I just discovered this 2007 post at the never-to-be-sufficiently-praised Poemas del río Wang and had to share it; it’s a paean to the hidden international society of lovers of the Russian language:

In Persia one can more or less get by with English. With Persian one can settle more difficult cases as well. But hearts can be really opened only with Russian.
From Tehran through Isfahan to Shiraz we were asked in the most unexpected sites: Po-russki govoritye? (And you speak in Russian too?) Each time they asked it like a child who reveals a secret treasure, a rare and precious stamp, desirous to see the other appreciating it. The positive answer was greeted with a shining smile, and then a long, warm conversation followed in Russian. The people who asked it of us were Armenians and Azeris who are just as numerous in Iran as in the former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan….

It is always a peculiar experience to speak in Russian with non-Russians. When speaking in English, German, Italian, Spanish or any other idiom, it always remains clear that this is not my own language. It is a neutral intermediary language that is perhaps a pleasure for the other to hear, and perhaps I too can convincingly use it, but it always remains something extraneous to me. Russian, however, creates fellowship, recalls childhood remembrances, revives the memory of the films, books and jokes widely known in all the bygone empire, evokes the experience of that once common world. It creates such a closeness between a Hungarian and an Armenian in Iran which would not be possible either in English or in Persian. And not only in Iran. I had the same experience when speaking with a Bulgarian professor in Mallorca, a Polish cyclist in San Marino, a Georgian diamond dealer on the Madrid-Brussel flight, or an Uzbek innkeeper in Vienna.

It ends with a moving account of how his father encouraged him to learn Russian (in Hungary) because it “was not only the language of the Soviet army, but that of Tolstoy and Dostoevski as well. … And thanks to this, I have since then discovered that Russian is not only the language of these great authors, but that of small people as well, and not only of Russians but, in an odd way, of many different people from Bulgaria to Beijing and from Poland to Iran, organized into a kind of a community by virtue of this intermediary language. And in this way it is also mine.”


  1. John Emerson says

    The Kyrgyz HS boy I tutored loved Pushkin. The Somali friend I had in college (educated in Italian) loved Dante.

  2. I’m not a reader, so the authorial voice confused me. Who is “we”, and who is “I”? A Hungarian, clearly, but then why is the site titled in Spanish?
    In any case, the same can be said of any language that is what Ethnologue calls “a language of wider communication”, at least if it is not solely confined to market-talk.

  3. The confusion is not intentional, but in any case a pleasant by-product of the original concept of the blog, as it invites to further reading in the hope of clarifying the context.
    More or less the same could be said of a number of other languages of wider communication indeed. But this is the only one to which I have this relationship and on which I can give such a personal account.
    Thank you, Language.

  4. Charles Perry says

    On the other hand, in Uzbekistan I got to know a college kid who hated Russian — thought it a fussy, wordy language, unlike Uzbek or English. Of course that had a lot to do with the fact that in the Soviet era all education above the elementary level was in Russian so you had to learn it willy-nilly.

  5. Of course that had a lot to do with the fact that in the Soviet era all education above the elementary level was in Russian so you had to learn it willy-nilly.
    Yes, that’s why it’s completely unsurprising to find subject peoples who hated the language. What’s surprising is the number who love it.

  6. I think I read on the same río Wang blog a story of a Russian journalist finding a woman from the 20 years old story. It was about a Meskhi mother with a baby on a death march of refugees from Karabakh ro Azerbaijan. Throughout the ordeal, they communicated in Russian, then got separated. 20 years later, the journalist found her again in Azeri hinterland, but the woman no longer spoke any Russian.

  7. “Yes, that’s why it’s completely unsurprising to find subject peoples who hated the language. What’s surprising is the number who love it.”
    Attitudes are contagious and a lot of Russians really, really love their language the way other nationalities love their music or cuisine. That would rub off on some students, regardless of the circumstances of thier studying the language.

  8. Poemas del rio Wang, I agree, is a wonderful blog. One of the startling stories I enjoyed reading recently was a comparison of German and Soviet anti-Polish propaganda in cinema in 1939-1941, the period when Germany and Russia were de-facto allies.

  9. On the other hand, it is interesting how quickly German appears to have been erased from Central Europe. Even in former Hapsburg domains like Southern Poland, Slovenia, Bohemia and, maybe most tellingly, Slovakia and Hungary, it seems rare to find anyone who can speak fluent German. Only a few generations ago almost every educated Hungarian could speak German at a very high level. Yes, there are obvious historic reason why there are far fewer German speakers in these regions than there were in 1939. Still, I think Jim’s point about attitudes may be telling about why there has been no apparent resurgence of interest in German in countries like Hungary or the Czech Republic with centuries of close ties to German culture and literature. Germans do tend to be fairly unenthusiastic about their own culture and language.

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