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What is to be done?

The Cold War is really finished. I realized this last Spring, in Russian class, while we were translating from our textbook. The book, published two years ago in Iowa, has a cover photograph of Russian students wearing John Lennon wire-rims, Megadeth jackets, and Mohawk haircuts. Inside, the lessons smack of the New World Order. Take, for instance, the dialogue we were working on.

It's between Olya and Natasha. They're students at Moscow's National Economics Institute, and they wear designer sweaters and trendy Mademoiselle coifs. In earlier chapters, we learned about exchange student Bob MacDonald, from the sociology department at Columbia University. Bob's in Moscow to teach Russians how to conduct polls about such issues as: "What, in your opinion, constitutes |the good life'?" Natasha, who wonders if Bob is related to the McDonald of hamburger fame, wants him to teach her English so she can take a business course taught by yet another American. Problem is, Natasha's Russian husband might get jealous.

As we rendered this dilemma into English, my class reached the phrase, Chto dyelat'?

"Chto dyelat'?" I murmured with the excited nostalgia of an old 1960s leftist. Wasn't that Chernyshevsky's Nineteenth Century novel? The one whose heroine organized women's sewing cooperatives - the book whose title Lenin used for his famous revolutionary pamphlet?

"What is to be done?" I blurted to my classful of twenty-year-olds.

They looked blank.

So did the teacher, a young Jewish immigrant from Kiev. "I think the way these girls would say Chto dyelat," he corrected me. "is |Okay, now what?'"

As I looked down at Olya and Natasha, my heart both leapt and sank.

That's what it's like, studying Russian now. In high school in 1965, when I first struggled with the language, there were no McDonalds in the textbooks, no cheerful fashion plates. The U.S.-produced book we used back then was a grim reaction to Sputnik, the space race, and Khrushchev's promise to bury us.

First-year dialogues about walking to school and visiting the zoo were boring but innocuous. It was in the grainy English-captioned photos that things got scary. Their theme was that Russian kids were nerds, but if we didn't watch out, they would prove our undoing. One picture depicted rows of schoolgirls in braids, bent over thick tomes and world maps. Others showed Moscow's Park of Economic Achievements and Space Pavilion, with its phallic rockets poised toward the COSMOS.

But to achieve all this progress, the book warned, Russian students had to follow "a uniform course of study," since "strict supervision of educational activities from nursery school on is a fixed policy of the Soviet government." We also learned about "state-controlled youth organizations" like the Pioneers, that "shaped the personality of the students" in ways apparently far more insidious than did our Girl Scouts, ROTC, or football teams. Even worse, Soviets couldn't choose what to do after work. "Every citizen is expected to devote some of his free time to a group activity," the text droned. What kinds of activities? Folk dancing and, God forbid, book-club discussions!

The book's sole color picture featured people marching in lockstep beneath blood-red flags with Lenin's glaring visage. The message was clear: To save the Free World, get smart. Learn Russian. Or, as one Goldwater supporter in my class put it, "Know thy enemy!"

I suspect that by 1965, though, most of us were studying this exquisitely intricate language simply because we found it challenging, ultracool, and even rebellious. So it would have been great to learn it the same way I learned Spanish - from texts that taught real-life equivalents for, say, "What's happening?" or "She drives me crazy!" or "I could care less."

Instead, we memorized dialogues about Soviet culture that were filled with U.S. loathing - and whose stilted phrasing could hardly serve us in the everyday world. Take this conversation, from another mid-1960s text, between a wheedling bureaucrat and his superior: "Is Comrade Alexeev in? I have a small favor to ask. There's a certain young lady who can't get a room. She's a correspondence-school student and works at a factory."

"Ahhh, a factory! That's good. We'll do something about it."

Or we romanticized Russia's prerevolution past in utterly ossified language. ("Do you know anything about the Decembrists? Those were real men!")

To be sure, we also read Tolstoy in translation and Chekhov in the original. As a college Trotskyist, I even tried Lenin. I learned how to say, "One Step Forward, Two Steps Back" and "All Power to the Soviets." And "Chto Dyelat'?"

Today, as I polish my rusted skills, things have changed radically. The Thip new textbook teaches phrases like "Oh really?" "It depends," and "That landlady is a witch." But it's eerily bereft of history or politics - from Russia or anywhere else. Instead, it's filled with readings about Moscow's first beauty contest, how to read horoscopes, how to go on a diet. One chapter lauds personal ads. (We practiced writing the Russian for "Well-built, twenty-six-year-old blonde seeks self-starter man.")

We've come a long way from Pushkin, not to mention the Bolsheviks. Yet as I finally learn living, colloquial Russian, I realize "What is to be done" was probably a lousy translation. I bet Lenin really was saying "Okay, now what?" (If he wasn't, he should have been.) So I hope post-Soviet language pedagogy pushes my ear closer to the ground.

One way I've been trying to get it there is by listening to the tape that comes with my textbook. It's got this song titled "Rock and Roll's Dead (But I'm Not, Yet)," by St. Petersburg native Boris Grebenshikov - a beefier but equally sexy and apocalyptic version of Mick Jagger. Critics say Grebenshikov's song is not just about music, but also about Russia's current crisis. Some of it goes:

What nervous faces. There's going to be trouble!

I remember a cloud; I don't recall where

We meet again, we say hi - something's not right...

Rock and roll's dead, but I'm not, yet.

I'm going to Russia soon, textbook in hand. If I see Grebenshikov, I'll ask him if "Chto dyelat'?" is dead.

If it is, okay. But now what?
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Title Annotation:Journal Entry; politics of studying Russian language in the U.S., 1965 and 1993
Author:Nathan, Debbie
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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