When German literary critic Walter Benjamin arrived in Moscow in early December, 1926, he disembarked his train at Belorusskii Vokzal and stepped out into the winter to meet his lover Asja Lacis. He writes in his Moscow Diary that the day he arrived, a thaw had set in, breaking the cold spell, but not vanquishing the snow, ice, and mud that covered every street. Some 90 years later, in my own arrival to Moscow, with the student dorm and university just up Leningradskii Prospekt from the same Belorusskii Vokzal, his unseasonable winter became my dark summer days drenched in rain. In my first days, I felt that Benjamin’s slanted reflection of my own made me feel deeply connected to the world, in place and time.
Benjamin, who spoke no more than some scattered Russian phrases, relied on his acquaintances to translate the city for him. Otherwise his account of Moscow is fundamentally that of an outsider. He writes vividly, pondering the sites and spectacles of the street, but it’s all from a distance. When he goes to theater, which is unconscionably often, he requires—it seems—one of his friends to provide a running translation of the plot as he sits there. Surely, I thought, I could do better than this. The other night, I went to the Mayakovsky Theater to see a play by Maxim Gorky, called Poslednie from 1908. I had never read it, nor cared to investigate the storyline, but once it started, I gathered it had something to do with a family. I felt as if I didn’t follow at all. Though I could catch the odd sentence, a missed verb in another would elide the whole meaning for me. Frustrated by the opacity of the experience, I started to hallucinate plot lines as I drifted closer and closer to sleep in the warm auditorium. When the characters whom I had thought were brother and sister started to make out, I admittedly was startled, but remain convinced the gasping amongst the audience indicated that in fact it was happening and they were brother and sister.
I go through the days here feeling not unlike Benjamin—which is an inflated way to say merely like a foreigner who is eager to penetrate into the understanding of this city, culture, and nation, but can only hope to guess at it from the periphery. In the classes, I don’t feel as if I’m actively learning, but at the end of each day I feel exhausted, which I think means that my brain is well worked. The nature of this fatigue is fascinating to me.
I had a realization about the crucial difference in the language learning environments of Moscow and an intensive American program like Middlebury. Middlebury, while incredibly taxing, creates a safe space, a kind of speaking laboratory, where you’re not at all invested in yourself or the people around you—the entire social existence is simply instrumental for facilitating conversation in the language. Here, it’s a totally different game. When you’re meeting real people in their own language, and trying to get to know acquaintances, there’s more diversity of conversation, obviously, than you’d find at Middlebury, but also the psychological pressure of being present is more intense, more taxing, and you feel more vulnerable. You’re trying to express your real self, trying to communicate instead of just converse. It’s a language that’s alive in the world, that quite literally creates this world, and to which I feel only barely connected. My days away from school entail taking the metro from station to station, and exploring the city on foot. I marvel at the metro stations that seem as holy and grand as the cathedrals. I can freely speculate about the specificity of the Muscovite soul based on an interpretation of their facial gestures, and physical constitution of their city streets. I even interact with a number of Russians every day, but nonetheless, all the while I feel somehow that I have limited access.
This past week I was speaking to a person who asked me if I thought in Russian while I spoke, or just translated from my English thoughts. Although initially I dismissed out of hand the idea that I could think in Russian, upon reflection I recognized that sometimes I do in fact think in Russian. However, the quality of that thought, of my intellect in a poorly known foreign language, is severely compromised. I had always thought the frustration from trying to use a language-in-progress was that I felt trapped inside myself—that I was simply unable to express in that language the intelligent thoughts I have in English. As a result, the version of yourself that you can represent to the world seems so dumb by comparison to what you know to be the “real you.” While that is certainly true, the much more horrific situation is when you realize that your intellect has shrunken to fit the available vocabulary. Rather than be an intelligent being trapped mutely inside a mumbling body, all those tripped over words are actually a rough approximation of my Russian mental self. At some point your able to step outside and look at your inner-self and think my god, what a stuttering fool! In many ways I feel like I’m living a very desperate existence, shuffling along like a babe in the woods, trying not to get called on by the world, because my pocket full of words can’t buy me anything. But there are so many people here that are patient and kind and willing to help a durak like me. This requires a certain amount of shamelessness, a willingness to be the fool. It’s the only way to penetrate this world.
By: Benjamin Stein
Term: Summer 2016