How learning Russian changed my life: 5 stories told by foreigners

From reading Tolstoy in the original to finding a job, romantic love and new friends: Here are the stories of foreigners who thought they were merely learning grammar rules, but instead discovered an entire new world.

William Brumfield, U.S.

Professor of Slavic Studies, historian of Russian architecture, expert photographer

“I began formal study of Russian at Johns Hopkins University, which in the early 1960s had a miniscule program staffed by one untenured lecturer. The very small Russian classes allowed me to enter the language of the great literature that I had begun to read in high school. Eugene Onegin was my primary textbook.

No special methodology in those days! If not for my instructor in Russian, I’d not have entered the world of Russian Studies. Perhaps my life would have taken a more ‘normal’ course, but Russian architecture would have lost one of its most active proponents.

There was another teacher who inspired my study of Russia and its architecture. Nina Volodina, a specialist in teaching Russian to foreigners, was passionately interested in the history of Moscow and arranged tours of historic districts during our free time. This was during my first trip to Russia in the summer of 1970.

Often I was the only one, but still she conducted the tour and gave me lists of historic buildings. Although most were closed churches, we were still able to appreciate the beauty of the architecture. At that time I bought my first camera and began taking pictures. When I came home and developed the photos, I was amazed with the result.

I had no idea that this interest would lead to dozens of books and an enormous photographic collection, yet the main thing was the spark of interest.”

Discover remote Russian northern churches and Russian architecture with William Brumfield and Russia Beyond special project>>>

Ajay Kamalakaran, India


“I started learning Russian at the Russian Cultural Center in Mumbai, India. My first Russian friend, who I met in Mumbai, invited me to her grandparents’ home in Voronezh. This was a great opportunity to get a firsthand glimpse into Russian family life and see if my language skills were up to the mark. I had enrolled at the Sakhalin State University a few months earlier.

“I was totally overwhelmed by the warmth and wholesomeness of my Russian grandparents. As soon as we entered the apartment, dedushka hugged and kissed me the same way he did his own granddaughters. He then asked me about my hometown before putting a pin on Mumbai on his world map. This was an honor he reserved only for his family members.

“Learning Russian basically opened up a completely new world to me. Some of my closest friends don’t speak English or any other foreign languages. Russian was a great gateway for me into the society of the country, and helped me see and experience a lot more than a non-Russian speaker could ever dream of. This extended beyond Russia and into former Soviet republics. It’s easy for me to walk around cities like Odessa in Ukraine and completely be at peace since I can speak Russian.

Another great advantage of learning Russian was the ability to read the works of Chekhov, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy in the original. And then there’s the opportunity to check out the latest books published in Russia even if they aren’t translated.”

Ajay is the author of Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island. Read our review on it.

John Varoli, U.S.


“I fell in love with Russia and the Russian language when I took a course, ‘Introduction to Russia,’ at my high school, the International School of Brussels. It was 1985, still a tense time in the Cold War, so only the most stalwart, independent thinkers signed up for this course; (by signing up for the course you could easily be suspected as treasonously sympathetic to Russia!)

However, the Russian we learned in textbooks had nothing in common with real-life Russian. When I finally moved to Russia in June 1992, I made it my goal to learn the real Russian, and this I did by renting rooms (16 different places in Moscow in 3 years!) with friends and families who didn't speak English, even twice living in a kommunalka.

Also, as is well-known, you can only truly understand a nation by knowing their language; so much is lost in translation. But for Russians I find this even more relevant than say for Czechs, French or Italians; (languages that I've also studied and speak). In addition, consider the fact that relatively few Russians speak English; you really need to know Russian if you want to understand the country. Armed with knowledge of the language I learned much about the Russian mentality and worldview, which is quite different from ours.

For example, take the notions of freedom and taboos. Intellectually, Russians are very free, and are willing and able to discuss any topic. In America, however, we have many taboos (they differ from region to region), and we tend to ridicule and shame people who think differently. I rarely saw that in my 20 years in Russia. Yes, Russians can certainly disagree with you, but they will hear you out, and respect your opinion.

For me, this Russian intellectual integrity, this desire to search for truth and to try to understand life, had a huge impact on me as a journalist and writer. You rarely find this in America, where our powerful and omnipresent mass media tends to dictate what topics can be discussed and how they should be discussed.

Kaname Okano, Japan

PhD student

“I started learning Russian when I was 18 and enrolled in university, where I studied at Russian language and literature department. I chose Russian as my specialization because I was keen on the language, Cyrillic alphabet, literature and culture of our ‘mysterious’ northern neighbors.

Russian language opened a whole new world for me – the world of the Slavic languages. The more I discovered the Russians, the more I was interested in their nation. When I finished my Masters in Japan, this interest lead me to enroll in a PhD program in the Serbian city of Novi Sad, where I now study Serbian, Bulgarian, Ruthenian and other Slavic languages.

Without the Russian language I wouldn’t realize what I really like and what I want to do in the future. In a couple of months I will start teaching Russian in the Japanese university where I used to study, and I really hope that my students will love Russian and other Slavic languages as much I do and even more.”

Lara McCoy, U.S.


“It all started when my mom named me after the main heroine in Boris Pasternak’s novel, Doctor Zhivago.

My relationship with the Russian language has always been a little tortured. I fell in love with Russia through the study of Russian history, and I struggled to learn the language.

On my first two trips to Russia, I couldn't say anything at all. I'm not naturally gifted with languages, and I found it very hard. When I first moved to Moscow, even though I had studied Russian for two years at that point, I had no idea how to communicate. During my first three months in Moscow, I just listened to how people spoke, how they gave directions and ordered at the store.

Even now, after more than nine years in Russia, my language skills are limited. I can understand things pretty well, but I don't have any nuance in my speech and make many grammatical mistakes.

My proudest moment communicating in Russian was getting the manager of Sedmoi Continent [food store] to refund my money after the cashier overcharged me for a muffin. That's my level of Russian now - good enough to argue with a store clerk.

My kids, who grew up in Russia, are completely bilingual and find my speaking really embarrassing. I remember one day trying to ask a question to the principal at my daughter's school, and her saying "Katya, find out what your mother wants and tell me later. I don't have time to figure out what she's saying!” So for now learning Russian is a challenge to understand my own kids better, and to be involved in their lives and connect with friends more.

Do you want to change your life too? Here are 8 steps to learn Russian like a pro.

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