I was studying Russian in central Moscow. The only student in my class, the teacher was as stern as a Russian professor could be. I was in my early 30’s and she’d already reduced me to tears. I feared her. She knew no mercy, especially when it came to verb tenses. Somehow, she had the unique ability to insult both my intelligence, manhood, and most everything about me as a way to motivate any desire I had to read Tolstoy or buy food in a grocery store. Does anyone remember the story of the Soviet hockey players who defected because the coaches were so mean? I used to think she had been one of their trainers.
One snowy afternoon, the conversation shifted from grammar to Leninist revolutionary theory. I don’t quite remember how we made the jump. I believe it had to do with priorities in translating, that is “what did I need to look for first when approaching a new text.” She asked, “Do you know what Comrade Lenin said were the most important things to do when starting a revolution?” I had missed that day of Leninist orthodoxy with the late Dr. David Mackenzie at UNC-Greensboro. We talked more Tito.
She asked me again. “Do you know what Comrade Lenin said were the most important things to do when starting a revolution, a coups d’état?” Nyet, I said. “You find the most important people and then you kill them first.” Those were her exact words. Then she said, “You find the most important verbs and you kill them first. Then the rest of the sentence will come to you.” Grammar is revolution.
You know what, she was right. Learning Russian was like over throwing the bourgeois English speaking dictatorship in my mind. Revolutions involve total commitment or they will die.
As Turkey decides which language it will speak, let’s hope everyone stays safe and committed to words of peace.