Mother tongue: Learning Russian in St Petersburg

Taking an intensive Russian-language course in the historic city of St Petersburg.

St Petersburg, which was founded in 1703, became a city of many bridges after the death of Peter the Great. Getty Images
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I’m running late, and ­“Babushka” is getting worried. She has been expecting me by a certain time, but my flight into St Petersburg’s international airport has been delayed, and I have no way of reaching her. It’s my first time in Russia. It’s also the first time I’ve forfeited my usual adventure-holiday travel and signed up for a month of language training.

“Zdravstvuyte,” I say by way of greeting to Vlad, the young man who meets me at the airport. The Derzhavin Institute has sent him to pick me up. He will take me to my accommodation with a local family, a babushka (Russian for grandmother) – a widow pensioner whose children live abroad. Her name is Valentina, and her home sits in the city’s historic quarter just off the famous ­Kamennoostrovsky ­Prospekt.

The courtyard in the centre of the pre-war building where Valentina lives would become etched in my memory of St Petersburg. Almost every building has such a courtyard. In the olden days, people parked their horse and buggy in it. Now, small children play in these courtyards as parents peek at them through the window. Sometimes, late at night on a weekend, men sing out of tune by the courtyard’s iron gate, another ubiquitous feature in the city’s ­architecture.

Vlad carries my suitcase through the gate. When I look up, I see a rosy-cheeked, silver-haired woman in the window of an apartment looking down at us. She coos and gesticulates with her hands as she speaks in Russian, to which Vlad replies. We walk up a flight of stairs, and there she stands in a summer house dress, on her parquet floor, her door wide open, her foyer spacious and bright. I extend my hand to introduce myself, but instead she plants two firm kisses on my cheek. There's a lot of Russian, punctuated with dyevushka (Russian for young woman) and sighs of concern, which Vlad eventually summaries. "She says she was worried, but she's relieved you're here." I am, too. School will begin the following morning, and I had better get unpacked and orientated.

The Derzhavin Institute welcome pack warns you of several things about St Petersburg, such as never get stuck on the wrong island. It was Peter the Great who founded St Petersburg in 1703, after visiting Italy and falling in love with the city of Venice. He wanted canals and waterways, and decreed that every citizen should own a boat, so he banned the construction of bridges to ensure his vision came true.

The city would serve as the capital of the Russian Federation for the next 200 years. But after Peter’s death, his wife, Catherine, reversed the ban on bridges and started building them. After midnight, each bridge opens to allow commercial boats sailing between the Gulf of Finland and the Russian heartlands. If you ­happen to be on the wrong embankment, you will become stranded there until the bridge closes.

“You can find a cafe or bookstore and wait there for the night. Many are open 24 hours,” says Elena Klimova, a school coordinator, at our orientation. It’s a moot point in the summer, though, because the sun never sets during what’s known as White Nights.

The welcome packet also warns about “long distances” in St Petersburg, but this sinks in only after pounding the pavement for hours on end. Blocks are long, streets are wide, and jaywalking is illegal. “If you get arrested, please call our emergency number listed in your notebooks,” Klimova says.

I look around the school and notice tags in Russian on everything. Dver for door. Window, toilet – there's a tag for every object. Later that day, when I walk down the boulevard in search of lunch, I even notice a huge name tag floating by a street light. "C TO∏," it said, which at first glance I thought spelt stoll, or table, which leaves me perplexed. A couple of days later I finally realise it's ­Cyrillic for "stop".

Perhaps the most striking thing about St Petersburg is how the women dress. Classic knee-high or shorter A-line dresses, sometimes with polka dots or a floral pattern, and matching stilettos that would put any catwalk model to shame. That they manage to rush up and down steep escalators in metro stations and walk for blocks in such shoes remains a mystery to me. I ask almost everyone how it’s possible? “It’s genetic,” says an American expat. “I’m a foreigner, and I just can’t do it.” A young Russian woman who spent years living in Italy has another theory. “It’s a hangover from Soviet times,” she says. “They used to have one or two choices of what to wear, and suddenly they have so many.”

As the days go by, personalities in our beginner class begin to unfold. There’s Hanz, an animated Swiss trumpet player well into his 50s who’s learning ­Russian as a “hobby”. Then there’s another Hanz, this one a retired Swiss physician, who left his wife behind for two weeks. “She goes up to the mountains for the fresh air, and I come here to learn ­Russian,” he explains.

There’s the younger crowd, such as Sophia, a Pakistan-born, 28-year-old emergency-room doctor from Germany. “I want to join Doctors Without ­Borders, and I need to learn more languages,” she explains. Then there are the “buddies”: two ­Italians, a Spaniard and a Briton, all in their early to mid-20s. Each is on a quest of his own.

Giovanni has a Russian ­dyevushka, which in this context means girlfriend. He has come to St Petersburg with her for the summer, and the young couple – both art-history students in Italy – are staying at her parents' house in St Petersburg. Determined to learn Russian, he's signed up for intensive learning, which keeps him at school everyday from 9am to 3.30pm.

“When I went home, I saw my girlfriend for a little bit before she went to her English-­language school,” he says, struggling in Russian at the start of our class, when we recount what we did the day before. He appears particularly dishevelled that morning, his hair a mess.

“And what did you eat?” the teacher says, a question that quickly becomes an insider’s joke for our classroom. “Borscht, of course,” Giovanni says, referring to Russia’s most popular soup dish, made of beets, and served hot or cold, with or without beef and sour cream. Giovanni always eats it for dinner, and tells us about it the following morning, as we learn new vocabulary with which to express our amusement.

"Jose, skajite pojaluysta [can you please tell me?]?" asks the teacher, addressing the ­Spaniard. "Tell us, back home in your country, is it customary to take an afternoon nap?"

“Da,” says Jose, a college senior considering a career in law, as he attempts to explain in Russian the concept of a siesta.

Rob, the Briton, chuckles, then makes his own attempt in Russian at explaining how absurd a siesta would be in the United Kingdom. Rob is a philosophy graduate who readily reveals how he recently quit his job as an investment banker. Often during class, an intense look overwhelms his young features, and for a moment he stares into nothing. “I really don’t know what I’m doing here,” he says one morning in class, answering a question during our conversational exercise. We laugh. Whether we admit it or not, many of us feel the same way. We can’t explain why, exactly, we’re so attracted to Russia and learning its language.

In the 1970s and 80s, I would spend summers in Syria with extended family. These special visits were many things, not least of which was a window into Soviet-style living. Syria was an ally of the USSR, and although it stopped short of communism, Syria captured other aspects of Soviet living, such as the architecture, tyranny and food shortages. Many Syrians received free higher education in Russia, then returned home with Russian wives. In recent years, as I covered the war in Syria, Moscow’s prominent role became evident in its unwavering support of the Assad regime. All these things have long piqued my curiosity about Russia, its people and language, and I’ve decided it’s finally time for me to go and get to know the place.

Peter Kozyrev, a Russian tour operator whose company ­PetersWalk ( gives excellent walking and bicycle tours of the city in several languages, explains the country’s allure. “Maybe only 20 per cent of Russians are religious, but 100 per cent are influenced by Russian literature, which is influenced by the Russian ­Orthodox Church. Not so much a religious influence as an embrace of ­mystery.”

It’s in stark contrast to the northern European emphasis on “rationality”, he explains. “In this regard, Russians are more eastern than western. When I travel to Arab countries, I feel on some cultural level we have a lot in common,” he adds.

I can relate, and explain this in my newly acquired language skills to a group of Russians I meet. “You speak incredibly well for someone who’s only been here one month,” one of them responds. Not quite like a native, I think. But after 90 hours of full immersion, I can at least express how much I want to sound like one.

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