What is to be done?

Author:Nathan, Debbie
Position:Politics of studying Russian language in the U.S., 1965 and 1993 - Journal Entry - Column
 
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The Cold War is really finished. I realized this last Spring, in Russian class, while we were translating from our textbook. The book, published two years ago in Iowa, has a cover photograph of Russian students wearing John Lennon wire-rims, Megadeth jackets, and Mohawk haircuts. Inside, the lessons smack of the New World Order. Take, for instance, the dialogue we were working on.

It's between Olya and Natasha. They're students at Moscow's National Economics Institute, and they wear designer sweaters and trendy Mademoiselle coifs. In earlier chapters, we learned about exchange student Bob MacDonald, from the sociology department at Columbia University. Bob's in Moscow to teach Russians how to conduct polls about such issues as: "What, in your opinion, constitutes |the good life'?" Natasha, who wonders if Bob is related to the McDonald of hamburger fame, wants him to teach her English so she can take a business course taught by yet another American. Problem is, Natasha's Russian husband might get jealous.

As we rendered this dilemma into English, my class reached the phrase, Chto dyelat'?

"Chto dyelat'?" I murmured with the excited nostalgia of an old 1960s leftist. Wasn't that Chernyshevsky's Nineteenth Century novel? The one whose heroine organized women's sewing cooperatives - the book whose title Lenin used for his famous revolutionary pamphlet?

"What is to be done?" I blurted to my classful of twenty-year-olds.

They looked blank.

So did the teacher, a young Jewish immigrant from Kiev. "I think the way these girls would say Chto dyelat," he corrected me. "is |Okay, now what?'"

As I looked down at Olya and Natasha, my heart both leapt and sank.

That's what it's like, studying Russian now. In high school in 1965, when I first struggled with the language, there were no McDonalds in the textbooks, no cheerful fashion plates. The U.S.-produced book we used back then was a grim reaction to Sputnik, the space race, and Khrushchev's promise to bury us.

First-year dialogues about walking to school and visiting the zoo were boring but innocuous. It was in the grainy English-captioned photos that things got scary. Their theme was that Russian kids were nerds, but if we didn't watch out, they would prove our undoing. One picture depicted rows of schoolgirls in braids, bent over thick tomes and world maps. Others showed Moscow's Park of Economic Achievements and Space Pavilion, with its phallic rockets poised toward the COSMOS.

But to achieve all...

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