How it all got started
In the Summer of 1965 I was one of a group of high school Russian language teachers who embarked on a ten week journey to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, commonly called the USSR, or simply, the Soviet Union. Funded by the Natonal Science Foundation, the purpose of the journey was to improve the Russian language skills of the teachers so that their students would have the benefit of teachers who had actually spent time living the language and exploring the culture they were teaching.
Indiana University (IU) today offers a Summer Language Workshop in many languages. In 1965 the Russian program included the summer journey to the Soviet Union.
After a week of orientation at IU, during which we were required to sign a pledge to speak only Russian, even to each other, for the duration of the trip, we boarded a flight from Bloomington, Indiana and connected in New York with a flight to Copenhagen, Denmark, where we completed testing in speaking, listening, reading, and writing Russian.
Where we went; what we did
Our first stop after the testing was Leningrad, today returned to its historic name of St. Petersburg.
Our other destinations included Rostov, Piatigorsk, Sochi, Kiev, a sports camp in the Caucasus Mountains, and, of course, Moscow at the finish.
At each stop we presented our passports at the hotel reception desks, where our passports were held until we were checking out of the hotel to travel to another location. That practice made us more than a little nervous, what with being in the Soviet Union without a passport during the Cold War.
At each stop the entire group was together for breakfast, morning lectures, guided tours, and lunch.
We were advised that the lecturers and tour guides were experts in their fields. For example, the woman that took us on a four hour tour of Leningrad was a professor of Russian literature. She told us about a famous Russian author who wrote many of his works in Leningrad and preferred corner apartments. She pointed one out that the author had rented.
After lunch we were usually had free time for shopping, attending films, additonal touring, etc. A few of us were fairly good basketball players and we made some friends at most of our stops by finding local games. Some of us were also skilled at finding places to have a beer or two and made friends at those and other places as well.
(Note: I first heard the word sprayground when I was a member of my local parks and recreation board. A sprayground today is an area set aside for children to skip through gentle jets of water that are turned on randomly.)
Our Leningrad visit included a side trip to Petropavlosk, often called the Russian Versailles, where I saw my first sprayground. The laughter of children drew me to a section of the beautiful summer palace of the Czars where the children were scrambling around a set of paved trails. Every so often jets of water erupted through the entire square causing the children to run and laugh and get wet. The water was aimed randomly through the square; some were four to six feet high, some higher. All in all, a lot fun was happening. I noticed a small man who resembled one of Disney’s seven dwarfs sitting on a chair facing the square but mostly out of view of the children and people like me who were watching the kids have fun. Turned out he operated the jets of water by pressing on a switch of some kind with his foot. He waved us away with a smile when we tried to talk to him. He was obviously having a great time. Our Intourist guide told us operating the sprayground was his job.
What do you bring to the Soviet Union?
At IU were were encouraged to bring a collection of photographs we could show our new Russian friends, photos of our families, homes, schools, and others which would give the people we met some idea of what home was like for us. I showed my photos at every opportunity, but it was 1965 and I noticed many of my new Russian friends giving each other glances that suggested they thought I was showing them propoganda and not genuine photos depicting my life back in the U.S.
What we learned about how Russians think
First of all, every one of us came away once again convinced of how much all human beings have in common. Russian people were concerned about work, children, other family members, friends, living conditions, health, aging parents, and so on – all the day to day things all people are concerned about.
I never encountered anyone who was deliberately unpleasant or rude. On the contrary, people I spoke with were courteous, and surprised if not astonished, that Americans were studying Russian language and culture. Though just a few of us managed to be invited to a residence, those that did, myself included, enjoyed an abundance of hospitality and good will. And vodka.
Almost every person I met was genuinely interested in America. So many told me that when I returned home I should tell everyone I can that the Russian people do not want war – with anyone. (Remember, this was 1965. The Cold War was still a reality, and many we encountered had memories of the terrible things that happened in their country during World War II, just twenty-five years ago.)
Some of my fellow teachers reported being followed occasionally. I did not experience that, but did miss the diary i was trying to write to preserve some of my experiences. The diary disappeared from my room in Leningrad and reappeared in my room in Kiev a week or two later. I recall thinking my Russian writing skill was awful at best, and that whoever tried to read my wrtiting had a good laugh at second-grade Russian written by an American language teacher..
Things were different there; a few examples
Using public bathroom facilities meant you had to pay a few kopecks (about a nickel) and there was usually an attendant to make sure you paid and sometimes to provide soap and advice.
In a pub in Leningrad two of us sat in a bar with a local we’d met at a book store. When the waitress came by he ordered nine bottles of beer, three each, a bowl of caviar, a dish of butter, and some black bread. When we asked why nine bottles and so much snack food, he told us that waitress wouldn’t be back for an hour or more because she worked in three or four other nearby bars.
Each floor in our hotels was staffed by a “dyezhurnaya,” usually women, usually older if not elderly, usually at a small desk by the elevators, and usually nosy but very pleasant. We were told to leave our room keys with her when we left the hotel.
At a famous and famously huge (a hundred or more tables organized in a circle) Moscow ice cream restaurant several of us sat down at an empty table when we reached the head of the line. After waiting fifteen minutes or so we asked a passing waitress if she would please let our waitress know we were ready to order. She told us the waitress that took care of that table was on vacation.
Shopping and Aeroflot
We managed to do some shopping for typical Russian souveniers; e.g., nesting wooden dolls (matrushka). I brought home a balalaika (triangle shaped Russian guitar). At every stop there were shops exclusively for tourists (beriyoski). Those shops typically had better quality items than the other shops and the big department store in Moscow (GUM, pronounced “Goom”).
Small restaurants, sandwich shops, were a challenge, a five-step process: 1) select an item, 2) wait in line to pay for it, 3) wait in line with your receipt to give to the person who would make it, 4) wait for it to be made, and 5) eat.
There were many automats; that is, refrigerated units containing a variety of food items on rotating trays. You pressed a button to rotate the trays to the item you wanted, inserted the correct amount of money, opened the little door guarding the item, took it out, and sat down to eat or just wandered down the street while eating.
We travelled mostly by bus and train, but did fly on Aeroflot (“Ah-arrow-float”) twice. Our first airport adventure was arriving early and not boarding until two hours after the flight was scheduled to leave. The aircraft was in sight, but the Aeroflot staff told us they had to wait until more people wanted to take the flight.
Refreshments aboard the flight consisted of hard candies, black bread and butter with caviar, and water.
Speaking only Russian, even with each other
We did. All of us. Russian/English dictionaries were part of our every day accessories, but by and large we all got by without referring to those books as often as we thought we would.
To be sure, there was a wide variety of skill levels in our group. To say the least, at the beginning of the journey I was not one of the more skilled in any aspect of getting by in Russian only. But even the least of us was surprised at how quickly we picked up much more than what we started with. It only took a few days, even for me, to improve speaking, listening, and reading skills. Writing was another matter: not so easy and none of us did much writing. As mentioned earlier, I did attempt to keep a diary, but in general we were too busy to do much writing; busy soaking up everything we could to bring back to our students.
Two amusing results of weeks of Russian only.
First, several Russians told me I spoke with a Swedish accent. I am Swedish on my father’s side, and did learn some Swedish as a child, but for that to come through twenty or more years later in Russian just made me wonder how. And smile about it.
And second, I had so completely immersed myself in the language I used it a few times the first week or so I was back home, in situations that left the persons I spoke to somewhat bewildered. For example, when a grocery store clerk asked: “Is that all?” my response was: “Da, eto fcyo, spasiba” instead of “Yes, that’s all thank you.”
We had our last look at Russia as the airliner taking us to Helsinki, Finland, for our exit testing. The subjects were the same and the entrance testing: Ruddian language speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Our scores all dramatically exceeded the entrance testing scores. Our professor told me mine had improved the most. No surprise: I had much more room to improve than my colleagues.
Curiously, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief when our airliner landed at Kennedy Airport in New York. Despite the welcomes we enjoyed, all the wonderful people we had met, and all the learning we had accomplished, I was glad to be home. Not Gary, Indiana yet, and not my actual residence, but home.
A few photos