistakes, anglicisms, and awkward lexicon. And it was only twenty years later, when I resumed formal language instruction, that I realized that I had, in fact, never been a fluent Russian speaker. Nadezhda’s friendship filled me with such confidence that I moved easily around St. Petersburg, oblivious to the fact that people understood me, but only just. Even so, it was such a happy time because, in my opinion only, I was a fluent Russian speaker!

The memory of such linguistic bliss brought me back to Russian in 2021. Not having spoken consistently for seven years, I was out of practice, but a kind of muscle memory kicked in and language flowed back to me as the class progressed. And so did my poorly learned but often used reservoir of ungrammatical phrases and anglicisms. For example, instead of telling people that I live with my friend Nadezhda (Я живу у Надежды), I was conveying to people that she and I were having a sexual relationship (Я живы с Надеждой). I am sorry, Friend Nadezhda! Fortunately, I now have excellent Russian teachers who both inspire AND correct. Perhaps it’s my age or great respect for the language, but I now love learning the subtleties of prefixes and verb aspect, and how their careful use matters.

At the age of 52, decades after I resolved to outmatch a Soviet Premier’s language prowess, I have decided that fluency is a punishing, elusive goal. But perhaps some things more desirable, such as friendships, are within reach? This is especially true now, as many of us work from home. In these times, most of my social interaction is with Russian speakers, in Russian, via Zoom or WhatsApp, and each day I am lifted with the experience of deepening friendship through the sharing of the Russian language.

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