A volume of Chekhov’s plays, bound in green silk, corners showing through fraying fabric:
Many a love affair with Russian begins this way, or perhaps curled up with a sturdy leather-bound copy of Война и мир (War and Peace). This is no light-hearted dalliance, however — the language of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Pasternak doesn’t give up its secrets easily. On the page, familiar letters rub shoulders with miniature capitals, angular exotica and the reversed я of a thousand vodka commercials. Just squint a little harder, and maybe the meanings hidden there will rise to the surface. Even this partial intelligibility, however, is mostly an accident of history: for much of its existence, the difference between Кириллица (the Cyrillic alphabet) and the Latin alphabet was far greater than it is today.
Two aquiline-nosed brothers, grey bearded, blue capped, one green-robed, the other red:
St. Cyril and St Methodius journey from their native Thessaloniki on a mission to the Slavs of Moravia. Cyrillic might be named in honor of the older brother, but this is a red herring. The Glagolitic alphabet he invents to write down the sounds of Old Church Slavonic all but vanishes after his death. The “Russian” alphabet isn’t Russian at all; its 43 Greek-inspired letters are first scratched onto birch bark in the 9th century some 2,000 km south of Moscow in Preslav, Bulgaria. Emerging tentatively from the liturgical shelter of the church, it adapts itself ad hoc to the fast-diverging vernaculars of the Orthodox faithful. The simpler vowels of Old Russian almost immediately render a swathe of letters redundant. They shuffle off-stage like a squadron of space invaders — Ѫ, Ѭ, Ѧ, Ѩ.
A new Baroque capital built on a marsh:
The love affair between Пётр Великий (Peter the Great) and everything Parisian gives rise to canals, boulevards and a new incarnation of the alphabet. His гражданский шрифт (civil script) of 1708 begins the faltering process of bringing Cyrillic to its modern form. All diacritics except й disappear, a shapely parade of letters — Ѯ, Ѱ, Ѡ — fades away, serifs swell in round-bellied homage to the Roman tradition, spurning the gaunt angles of Byzantium. The influence of the past wanes, and Russian spelling descends into chaos. The letters ѵ and ѳ fall by the wayside, ё shows its face for the first time. Attempts to impose conflicting orthographic reforms only deepen the confusion. Finally, a Russian of German extraction teaching at Helsinki University, named Yakov Karlovich Grot, establishes some semblance of order. His Russian Orthography of 1885 paves the way for Shakhmotov’s post-revolutionary reforms of 1917. Ѣ and i finally vanish, and the convoluted rules governing Russian spelling to this day are established (a few wrangles with e and ë and the mispronunciations of a dictator aside).
A map unfolded like a concertina:
Российская Федерация (the Russian Federation) occupies an arm-stretching arc from the Baltic Sea in the west to the Bering Strait in the east. It hugs the ever-diminishing ice flows of the Arctic, rises to the peaks of the High Caucasus, marches to the windswept steppes of Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Manchuria. A massive 6,563 km separates Балтийск (Baltiysk) perched on a spit of land in Gdansk Bay from Уэлен (Uelen) — perched on another spit of land in Chukotka. A hundred languages from Abaza to Yakut are spoken here, but pусский язык (the Russian language) is known by all but a fraction of its 144,192,450 inhabitants. Add in the Russian speakers in the 14 states of the former Советский Союз (Soviet Union) and in Mongolia, up to 20% of the population of Israel and those in émigré communities the world over, and this number swells to 260 million.
A soft-back book, dog-eared, filled with tables and rules, its margins dotted with scribbled notes:
Russian, like its siblings Belarusian and Ukrainian, displays a typically Slavic profusion of genders, cases and declensions, moods, aspects and conjugations, laying many a trap for the unwary. Yet in contrast to the mid-Atlantic rifts of English, Portuguese and Spanish, or the yawning fault-lines dividing the daughter languages of China and the Arab World, the Russian spoken in Владивосток и Владикавказ (Vladivostok and Vladikavkaz) is all but identical.
Even in its wooded heartland, history has ironed the rumples flat and standard Russian is found everywhere except at the table of дедушка и бабушка (grandfather and grandmother) in the most rustic of backwaters. There is no mosaic of dialects, no parallel lists of vocabulary to learn, only a smattering of minor variations in pronunciation. In the Old Russian north of Иван Грозный (Ivan the Terrible) and the dense forests of the Uralic-speaking Udmurt, Mari and Komi peoples, the process of аканье (ákanye), which reduces unstressed vowels to an “a” sound, is repressed, giving rise to a so-called оканье (ókanye). In the south-west near the border with the Ukraine, the letter г becomes a more Ukrainian “h” instead of a hard “g.” No tom-ay-toes and tom-ah-toes here, instead it all boils down to two simple questions: Do I pronounce проспект as praspyékt or prospyékt? And, do I say the magical Mr. Potter’s first name — Гарри Поттер — as Gary or Harry?
Almost uniquely among the great world languages, the Russian learned in the classroom can be applied across the entire range of its spoken territory. Here at last, there is some consolation; the notebooks and the learning lists can be put aside, and the grammar-weary traveler can rest.