Russian Language School

It was October in Indiana, 1964, and from the back seat of the taxicab, I watched the piles of yellow leaves along the street swirl up into the air in the wake of our passing.

Early in the morning the day before, dressed in my Air Force uniform, I had climbed onto a Greyhound bus and left Laramie, Wyoming behind. There was a dusting of snow on the ground when I left and a cold, dry wind blowing that had tugged at my garrison cap.  Here in Bloomington, Indiana, the lowering sun still warmed the pavement. The humid air had a different odor. It had that earthy smell of things still growing, unwilling to finally give it over and slide into dormancy. It was a time for planting the kinds of seeds that would wait underground for months before finally breaking into the spring sunlight.

Being that twenty-four hours on a cross-country bus can turn your brain into overcooked meatloaf, it will come as no surprise that I have no memory of signing-in, talking to anyone, or dragging my old suitcase up to my room. I was hanging uniforms up in the closet when a guy stuck his head in the door and introduced himself. He had been on the program for three months already, and I guess had appointed himself head of the Welcome Wagon for the new guys on this particular floor. He may have said some interesting things, but only one got through the afore-mentioned burnt meatloaf.

“People from Indiana,” he said, “are known as ‘Hoosiers.’ The Russian word that is pronounced ‘hoozheh’ means ‘worse.’ And that about says it all, man.”

After I had eaten and then slept for nearly ten hours, I began to feel somewhat human again and was able to process my surroundings. Bloomington, Indiana was a small Midwestern town surrounding a huge, Big 10 university campus. Thirty thousand young Hoosiers had come here to binge drink, have sex, and possibly even get an education on the side. They probably still do. On the edge of the IU campus at that time and covering about one city block, stood a small group of buildings belonging to the US Air Force. This was the USAF/IU Russian Language Training Program. Every three months about a hundred airmen fresh out of Basic Training would come in to replace the group that had just graduated. A year later, those airmen would leave the school having, if not fluency, then a fairly good ability to speak and understand the Russian language – especially the military terms.

During the thirty-five years that Stalin ruled Soviet Russia, more than three million Russians were forced to flee their country and find a life elsewhere. Compared to the twenty million who died from starvation, were executed, or froze to death in Siberian labor camps, the refugees were the lucky ones. From this long, nightmarish tragedy, one bright light did appear. Stalin provided native Russian speakers to teach American Airmen his language.

It’s funny, but in the more-than-fifty-years since I was at that school. My Russian skills have all but disappeared. “Hello,” “goodbye,” “go to Hell,” and “I want to sleep with you” are about all that remain. And yet, I can remember several of the native Russians who taught us as clearly as if I left there just last week. Each of them had a different story about how and why they left their native land and the paths that took them, finally, to the United States.

Paretsky rarely talked about his adventures, only that he had been an officer in the Soviet Army and was assigned to a company guarding the Finnish border. One night, he packed a little traveling bag and walked into the forest. An hour later, he was knocking on the door of a farmhouse in Finland. More than that, he would not say. I think he felt he was still an officer and was not comfortable telling enlisted men about his life.

On the other hand, Marya Borisovna was as garrulous as Paretsky was reserved. She had been one of the children in a family of Kulaks. When Stalin came to power in the late 1920s, all the agricultural land in the new Soviet Union was privately owned. If you were one of these landowners, you were a Kulak. When the Kulaks were told that the government now owned their land, everything on it, and everything it produced, the Kulaks were understandably upset and tried to resist. So the local Commissars divided the Kulaks into three groups – those who were to be shot, those who were to be transported to Siberian labor camps, and those who were to be thrown out of the country. Marya Borisovna’s family was among the exiles.

I don’t know how they got the order, but I can well imagine some pompous little blacksmith’s assistant turned bureaucrat showing up at the farmhouse door and telling them to be ready to leave in forty-eight hours.

After a long train ride south, they were marched across the border into Afghanistan and dumped. They were allowed to take nothing with them except the clothes on their backs. Marya Borisovna told us that it was her mother’s foresight that not only allowed the family to survive but made it possible for them all to immigrate to the United States. During the few days they had between being notified of what was to happen and the actual rounding-up by the Red Army, Marya’s mother had gone through her jewelry and carefully removed every gemstone. Then she and the older girls wrapped each of the stones in cloth and used them to replace the buttons on the family’s clothing. They were stopped and thoroughly searched several times on their way to the border, but their guards never twigged to the fact that the women’s dresses and the men’s waistcoats were all fastened with slightly odd-shaped cloth buttons. By judiciously selling a few here and a few there, the jewels lasted until they were safely housed in an apartment in lower Brooklyn, not far from Coney Island.

The most imposing figure of the “White” Russians who taught us was a tall, craggy man with white hair and an ugly scar on the left side of his scalp that started at his hairline and went back a few inches. He carried himself with the kind of quiet dignity that comes from going through Hell and surviving. This was Boris Nikolayevich Dubkov. He had been in the Red Army during World War Two (The Russians call it “The Great Patriotic War”) and rose to the rank of Starshina which corresponds to our Master Sergeant. Dubkov served in a T-34 tank as driver and second-in-command. To get the full effect of G-n Dubkov telling us his story, you have to imagine a tall man in a well-tailored suit with a deeply-accented rumbling voice. He holds a cigarette backward in the Russian manner and waves it around as he talks.

”In Battle of Kursk, I drive tank out of forest. See Panzer tank. Blow up Panzer tank. Turn to right, see another Panzer tank. It has machine gun shooting. Bullets come in through viewing window. One bullet hit here (he points to the scar on his scalp). Second bullet goes in here (he points to the lower inside corner of his right eye socket). Bullet comes out here (he points to the inside of his left ear). Many months in hospital. I do not die. But in this ear, I hear nothing, only bells. All of the time… only bells.”

Father Belitsky had been a Russian Orthodox priest for most of his long, adult life. He was ordained shortly before the 1917 revolution. Though the Bolsheviks had closed the churches and outlawed religious ceremonies, Father Belitsky, by being very careful, continued to secretly provide religious services to the people who needed them. It wasn’t until after the War that an informant betrayed him and he had to leave the country or be arrested. After we had been at the school for a few months and had begun to understand a little bit of the language, Father Belitsky invited a couple of us, John Zavacky and I, to witness a Mass. He had made the living room of his little house into a small church by setting up three short rows of folding chairs and covering the walls with painted wooden icons of different saints. Afterward, John and I joined him at his little kitchen table for shots of vodka with black pepper and a part-English, part Russian, and part-pantomime conversation.

My favorite Instructor, mostly because he was such a character, was Teodor Petrovich Gunisovsky. He was a Russian-speaking Ukrainian and was living in that Province of the CCCP when the Germans broke the Non-Aggression Pact and invaded in June of 1941. Having lived under Stalin for the past 15 years, thousands of Ukrainians thought “Anything has got to be better than this monster” and not only surrendered to the Germans but offered to help them defeat Stalin. G-n Gunisovsky was among these people. Had Hitler taken the deal, his combined army would probably have taken Moscow, and eventually the whole country, in a walk. Instead, he and his high command pronounced all Slavs to be “subhuman,” and tossed them into prison camps.

Gunisovsky and his fellow turncoats spent nearly two years in the German prison camp and were finally liberated by the counter-attacking Red Army in early 1943. But before the inmates could say “Dogi, ispolnyay svoy dolg!” (Feet, do your duty!), the Russian High Command realized who they were and threw them all into Russian prison camps. Gunisovsky spent another three or four years, barely avoiding death by starvation and frostbite, in several camps high in the Ural Mountains, a beautiful, but nearly trackless wilderness, about 1500 miles northeast of Moscow. Then one day he decided it was time to try to escape to the West. On foot. And he made it. The journey covered well over two thousand miles. It would be like walking cross-country from Chicago to San Francisco. Taking no main roads and avoiding anyone who looked like a Communist Party member, he depended on peasants for some food now and then and for a hayloft to sleep in. Here’s the kicker. While in the mountains, he had suffered snow-blindness so frequently that his corneas were permanently scarred. He was nearly blind.

Our names made as little sense to the Russians as their names to us. Most of them just relied on the plastic nameplates we all wore over our right breast-pockets. But Gunisovsky preferred to make up nicknames for his students. One guy, for example, was “Red-Eyed Devil” because he was frequently hungover. Another was “Airman Bigboots” because of his enormous feet. I was “Yazychnik.” The word translates as “barbarian” but its root is “the tongued one.” When one of my friends told Gunisovsky that I could touch the tip of my nose with my tongue, he called me in for a demonstration. I complied and was immediately awarded the name. Soon after, he was standing in the hallway with some other teachers when he saw me, called me over, and had me show them. Then he said something in Russian which doubled the other instructors over. Later, he told me the translation. “The Post Office should pay him to stand next to the mail slot as a service to people with stamps and envelopes.”

It may have been that the Stalinist autocracy only drove the kind, big-hearted, fun-loving people out of the country and let only the cold and nasty pieces of work stay. But I doubt it. I think the folks at that school were a cross-section of what most all Russian people are like. And what are they like? They are very much like us.

16 Replies to “Russian Language School”

    1. I do remember. I can’t write it anymore, but I can still say it. Or at least something that sounds right to me.

  1. Thank you, Tim, as always you have taught me so many things in your writings. This let’s me pander more about Russia!

    1. It’s an interesting language. Here’s something I just learned recently – When Romance-language speakers are in a conversation and they’re just listening and waiting to respond, their tongues lie on the floor of their mouths. Russian speaker’s tongues, when they are “on hold,” are held up and toward the back of their mouths. This, evidently, is both cause and effect of the guttural quality of the language. Cool, huh?

    1. I’ve decided that I have a “fabulatory memory” In truth, I really only remember little odds and bits of a situation, then something in the back of my head starts creating connecting tissue. It’s similar to a paleontologist reconstructing an archeopteryx from a few unrelated fossils. Unfortunately, my memory can’t tell the difference between the story and the truth. I’m the classic “unreliable witness.” People who’ve read some of my stories and were actually there will say, “that’s a great story. But that’s not what happened at all.”

  2. Excellent story, Tim. Who ever would have guessed that a tour of duty in the USAF, and in particular a training school right after boot camp, would have let to remarkable meetings with remarkable people like these? Very engaging and poignant.

  3. Good post however , I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this subject? I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Dexter. If you’re interested in other stories from my abbreviated Air Force career, go back to the front page and click “Basic Training 1 – Sgt. Lacroix” and then “Basic Training 2 – A Letter to the General.” Chronologically, this blog is next, then finally “The Prisoner has a Phone Call.” If you have specific questions about the Russian Training Program fifty years ago, shoot me an email and I’ll try to answer.

  4. What a colorful bevy of characters you’ve raised from the memory banks Tim! It’s an engrossing story of the many forms of hardship endured by former Russians. Thanks for the slice of history and reminder of how lucky we are.

  5. Technically Stalin’s language was Georgian. I remember reading in Khruschev’s autobiography how he would hear Stalin and his chief of security, Lavrenty Beria, talking in Georgian as they huddled together. He never knew what they were cooking up between them, but it filled him with dread.

    1. Good point, Bruce. Did you see The Death of Stalin? Great Film. Simultaneously hilarious and really creepy. Especially Beria.

  6. Excellent, as always! Love to see a video clip of you touching the tip of your nose with your tongue. You could have parlayed that into a career as a carnival attraction!

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