Learning Russian

Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to write about this week. I could talk about how Assad (and Russia?) abrogated a hollow, delicate truce in Syria. Or maybe a better topic would be the recent triumph of the United Russia party in last week’s Duma elections, which saw the lowest turnout since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia is also hitting close to home with allegations of hacking and interference in the U.S. election cycle done to support Trump against Clinton. But why even bother talking about business as usual? United Russia was bound to win, the truce was made to be broken, and I have no doubts that the Russian bear has its paws in the election.

Why focus on bad news when we can focus on the good! While Russia maintained its status quo I have made a decision to move forward: I am going to try and apply for grad school. While I had originally intended to go into Russian/Eurasian Area Studies a cursory investigation of my options has prompted me to abandon this route. There seems to be virtually no doctorates in this area; I would be pigeonholed into a master’s degree. Furthermore, Eurasian Area Studies programs generally have a prerequisite of fluency in the Russian language whereas a doctorate program would give me more time to pick up the language. So as it stands now, I am looking at doctorate programs in international relations. Being in Maryland, I have plenty of local options that would work well.

Regardless of what I end up doing, I am taking every action I can to learn the Russian language.

A little bit of backstory: foreign language has always been my Achilles’ heel of sorts. That is not to say that I am bad at it. I don’t find foreign languages particularly difficult, I merely have lacked the intent and motivation to thoroughly master them. I took three years of Spanish in grade school which has mostly evaporated. In high school I studied Latin for three years, and I still boast some knowledge of Latin. I put off language courses in college. Unfortunately I decided too late to start Russian so I only have a year’s worth of actual coursework in my belt (although my alma mater’s Russian program only offered 4 courses, so even if I had taken all available classes I still would not meet the criteria for most master’s programs).

I have been making every effort to learn, although I did fall off the wagon for a brief while. Duolingo has been a pretty big help, but I am looking for something that will help me master the grammar more in-depth. Grammar has always been a challenge, probably since I skipped second grade. I can write with a fair amount of skill and clarity (hopefully you’ve noticed), but the finer details of grammar have never really stuck. This helps make language more challenging for me to master…

Luckily I do have a leg up on Russian grammar. Russia uses the same sort of case system as my ex, Latin. Syntax and structure is derived from specific endings of words. Russian and Latin both share certain cases, such as the accusative and dative, and this has made the language much more approachable for me.  Of course this can be a double-edged sword. Some cases have identical or similar endings, meaning that you have to rely on syntax, and the sheer abundance of endings and alternate forms can be as baffling as it is intimidating.

Ironically the easiest part of the Russian language, the Cyrillic alphabet, impresses most laypersons. It only has a few more letters than English, and for the most part the sounds are verily similar (the alphabet has actually been simplified over the years by successive regimes, with the modern alphabet stemming from the Soviet edition. Some Russian letters are merely just familiar sounds grouped into one, such as ч for the “ch” sound or ш for the “sh” sound (not to mention щ which is a bizarre, punctuated “shch” sound). Learning a few easy rules, like spelling peculiarities and the split between soft and hard vowels, makes the learning process much easier. Writing in Russian is easy once you master Russian cursive. I am pretty comfortable with English cursive and calligraphy, so Russian cursive came fairly naturally. I even incorporated some the strokes from Russian into my English cursive.

Pronunciation of Russian is fairly straightforward. Certain vowel have a “y” sound before them which can be a little tricky, and sometimes the “i kratkaya” (й) is used as a y-glide which can be difficult to notice or incorporate into spelling. The only difficult pronunciation rules really revolve around stress, which has an impact on how vowels like “о” and “я” are pronounced. Every language has its strange sounds, and for Russian this is the “yuri” (the letter Ы). Ы ends up sounding like the French “oui” with the front loaded “w” sound dulled. The exact pronunciation is hard to articulate here, but you would likely be able to pick up on this relatively common letter by listening to Russian speech. The good news is that most Russian native speakers could still make sense of a butchered pronunciation mistake like this. I was told by native Russian speakers from Ukraine and the motherland itself that my pronunciation sounds natural, something I take a particular pride in.

So here was a brief primer of my journey through the Russian language. As of right now I am mildly conversation and literate, but I lack the depth and exposure needed for more articulate, natural sounding Russian. Its easy to learn any language with a modicum of patience, but you also need actual, tangible motivation as well. Looking to the future, I will definitely need to develop and perfect my Russian. Moving forward, I simply need more work (and greater organization: I think I will start a Russian notebook).



Make the Game Great Again!

The “Great Game” was Kipling’s name for the competition between Russia and Great Britain in Afghanistan, in particular, and Central Asia, in general. Great Britain wanted to defend its imperial ventures, while Imperial Russia wanted to both thwart these while enhancing its own designs and perhaps even satiating that age-old Russian lust for a warm-water port.

What exactly is “Central Asia.” We might know them better as the “Stans.” Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan (Pakistan is South Asia though). Central Asia is the body of countries between the Middle East and East Asia, Siberia and South Asia. The people are almost universally Muslim, and most are of Turkic descent. While the region seems politically inert, it has its own rich history of conquest and dominance. Of special note is the city of Samarkand and its most famous son, Tamerlane.

In recent history the Russian Empire and, later, the Soviet Union came to largely dominate affairs in all of Central Asia, save for Afghanistan. The “Stans” under Soviet control were among the last countries to leave the Union, and in the post-Soviet era many have maintained close ties to Russia. Russian domination largely defined the borders of these states. The Soviet Union’s Central Asian republics served some interesting roles. They were major agricultural producers and provided plenty of land. This land, particularly the wide expanse of Kazakhstan, would provide useful testing nuclear weapons and performing launches of rockets and spacecraft. Kazakhstan, incidentally, became one of the world’s most formidable nuclear powers following the 1991 breakup of the U.S.S.R., but it transferred its massive stockpiles to Russia shortly after. Stalin was also a fan of relocating people to these areas.

The Soviet Socialist Republics of Central Asia also added a great deal of diversity to the Union. Their contributions to the total population meant that about 20% of the Soviet population was Muslim. On paper, the Soviets generally discouraged religious practices in favor of state atheism (Communism and the cult of Lenin was its own faith, arguably). In practice however, getting tens of millions of Muslims to abandon their faith was simply not feasible. The Central Asian Republics were so remote and large that suppressing religion was impossible, so they retained their Islamic character. Technically speaking this may have made the Soviet Union a great Muslim country. John Gunther recalls in “Inside Russia Today” one Muslim in Central Asia at the time who was exceptionally proud that the U.S.S.R. was the world’s greatest Muslim power.

As mentioned before, Afghanistan was the exception. It was never under Russian or Soviet domination. In fact, Afghanistan has shown a profound ability to resist foreign domination. The Soviets attempted to maintain a friendly Afghanistan after the Saur Revolution of 1978, which resulted in a disastrous, lasting conflict. The Soviets were unsuccessful in fighting the fundamentalist mujaheddin, and Afghanistan was sufficiently destabilized enough to fall under Taliban control by 1994. Afghanistan would become a haven for terrorists looking to wage near and far jihad, and the country was catapulted into the international spotlight following Al-Qaeda’s devastating attacks on the World Trade Centers on September 11th.

Needless to say, the 9/11 attacks changed the geopolitical calculus of the region. The United States began its War on Terror, and it not only needed a presence in Afghanistan but a presence in surrounding regions that could supply access. Suddenly the sleepy, wind-swept deserts of Central Asia regained the international spotlight.

But it was foolish of my to characterize the Central Asian countries as “sleepy.” Free from the yoke of their Soviet masters, the countries of Central Asia (again, excluding Afghanistan), have been searching for new purposes and possibilities. They had already tasted Russian domination, what else could there be? Fortunately they found a potential suitor in the form of a rising neighbor to the East: China.

So what we have unfolding is a three-way race for Central Asia. The United States wants friends in the region to aid in deployment and check China and Russia. China is courting Central Asia to help enhance economic and regional power. Meanwhile, Russia wants to hold onto Central Asia for historical prestige. Russia also has dreams of a broader Eurasian Union, if only for purely economic collaboration.

Who has the strongest claim?

Probably not the United States. The U.S. is largely disengaged from Afghanistan at this point. Russian and China would prefer for the U.S. not be involved.

Russia probably has (or had) the strongest claim. The Soviet Union may have collapsed, but the Central Asian states stuck with Russia. Some semblance of unity remains: there are plenty of IGOs that unify Russia and the Central Asian republics. However, institutions like the Commonwealth of Independant States and the Collective Security Treat Organization are light on substance.

Trends seem to favor China. While the Central Asian republics are in a lot of IGOs with Russia, they are also pulling double duty in several Asian IGOs that China reigns over. Partnership with China promises cheap goods, economic vibrancy, and growth. It also promises something new, different, and dynamic. China has already been pouring plenty of money into developing physical ties to these regions to start trade.

Ultimately thought we shouldn’t just view the future of Central Asian republics as a product of superpower politics. The Central Asian countries themselves know their interests, and they will undoubtedly play the superpower game in order to maximize their gains. It is not just a matter or siding with one country or the other, the Central Asian countries may be able to play sides against each other or continue “double dipping” in IGOs. Similarly, the superpowers are not necessarily playing a zero sum game here. Russia and China may ultimately view cooperation as the best way forward, and by using their mutual interests to generate an arrangement that will almost certainly exclude the United States.


Obituaries: Islam Karimov and the Levada Center

This week we need to commemorate two deaths…

R.I.P. Uzbekistan’s Dictator

Uzbek president Islam Karimov died on September 2nd, 2016. The cause of death was a prolonged downward spiral following a stroke that was veiled in state secrecy, a fate that seems to befall many autocratic leaders in the post-Soviet sphere. Speaking of which, like any great post-Soviet tyrant, he ruled his country from 1991 on-wards after winning plenty of “free and fair” elections. The word “dictator” is getting thrown around a lot in the media, which may be warranted since his regime brutally suppressed free expression, tortured political opponents, and had street protests crushed in stereotypical fashion. Sensationalist media has been reminding everyone that at least 1 or 2 people were boiled alive during his tenure, which is actually pretty horrendous I’ll admit. Mr. Karimov may be a relic of an earlier, by-gone era, but his state administration remains. There is talk of the state security apparatus or even one of his daughters taking the helm. Regardless, I suppose Uzbekistan will stay on its accustomed post-Soviet trajectory, although his death may create opportunities for states interested in Central Asia. Perhaps a post on the current superpower showdown in Central Asia is warranted at this point?

R.I.P. Independent Polling

For years I have been following the work of the Levada Center. Long considered to be the most accurate and valuable polling center for an aloof people, the Levada Center provided  series of excellent statistics ranging from Putin’s approval rating to thoughts on how well the Russian government is warding away terrorism. I have used their figures for numerous papers, and have recommended them previously in this blog, but they were just labeled as a “foreign agent.” Recall that Russia applies the “foreign agent” label to any NGOs accused of receiving support from the West. The actual Russian word for “foreign agent” carries very strong sentiment among the Russian people, and if their hatred was not enough then the mountain of paperwork foreign agents must file to stay in operation is enough to bury them. Yet again, the former is enough to put the Levada Center under. How can you poll a population that perceives you as a danger? Apparently this death knell was sounded after the Levada Center published polls showing that support for Putin’s United Russia party had declined. With elections coming up, and with the last ones being quite controversial, Putin will likely want to sure up his odds as well as he can. United Russia will do whatever to remain in-power, even if it means going beyond their usual election fraud.

Hopefully the Levada Center will find a way to cope with this death sentence, or perhaps all my gloom and doom is simply unwarranted…

You can check out the Levada Center’s body of work here.