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Russian language

One of the most obvious problems a visitor to Russia will face is the language barrier. Unlike those simple European languages such as Hungarian and Latin, Russian is not a language you can just pick up after hearing it for a few days. To those unfamiliar with it, Russian seems intimidating.

A lot of people in Russia have studied English. A lot of them have also studied Marxism-Leninism. The textbooks, by an amazing coincidence, are quite similar. Exposure to the English language was generally limited to texts such as The Wild and Wacky Adventures of V.I. Lenin in London, The Communist Youth League Manual (including chapters on falsified history and instructions on turning your parents in to the police), Ten Days that Shook the World, and the translated speeches of L.I. Brezhnev. Vacuous texts were combined with a complete lack of practice, leading most people to forget what they learned the way we've all forgotten trigonometry. Thus although many people have a passive knowledge of English and may know some basic words, it is rare to find a person with conversational fluency.

Times are of course rapidly changing and English is all the rage, particularly with the younger generation. Competition for foreign-language courses in universities is extremely fierce, many students are going abroad on exchange programs, and English-language schools are sprouting like mushrooms. In the job market, English is one of the hottest, most valuable commodities.

It is even more uncommon to find people with active knowledge of another European language. German is the most common of the uncommon, thanks to the inclusion of the German Democratic Republic in the happy socialist camp; but to find a Spanish, French, or Finnish speaker is quite rare. In the business community people are more likely to know some foreign language (usually English) or else have translators readily at hand, but once out of this environment it's a lot of "I'm sorry, do you want buy military watch?" and "Hello my name is two hundred dollars."

Speaking Russian
When off the beaten tourist track non-Russian speakers will find that busy shop clerks, devious taxi drivers, and surly waiters usually have little tolerance for those who haven't spent years developing their Russian language ability. On the other hand, when in a social environment any effort on your part to speak Russian will serve not only to break the ice but will also help the listener to feel more relaxed about trying to speak your language. You will constantly hear apologies from Russians for their pronunciation and vocabulary even if they are quite conversational in your language. When speaking a foreign language to Russians be aware that modesty may keep them from asking you to repeat something that they feel they should have understood the first time.

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