Learning Russian is a different kettle of onions from learning French or Italian. First off, it takes you a month just to learn the alphabet (do not believe the idiot above). Second, once you start to read Cyrillic, you still read p as p, not r; or y as y, not u; or B as B, not V; and the more tired you are, the worse it gets. Third, Russian is one of the most difficult languages out there to learn; it will drive you crazy, and at some point, you will want to stop. But fourth, if you stick with it, it will open up an entire world of cultural and intellectual awesomeness.
It is now one year since I first began to study Russian, and apart from a few interesting encounters with the dubbed Russian version of Downton Abbey (Аббатство Даунтон), I hadn’t watched many Russian films or TV series for fear of being overwhelmed. After a year of classes with my awesome teacher Natalya and daily 5 minute lessons on Duolingo, I finally felt confident enough to watch Russian films and TV with English subtitles, with the aim of actually understanding some of the words. Екатерина is my first such experiment.
Ekaterina tells the story of Catherine the Great (Екатерина Великая) from her arrival at court to her eventual governance of the Russian state. Stunningly popular in Russia since its initial release in 2014, the series is a lavish period drama of pleasingly over-the-top extravagance. It boasts jaw-dropping costumes and gorgeous sets and scenery, and there is also some truly excellent acting. Julia Aug is volcanically charismatic as the Empress Elizaveta Petrovna, with Marina Alexandrovna a suitably luminous Ekaterina and Aleksandr Yatsenko a suitably repulsive Pyotr III. But what is it like to watch when you’re a beginner in Russian?
Ekaterina is a confidence booster for beginners.
It is vital to the confidence of a beginner to be able to watch something and pick out the words that you know already. It makes you feel like you’re getting somewhere, and that someday you might be able to understand the whole film or TV series without subtitles. This is very difficult when watching films and TV series that feature a great deal of mumbling, slurring of words, colloquialisms and rushing.
Fortunately, the actors in Ekaterina speak an impeccable, incredibly crisp, cut-glass Russian that makes the structure of sentences easily discernible, even if you don’t understand a single word of said sentence. This clarity of pronunciation also makes it much easier to recognise the words you actually do understand. So, for example:
Я не понимаю, о чем вы говорите
I don’t understand what you’re talking about.
The only words I understood here were “Я не понимаю” and “вы говорите”, but I was so excited to recognise them that I wanted to learn more and understand more.
Ekaterina helps you learn new words.
There are some words that are used so often in Ekaterina that you can’t help but enrich your vocabulary. Here are some of the words that I learned:
кровь : blood.
ваше Величество: Your Majesty
The first one may raise eyebrows in polite society, though.
Ekaterina starting out as a Russian beginner allows you to compare her experience with yours (and not always favourably).
In Ekaterina, the protagonist thoroughly impresses the Empress Elizaveta Petrovna by starting to learn Russian before she even arrives at court, and the series goes to a lot of trouble to accurately document the learning process. There’s a lot of the princess repeating words and phrases to herself in private in order to impress her fiancé, a state of affairs that many viewers will be able to identify with. Ekaterina’s regular recitation of her conjugations will also get many viewers laughing in fondness or exasperation. What did not resonate with me in this scene, however, was Ekaterina’s impeccable pronunciation of the pronoun мы (we). As any beginner knows, this bloody word is very hard to pronounce because of the letter ы on the end. As the old Russian textbook (yes, really) below informs us, articulating this letter is a bit like imitating the sound you make when you get jabbed in the stomach. I’ve been doing Russian for a year, and have only just begun to grasp the pronunciation of this fiendish letter. I therefore find it quite unlikely that Ekaterina, the speaker of a Germanic language, would find this pronoun so incredibly easy to pronounce.
Thus, while Ekaterina goes to a lot of effort to show us Ekaterina’s knowledge of Russian, it is clear that no one on set put much thought into what actually makes Russian so difficult for non-Russians to learn.
So is Ekaterina a useful tool if you’re just beginning to learn Russian? Yes. It provides plenty of opportunities to recognise words you know and to learn new ones that you don’t. It just doesn’t really understand what being a beginner means or the challenges that we face.