The Dangerous Beauty of Russian

A Russian stamp from 1992 showing children's book character Cipollino, a little onion who fights the unjust treatment of the his vegetable friends and neighbors at the hands of the upper-class -- Prince Lemon and Lord Tomato.

Keith Gessen‘s parents left the Soviet Union when he was six, young enough that he speaks unaccented English but old enough that he still knows Russian — which he’s now teaching his son Raffi. In a lovely essay in The New Yorker, he reflects on bilingualism, child development, and why he’s teaching Raffi the language of a country he won’t even take him to visit.

When we started reading books to Raffi, I included some Russian ones. A friend had handed down a beautiful book of Daniil Kharms poems for children; they were not nonsense verse, but they were pretty close, and Raffi enjoyed them. One was a song about a man who went into the forest with a club and a bag, and never returned. Kharms himself was arrested in Leningrad, in 1941, for expressing “seditious” sentiments and died, of starvation, in a psychiatric hospital the following year; the great Soviet bard Alexander Galich would eventually call the song about the man in the forest “prophetic” and write his own song, embedding the forest lyrics into a story of the Gulag. Raffi really liked the Kharms song; when he got a little older, he would request it and then dance.

It’s difficult to encourage bilingualism when life is lived overwhelmingly in English, but eventually, the songs and stories and conversations begin to pay off — but to what end?

Raffi hummed the Nautilus Pompilus song on the way home. A few days later I heard him singing it to himself as he played with some Legos.

Ya hochu byt’ s toboy
Ya hochu byt’ s toboy
Ya hochu byt’ s toboy

And a few days after that, he said his first Russian sentence. “Ya gippopotam,” he said. I am a hippopotamus.

I was deeply, stupidly, indescribably moved. What had I done? How could I not have done it? What a brilliant, stubborn, adorable child. My son. I love him so much. I hope he never goes to Russia. I know that eventually he will.

Read the essay