Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Russian and me

When I was six I wanted to be an archaeologist. I also wanted to be a train driver and an astronaut, but unlike the latter two the urge to be an archaeologist stayed with me.

I have no rational explanation for this, it just did.

No one around me - family, school or whatever - had much idea what an archaeologist did other than digging up old things - so wanting to be an archaeologist sort of turned into a fascination with late antique and early medieval history.

Now you would have expected that with that sort of interest somewhere alone the line I might have learned some Latin, some Greek, perhaps some old French and a bit of Old and Middle English.

Well no - while I can puzzle out a little Middle English and Old French, and on a good day manage a simple bit of Anglo Saxon, that's just what I've taught myself over the years. A smattering of random phrases and words. My Latin and Greek is even worse.

Never learned them you see.

Now this isn't because I'm a linguistic klutz, but rather because I'm not. I learned Russian as well as the more conventional French plus a bit of Spanish and German  on the side.

This was back in the cold war days, when the ability to speak Russian was a rare and useless accomplishment. We didn't talk to them and they didn't talk to us with the result that it really was a singularly useless accomplishment, unless you ended up working for Foreign Affairs, or some related agency and even then that probably meant sitting in a darkened room translating chunks of Izvestiya and Pravda and producing summaries on the implications of an upswing in tractor oil usage in Uzbekistan.

Or I could have become an academic - except that I'm not a literary type.

So I did something else.

But actually what studying Russian gave me was the same thing that studying classical languages gives some people - an entree into a strange alien half recognised world, which while their motivations may be the same the culture is different, they have different interests and interactions, and more interestingly the way a different society works (or not).

And strangely, like my love of archaeology this fascination with a now vanished world and its history has stayed with as in my recent post about Fanya Kaplan and Bruce Lockhart.

And the odd little stories - how during the civil war the SR leaning Siberian provisional government in Omsk tried to withdraw the Kerenskas - the paper rubles issued by the Kerensky government between March and October 1917 in favour of their own notes, and how the population refused to hand over their Kerenskas and accept the (probably worthless) Siberian rubles. (In case you're interested there's a vague mention of this in Dr Zhivago where Pasternak talks about people refusing the lemons,  the yellow banknotes issued by the Omsk government)

Or the role of the Japanese in the allied intervention in Vladivostok and the way that it really was a precursor to their expansion into Manchuria to gain access to additional resources.

Or the way that Vladivostok was an invented city - in 1860 it consisted of a few trapper's huts, yet by 1918 it was a respectable little city, even if it did lack a decent sewage system - something that reminded me of Seattle, which also started out as a little outpost clinging to a forested coast - it might even be interesting to do a 'compare and contrast' bit of analysis comparing the settlement of the American and Canadian Pacific North West with the Russian settlement of Primorye ...

Odd what fascinates people, isn't it ?

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