October 15, 2022

Russian and Me

Russian and Me
Onegin's Duel with Lensky. Ilya Repin (1899)

I have an issue with Russian. I always have had. And yet for the past few months I’ve longed to speak it, hear it, read it. I crave it.

I grew up with four languages: Russian, Italian, English, French. Russian was my first and is now my worst. I just can’t connect with it. If I hear it in the street, it sounds like a foreign language, even though I can understand it. It doesn’t say home to me the way Italian, French and English do. And yet there are times when I feel so close to Russian, something inside me starts to ache. The thing is, I don’t like to ache.

No doubt the first words I heard were Russian. It was the default language setting of my polyglot mother’s most primeval emotions. She wrote in English, praised in Italian, expressed outrage in French, cursed in Farsi, but prayed in Russian, loved in Russian. I like to imagine that, on that March evening in 1965, in Rome, when she first held the premature baby who’d come out of her feet first, she was overwhelmed with Russian emotion.

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