:: Article

Two Men in the Fog

By Ellie Holbrook.

 “Standing six feet and 8 inches tall, Peter the Great, founder of the Russia’s Venice of the North, St Petersburg, would be the last to drown in the sinking mud of his new city’s swamps.”

Immediately, I felt more at ease. I’m six-foot-tall, at least I’ll be one of the last to drown in Russia’s swamps.

Unorthodox teaching techniques pair well with the orthodoxy of strict Russian grammar and syntax. A version of mania is needed to tackle the logic. Jokes are needed to deal with learning Russian.

At the beginning of my first Russian lesson, almost a decade ago, I looked around the new classroom. Posters of symbols, characters and backward R’s seemed to help the concrete walls, on which they were blu-tacked, function as walls. However, Peter the Great was pretty tall and I was pretty tall. If he was tall enough to look over this coded wall of declensions, conjugations and stress, maybe I was too.

At the following week’s lesson, we began to learn the alphabet. But rather than leading us wearily through phonic sing-song recitation from ‘A’ to ‘Я’, our Russian teacher relied on inventive word examples to introduce the unfamiliar letters. A picture of two men in a park on a very misty day was projected onto the whiteboard at the front of the classroom. Under the image was the Russian word туман.


Two men.

Two men in a foggy park.

I felt the vowels and consonants marry in my mouth, and then slip out as a perfect, tangible whole. This word-object and its musicality, combined with the humorous use of a Getty stock photo, has ensured that I have never forgotten the word for ‘fog’ in Russian. It was a multi-sensory learning process and, of course, you need to engage all your senses to climb over the wall.

I was presented with a new world of codified wit, deep sounds and rich history. But beyond that, there was a sense that this new language could become mine in a way my own native English—one that I had learned, not by choice, but via relentless osmosis into my jellied toddler brain—never could.

Indeed, I had chosen Russian to distance myself from my peers and family: I have no Russian heritage and had no Russian friends. It belonged to me alone: no one else I was close with had the desire to face the Cyrillic alphabet.

I turned to a second language in the midst of my secondary school years: inherently unstable, filled with popularity contests and self-loathing. The intense focus on minor flaws in appearance and social-circle upsets meant that any moment, on any day, a look or a word could uproot and destroy the fragile, but seemingly very important school world. I desperately desired to escape the circus.

That is what my Russian lessons offered. I could re-create myself in this new system of words and weaponise the exoticness of a foreign language. I could be beautiful with this new code — if I did it right.

I would spend hours trying to perfect the handwritten cursive Cyrillic. My name ‘Ellie’ was transformed into a word with loops, curves and embellishments; calligraphy that was euphemistic of everything I aspired to be. Is your handwriting style a psychological self-portrait? I felt I had a second chance. Cyrillic enabled me to manipulate my self-image, in a way that could be true to ideals I desired, with a focus on a new vision of beauty. And so, in the madness and confusion of my school life, I could finally see my own worth on paper in front of me, in my transformed Cyrillic and Russified name.

The beauty of learning a language at an age when you are old enough to remember the learning process is that you become conscious of the opportunities it offers to create a different personality. As I tackled the previously unknown fundamental steps of developing a foreign voiced and written method of communication, it was empowering to articulate a sense of self under different terms.

In my English identity, my self-image was characterised by body dysmorphia and embarrassment.

So, as an anxious, self-conscious and self-loathing teenager, Russian became my refuge. It became a cement for the wall I built to protect myself from the turbulence of adolescence. The strange symbols of the alphabet created a secret code that separated me from my non-Russian speaking friends and family, let my own world flourish, described in accordance with my own rules: predictability, beauty and control.

During pressurised situations at school or social engagements, Russian helped me understand concepts of agency and self-direction. I discovered that I could use the self-imposed pressure of learning an entirely new set of complex rules and forms in order to override the external pressures of teenage life. While knowledge of the language gave me access to a secret world that I found deeply comforting, the challenge of learning itself was almost more important, as it enabled me to block out the world as I had previously experienced it: the anglophone world in which I had grown up. In hindsight, however, Russian gave me a sense of belonging above everything else. I appreciated the community my Russian classmates and I formed when we recognised the exclusivity of its exoticness, and I felt a new sense of self-worth from having the ability to access this unusual club. As a result, Russian became the logical answer to the unpredictability of my life.

Years later, returning to the UK from Russia, after a few years punctuated by visa expiry dates, I should, in theory, feel able to relax. I am among speakers of my native English. Overheard supermarket conversations are no longer a game, I understand the slurred speech in bars and pubs, I am not puzzled by idioms and wordplay. Yet, I can’t understand why this doesn’t fully comfort me.

Adding your own narrative, story, and characters from snippets of overheard conversation is easier in a learned foreign language. The possibility of mishearing or misunderstanding is higher, but forgivable: the gaps provide an opportunity for creativity and control. When I overhear Russian, it is rewarding regardless of whether I can understand it or not. If I understand the long monologues of Putin’s Federal Assembly Address, of course, that is satisfying — I taught myself those words. If I don’t, and perhaps catch only a few words here or there, that is also good — I can add to these words. I can make the Kremlin’s discussions my own. I am either gifted with the satisfaction of knowing that I decoded the Russian or with the joy that comes from the freedom to add my own colour to the tale.

Over the years, my relationship with the Russian language and personal agency, one that began with ideals of body image, has shifted. In England, I miss the ambiguity of misunderstanding a word. Early on, my unspoken goal when learning Russian was to chase utter perfection and control, not only over my school work, but also over my body. This has now grown into something far less isolating. As my knowledge of the intricacies of Russian has developed, I feel far more able to communicate, to contribute, and to understand properly my own emotions and mental health. As my fluency increased, I was better able to understand the nuances of my body dysmorphia, not as defining features, but as symptoms of a problem that it is possible to work on.

When I was 14, Russian served as a barrier from my friends and family: they couldn’t understand the language, and frightening stereotypes of Russia prevailed. Now, the language still separates me, but it is constantly shaping me. No longer a self-interested, performative mask, a high horse or an excuse not to engage with my peers — it has become a vehicle  not only to see the world, but also myself from a different perspective. On a simple level, I have more words to work with, often these are Russian words that have no English counterpart. Having a wider pool of words to draw from, my ability to comprehend both what goes on around me and what goes on inside my less gelatinous adult brain has become far sharper.

Without doubt, the imaginary wall I built when I was a teenager is still there: the brick and mortar of Cyrillic is strong, however, it has to be understood as what it was—a desperate effort to appear special, aloof and indifferent to issues that plagued me in adolescence. On the other side of this wall, when I stand with Peter the Great and the two men in the foggy park, we can talk for days: I can speak correctly, I can make mistakes, I can use gaps for my own stories and finally, I can begin to feel happy.

Ellie Holbrook is a business journalist and essayist based between London and Moscow.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 29th, 2019.