I have an issue with Russian. I always have had. And yet for the past few months I’ve longed to speak it, hear it, read it. I crave it.
I grew up with four languages: Russian, Italian, English, French. Russian was my first and is now my worst. I just can’t connect with it. If I hear it in the street, it sounds like a foreign language, even though I can understand it. It doesn’t say home to me the way Italian, French and English do. And yet there are times when I feel so close to Russian, something inside me starts to ache. The thing is, I don’t like to ache.
No doubt the first words I heard were Russian. It was the default language setting of my polyglot mother’s most primeval emotions. She wrote in English, praised in Italian, expressed outrage in French, cursed in Farsi, but prayed in Russian, loved in Russian. I like to imagine that, on that March evening in 1965, in Rome, when she first held the premature baby who’d come out of her feet first, she was overwhelmed with Russian emotion.
Russian. My soul’s yearning and also its pain. Russian for me is the wrenching wistfulness of Lensky’s aria before the duel and the frantic crescendo before Onegin’s fatal shot. It’s the haunting initial bars of Stravinsky’s Firebird; the wit and soul-searching in Teffi’s stories; the tanginess of my grandmother’s cabbage and beetroot borscht, the comforting aroma of her crescent-shaped, braided Christmas kalach coming out of the oven, and the colourful domes of Russian churches. It’s the magic of fairy tales in which wolves are wise and women are the stronger sex.
I inherited Russian from my grandmother. Her ancestors originally came from a region once annexed by Iran, but all that was Iranian about her was her passport. Born in Russia into an Armenian family three years before World War I and six years before the Russian Revolution, she grew up in Rostov-on-Don. Her refusal to join the Party meant that she could not be admitted to university and realise her dream of becoming a draughtswoman, so there really wasn’t anything else for her to do but marry a junior diplomat from the Iranian Consulate and leave the Soviet Union in 1933. I remember, as a child, whenever people in Italy and France – where we lived – asked where she came from, her reply was always, “Russia.” Only on closer acquaintance would she mention her Armenian heritage. Relatively few people in Europe could have placed Armenia on the map back then, and she was to all intents and purposes Russian. Her mother tongue was Russian, she read Russian literature and poetry compulsively, made Russian cabbage pie and pickled vegetables, and taught me to pray before a gilded icon of Our Lady of Kazan, which stood next to a tiny silver icon of Saint Nicholas. “A Communist gave it to me when I was a child, shortly after the Revolution,” she’d say. “He was fleeing, and he gave me his little Saint Nicholas before he left.” Although she was officially a member of the Armenian Apostolic Church, when we lived in Nice she often took me with her to the Russian Orthodox church on Boulevard Tzarewitch. When she reached her eighties, she asked me to have prayers read after her death – for her and the family she had lost – by an Armenian priest. “But if there’s no Armenian church where you live,” she added, “a Russian Orthodox priest will do just as well.” She left the USSR in 1933, and for the next seventy-nine years, she was homesick, and grieved for Russia. She’d spend hours telling me about the way Russian church bells ring, Russian hospitality, Russian jokes. She’d recite Russian verses. A fortune teller had told her that she would die in her homeland. She clung to that. After glasnost eased restrictions on speech and travel in the 1980s, she sent a postcard to the address of her family home in Rostov-on-Don. There was no reply. Decades later, she died in Rome, aged one hundred.
My grandmother gifted Russian first to my mother, then to me. But with it, she inevitably bequeathed me her trauma.
“Those aren’t Russians, they’re sovietchina,” she would say about some Russian speakers in the street, when we lived in Nice in the 1970s. Sovietchina. I was nine years old and this word or its contemptuous connotations meant nothing to me. All I knew was that these people sounded very different from my mother and my grandmother. Their tone sounded harsh, their vowels chiseled like wrought iron to my ears accustomed to the soft Russian spoken by my grandmother, my mother, and the Russians we’d meet while strolling down the Promenade des Anglais. To this day, I don’t know why so-called Soviets and Russians should have sounded so different. I can only speculate that the Soviet regime may have encouraged a more vigorous mode of expression to convey the pride in the new Motherland, one that would contrast with the old ways of the genteel (seen as weak), the bourgeois – the tsarist. The White Russians with blue blood in their veins, as opposed to the uncompromising red blood of the Bolsheviks.
I remember a few of those White émigrés, with their elegant, taper-waisted Borzois, their coats with fur collars the worse for wear. I remember their quiet pride and the weariness of living in a changed world. My grandmother and I often sat on a bench, looking at the Baie des Anges. “Vy govorite po-russki?” they’d ask when they overheard us. Do you speak Russian? A question filled with eager hope. Another person with your language, your accent, possibly from your vanished home. They’d stop and chat for a while. All elderly, the men straight as arrows, sometimes giving my grandmother a little bow, the ladies smiling and taking an interest in me, delighted that I spoke Russian. Old Russians, my grandmother called them, formed before the 1917 Revolution or at least in the old style. And then there were the new Russians or, in my family’s lingo, sovietchina.
I was eleven when, one sunny afternoon, my grandmother and I were walking down Boulevard Pasteur, where we then lived. A family was coming towards us and I caught a few Russian words. Anticipating beaming smiles and a bubbly conversation, I went up to them. “Vy govorite po-russki?“
I can still remember my cheeks burning with disbelief and embarrassment. They fell silent, looked at me sternly, then walked past us without stopping. My grandmother put a comforting hand on my shoulder. “Sovietchina,” she said.
In 1984, after leaving school, I spent the summer working in a ladies’ clothes shop in Rome. One day, two Soviet women came in and gestured at a sweater embroidered with pearls they’d seen in the window display. The shop owner laid every available colour variation out on the counter. The women discussed among themselves the relative merits of each colour, agreed on the white sweater, and wondered if they could also buy another size for a friend. They were struggling to communicate this in Italian, so I asked them, in Russian, if they wished me to translate. They fell silent and looked at me very coldly for what felt like an uncomfortably long time, before resuming their laborious exchange with the owner, blanking me out entirely. My boss was totally baffled. French and American tourists were always so happy when they found out I spoke their languages. I couldn’t explain it to him because I couldn’t fathom it myself.
There were other, similar incidents. I can’t understand the reason behind them any more now than I did then. Were they unnerved by coming across a Russian speaker abroad? Did they feel threatened in some way?
Generalisations, however stupid and wrong, originate from the sum of someone’s personal experience. And my less-than-positive early experiences with Russians – or rather Soviets – led to a prejudice which was, no doubt, partly fuelled by the ghost of my grandmother’s own trauma. Soviets were the ones who’d stopped her going to university because she refused to be a member of the Communist Party, leaving her with no choice but to marry a man she hardly knew, abandon her beloved family, and move abroad with him. Soviets, who had subsequently censored her mother’s and sister’s letters. I still have them, falling out of their envelopes in strips, parts missing, cut out with scissors. What did these parts contain, I wonder, that could have offended the USSR? I’ll never know. Soviets, also, who had probably sent an anti-Communist uncle of hers to the Gulag, before her mother euphemistically wrote, “Uncle is no longer with us.” My grandmother couldn’t find peace over this. “What did she mean by ‘no longer with us’? Did he die? Then why not just say so? No. He was probably arrested and sent somewhere…” Soviets, who finally stood between her and the chance of ever knowing what had happened to her mother and sister after their letters stopped coming one day. She went to the Soviet Consulate, begging for information. Nothing. A blank. Darling, when I die, please have prayers said for me and for my mother, my father and my sister. God only knows what became of them.
As a child, one of my recurring nightmares was being trapped in the Soviet Union, unable to get out. I would awake in the grip of fear. “Silly girl, you’ve never even been to the Soviet Union,” my grandmother would say over breakfast after I’d tell her about these dreams.
In the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies made it easier to leave the USSR, so, in my twenties, I began meeting more Soviets. None of them glared at me or shunned me. As a matter of fact, most of them were very friendly towards me. Perhaps they no longer had to be quite as defensive. In any case, as the Iron Curtain dissolved, so did my prejudice.
But my blockage wasn’t just with Russian people, old or new. It was with the actual language. I couldn’t relate to it. All my life, people have eulogised to me about the Russian language and literature, eyes brimming with longing, telling me how very lucky I am to have spoken Russian since childhood. They’re shocked to discover that I haven’t read the doorstop Russian classics, not just in the original but in any language. For decades I willfully avoided Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, et al., and fled, like a bat out of hell, from what I perceived as bucketsful of overflowing, cloying emotion. I found all that deep feeling overwhelming, oppressive.
My blockage was linked to my grandmother’s trauma, yes – but also to my own relationship with my family.
My grandmother taught me to read Russian with the help of a heavy volume of Pushkin’s complete works. It was during a period of major upheaval in my family – consecutive house and country moves, and poverty – during which we somehow ended up spending an unplanned year in Athens, living in apartments with no furniture and no kitchen appliances. All our possessions were boxed up, so we slept on mattresses on the floor and sat on plastic beer crates. My grandmother cooked what she could on a camping gas burner and served it in plastic receptacles saved from purchased food. In the morning, my mother would swill her Maxwell House instant coffee granules in hot water from the tap. We had very few books with us and the Pushkin was the only one in Russian.
I didn’t go to school for that whole year, so, during the day, she would teach me to read and write in Russian. I struggled to master the Cyrillic alphabet and rebelled, preferring to spend my days idling. My treat came after dinner, when she would read aloud to me. My mother worked all the hours God sent, so my grandmother would prepare two cups of hot water with a slice oforange picked from a tree in the street,and open the bulky volume on her lap. I sat listening to her, mesmerized, the semi-darkness of the room acting as a screen for images my imagination created for the hapless Captain’s Daughter, the dashing Dubrovsky, the magic of Ruslan and Lyudmila, and the creepy Mozart and Salieri. Over the next few years, apartments, and countries, I learned to decipher Pushkin’s multicolored words for myself and we would then take it in turns to read aloud to each other. I ended up reading or hearing every line Alexander Sergeyevich ever published. Except The Queen of Spades. “You’re too impressionable,” my grandmother would say, “and it’s a scary story, so it’ll probably give you nightmares.”
Hmm. She didn’t shy away from reading me descriptions of hangings and bloodshed in The Captain’s Daughter (which did give me nightmares).
I loved Pushkin and still do. My eyes grow moist at the sound of verses from Eugene Onegin and I often recite the poem The Demons to myself. That’s the Russian I feel close to. Pushkin, but also Russian fairy tales, which were and are even now very influential in my way of thinking.
As a small child, mealtimes were an ordeal. I was never hungry and had to be cajoled, threatened, and emotionally blackmailed into eating. Sweetheart, please, won’t you eat? It’s delicious. If you don’t eat you’ll never grow tall. You’re not leaving the table until you’ve cleared your plate. Do you love Mama and Bábushka? Well, if you love us then you’ll have just one more forkful… And another one or you’ll make us cry. What worked best was negotiation. If I eat this, will you tell me a story?
My grandmother always kept her end of the bargain, and being immersed in the magic world of firebirds, bears, foxes and enchantresses is one of the happiest memories of my childhood. She would sometimes tell them, sometimes read them from a book I still have and treasure. I especially loved the character of Vasilisa the Wise, a beautiful sorceress with powers even greater than those of her father and who – unlike Western fairy-tale heroines – would be the one to save the prince. I much preferred her to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow-White, whose happiness ultimately depended on the prince finding his way to their feet or their lips. What if my prince got stuck in traffic or took a wrong turn and didn’t find me? At least with Vasilisa as a role model, I could always give him a helping hand. Also, as a child who felt less threatened by animals than by humans, I loved the wise words and loyalty of eagles, bears, wolves and foxes. As an adult, when I have conversations with the pigeons on our balcony, or tell my day to an amber-eyed urban fox rummaging through a rubbish bin, I blame my shameless anthropomorphising on the tales of Afanasyev.
Outside Pushkin and fairy tales, my blindspot for Russian was becoming increasingly obvious. As I entered my teenage years, there was no way of persuading me to read Russian books or write anything in Russian. I still formed Cyrillic letters like a five-year-old and my spelling was as atrocious as my vocabulary was poor. Were it not for my monolingual grandmother, I would probably have refused to speak Russian. I cringed when strangers asked me to say something in Russian. As soon as I was old enough to go out unaccompanied, I started looking for excuses not to be seen in public places with my mother and, especially, my grandmother. I was willing to starve just to be spared the mortifying experience of going shopping with them. When I was growing up in Italy and France, foreigners were relatively few outside tourist areas, and speaking Russian made us stick out like a sore thumb. In addition, my family was different from those of the other girls and boys at my school: I didn’t have a father, my mother was unmarried, I wasn’t christened, I had no siblings or cousins, we ate different food, we couldn’t afford to go on holiday and we spoke a different language. We were oddballs – and Russian embodied for me our inability to fit in, to blend in, to be accepted.
When I was fifteen, we moved from France back to Italy, and my mother decided that since my grandmother’s efforts to teach me correct Russian had yielded little result, perhaps I’d work harder if shamed into it by an outsider. So she arranged weekly private lessons with a professional teacher. Irina Alexandrovna was a plump, red-cheeked, blue-eyed, middle-aged lady who lived in a cluttered flat that smelt of cat. I began to experience all kinds of ailments, from tummy aches to dizziness, just before I had to catch the bus to go to my lesson. Once, I rang her bell and bolted immediately, then told my mother nobody had answered the door. After a few months, my mother finally gave up, and Irina Alexandrovna was invited to our flat for an apologetic tea and cakes.
Still, my grandmother wouldn’t give up. We couldn’t afford to take holidays anywhere, and she declared that the three months’ summer vacation stipulated by the French school system was far too long for doing nothing and letting my brain vegetate. She always insisted I get ahead with my schoolwork over the summer, but that particular year, in addition to Dante and Chateaubriand, there would be Dostoyevsky. It was an offence that, at seventeen, I hadn’t yet read Crime and Punishment. And so, every morning, before the Roman midday sun made sitting out on the balcony unbearable, I was condemned to reading aloud while my grandmother knitted a blanket from leftover yarns, and corrected my pronunciation and word stress. After a while, we would swap and I’d listen while knitting with as much motivation and skill as I read. I hated Raskolnikov, I hated St. Petersburg, I hated Russia. It was grossly unfair that my schoolmates were enjoying themselves on Sardinian beaches or in the cool Dolomites while I had been sentenced to a summer of Dostoyevsky – and why did he have to write such long books, anyway?
After I left my family home to move to England, at the age of nineteen, I practically never spoke Russian again except when visiting my mother and grandmother in Rome. They commented with disappointment that I was forgetting the little Russian I knew. My grandmother never tired of urging me to read in Russian. Katia, you’re so lucky to have been given Russian at birth – why are you throwing it away like this? But returning to Russian for me would have meant being reabsorbed in a life where I felt unhappy, trapped, and where I was always different to the people around me. So instead I focused all my energy on English, French and Italian.
In the past few months, I’ve developed an unexplained urge to speak Russian, to hear Russian, like never before.
When Russian forces first attacked Ukraine, I couldn’t tear myself away from news reports. I’d listen to the news last thing before going to sleep and first thing on waking up. If I woke up in the middle of the night, I’d switch on the radio news headlines. And I started catching myself reacting in Russian. I’d express my disbelief, my anger, and my distress, I’d pray, plead, and curse, turn to seek my husband’s response, and realise from his blank expression that I’d just been speaking Russian. At the same time, I felt a deep sense of frustration, because the range of Russian vocabulary available to me was so pitifully narrow that I was unable to express myself as I wished. No, I didn’t want to say it or shout it or whisper it in English. Or French. Or Italian. What was bubbling up inside me could only be blurted out faithfully in Russian. Only I didn’t – don’t – have enough Russian. And so the fury and horror that flared up in me at the news of every new Russian attack and dogged insistence on not calling it a war also triggered my rage at being unable to convey my feelings in Russian. It was as though I was partly gagged; only I’d done the gagging, by refusing to study Russian properly.
Still, what little I could express in Russian could only be shared with a Russian speaker. I reached out to those I knew. I invited a dear Russian friend over and served black tea with sour cherry jam. It was childish of me perhaps, but I longed to be back in my grandmother’s kitchen, soaking in bucketsful of the very kind of Russian warmth and emotion I’d spent decades avoiding. The kind of warmth that would, at least for a moment, turn into love the despair and hatred I was feeling – and so desperately trying not to feel. Hating makes me feel tainted, toxic, and recent events had made me saturated with it. I needed something good, loving, and light from Russia to counterbalance the darkness, the senseless brutality, and the horrors perpetrated by Russian hands in Ukraine.
While working on my translations from Italian, Russian words started popping into my head uninvited. Idioms, bits of poetry, even nursery rhymes.
On their journey, the Tartars lost their cat… And the next person who speaks will have to eat the dead cat’s stripped tail as forfeit. My exhausted mother would regularly resort to this game to keep me quiet for five minutes. I remembered my grandmother reading me Gogol’s Dikanka stories and explaining Ukrainian words. How did she know them? Did she have Ukrainian friends? Or was it because her family lived in Rostov, near Ukraine?
I picked up a 1958 edition of The Oxford Book of Russian Verse my husband gave me, by way of encouragement, a few birthdays ago. Naturally, I struggled with it.
A few days after the war broke out, I attended a rally in support of Ukraine in the city where we live. I approached the organisers. “I’m so sorry, I don’t know any Ukrainian, but I speak Russian. If refugees come here,” I said in Russian, giving my phone number, “and if you need any help, an extra pair of hands…” And just as I was saying it, my heart sank at the thought that I might be offering something I couldn’t deliver, so I added, “I mean I can speak it okay – as you can hear – but I’m not very good at reading it and I can hardly write it.” By the time I’d finished my drawn-out explanation, I felt thoroughly ashamed of myself. Although I may not have any Russian blood – at least as far as I know – I grew up with Russian. When your family gives you a language, you become bound to it, even it takes you decades to realise it. I am not responsible for the unspeakable brutality in Ukraine, but as a Russian speaker I cannot turn away from it as though it did not concern me. Inheritance always comes with duty. Sometimes, it’s the duty to make sense of inherited traumas. I can no longer avoid Russia. It’s there whenever I switch on the news or read a newspaper. I want to understand what has led to these atrocities, however far back in history the trigger lies. I also want to understand all those Russians who risk their lives and freedom bravely to stand up against this. I want to understand Russia – just like I want to learn about Ukraine, its history, its people.
For all my romantic notions of Russia as Tchaikovsky’s wistful tones, the unequalled richness and wisdom of its fairy tales, and that deep, raw, all-demanding emotion – and ache – the Russian language provokes in me, and which I fled for decades, I know nothing about Russia, or its literature, or its people. I want to understand what led to this monstrous conflict. Understanding does not mean condoning. Understanding means seeing things clearly, dispassionately – so you can truly be helpful.
Next time I go and offer my help, I want to be able to deliver.
As I write this, there’s an old copy of The Penguin Russian Course next to me. One has to start somewhere. It’s an edition from 1984. Funny, that was the year I took off from my family home, and thought I’d left Russian behind me forever.
By Katia Gregor
Katia Gregor translates from Italian and French as Katherine Gregor