Final Reflection

My experience in Ukraine not only expanded my knowledge of Russian greatly, but also my knowledge of the language learning process. One of the first insights I gained from my studies was that one can progress especially quickly in their language learning if they are placed in an environment with a difficulty just above their comfort level. I discovered this during my time at the B1 level of difficulty, where on my first day, I was placed in a classroom with students who had studied Russian for much longer and extensively than I had. Initially, it was quite daunting to try to keep up with them and our professor, who spoke at a vocabulary level and with a fluency much more advanced than what I was used to at school. However, after struggling for the first week or two, I found myself gradually catching up to them — grammar, vocabulary, and speaking proficiency all improving quickly. I certainly had to put much more time into my studies and homework for those initial few weeks, but I found this pay off once I had become more competent and comfortable at the B1 level.

Overall, being in a classroom with more proficient peers was as rewarding as it was humbling. I do not think I would have progressed nearly as much if I had not been in that class, and I plan on continuing that experience by taking a 4000 level Russian course next semester. Prior to my departure, I had outlined 3 goals for my studies in Ukraine: to be able to 1) carry a full conversation or interview in Russian, 2) accurately transcribe spoken Russian to text, and likewise, be able to accurately pronounce text when spoken aloud, and 3) utilize a rich vocabulary of Russian for written compositions. I am happy to say that I have made significant progress towards all of those goals, some definitely more than others, and I hope to expand my strengths and address my weak spots as I continue my further studies of Russian.

In the future, I hope to employ my language skills in whatever career I may pursue, be that in the military, government, or private sector. While I will likely commission as an unrestricted line officer in the Navy, I hope to attend graduate school after my initial 5-8 years and further study Russian, or at least use it in a more official capacity afterwards. Hopefully, knowing Russian will open opportunities for me in the intelligence sector or in a diplomatic capacity, such as serving as a Foreign Affairs Officer. In the meantime, I hope to continue taking Russian courses at Notre Dame to complete the Russian major and expand my skills and fluency. So far, I have had a great experience with each of the classes and faculty of the Russian department, and I look forward to continuing that journey.


Ukrainian Perceptions of the U.S.

For my last community interaction task, I decided to interview three of my Ukrainian friends about their perceptions of and attitude towards the United States. For this, I tried to again get a diverse array of interviewees, so as to get some variation in opinion, experience, and background. The first topic we discussed was about U.S. foreign policy, specifically in regards to the Russian annexation of Crimea and the ongoing war in the Donbass region. In this area, the three were agreement for the most part, and appreciated the hardline approach the U.S. has been taking against Russia via sanctions and other diplomatic measures. As to how far the U.S. and its western allies should go in this direction, there was some variety. The three interviewees each said that they considered themselves more supportive of U.S. foreign policy in Europe, along with the organizations NATO and the EU, after the annexation than they were prior to it. One interviewee voiced concerns about a change in U.S. policy following the election of President Trump, such as an easing its position towards Russia, but was grateful to see not much has changed in reality. 

We also discussed government structure and domestic politics, comparing those of Ukraine and those of the U.S. They all agreed that the most prevalent flaw with the Ukrainian government was corruption, though some were more frustrated while others were more resigned. While I recognized the sway money can hold in American politics, it was nowhere to the degree to which they explained. Most frustrating for some of them was the sheer visibility of the corruption; you could see it in the many high rise constructions that remained incomplete, as the investment money simply “vanished.” However, some held hope that the newly elected President Zelensky, who had been a comedian and actor prior to his election rather than a career politician, would cut down on some of the corruption and bureaucratic waste. They seemed supportive of his more friendly posture towards the U.S. and the West in general, though many were uncertain about how he would address and overcome the crisis in the Donbass. Ultimately, I was fortunate to be among people who held the U.S. in generally positive regard, and it was interesting to hear their critique and praise of certain American policies.


Chicken Kiev

One of my favorite aspects of visiting Kiev was the exposure to a wide array of unique dishes, most I had never heard, seen, or tried in America. There was one dish, however, that I had heard of due to it worldwide popularity, yet never had actually tasted: Chicken Kiev. Of course, being in the namesake city of this dish, I had to experience an authentic Ukrainian preparation of the meal at a traditional Ukrainian restaurant. To do this, I went to a Ukrainian restaurant called “Korchma Taras Bulba,” where they not only served traditional dishes but dressed in traditional Ukrainian clothing as well. In fact, the entire restaurant was outfitted in such decorations, and the entire waiting staff would participate in customs like a traditional Ukrainian dance every few hours, which I had the fortune of seeing. They of course had Chicken Kiev there, and I was eager to get a taste of the real deal for the first time. 

Chicken Kiev is distinguished by its chicken fillet rolled around cold butter, baked or fried with a coating of bread crumbs. I was told by the waiter that preparing the dish takes much skill and practice, in order to keep the butter from flowing among other things. Not only is it popular among the locals, likely for its easily obtainable ingredients yet delicious taste, but it has a worldwide following. As such, it is a source of culinary pride for many Ukrainians, my host family included.

Though not the biggest fan of butter usually, I was pleasantly surprised by Chicken Kiev, and ordered it several times throughout my stay in Kiev. I particularly loved the bread of the chicken that combined with the sweet, softer interior. While I spent most of my time at Georgian restaurants, this was among my favorite Ukrainian dishes, and I will gladly take this memory as well as my experience with borsch back with me to the U.S.


Ukrainian Independence Day

Statue of the Родина Мать

One of the most important Ukrainian holidays is Ukrainian Independence Day, which takes place on August the 24th. Unfortunately, I had to leave a week prior to this celebration, but I still had the opportunity to ask several Ukrainians about this important national holiday and the various celebrations it entails. Firstly, I enquired about this at one of the Kiev historical museums located between my language school and the city center. The worker there explained the history of the holiday to me, telling how it commemorates Ukraine’s independence from the USSR, which took place on August 24, 1991, after a failed coup in Moscow. After declaring its independence, a vote took place where the vast majority of Ukrainians voted in support of the move to separate. The museum worker gave examples of some of the festivities that take place, including fireworks, parades, and waving of the blue and yellow Ukrainian national flag. Interestingly, she pointed out to me, there is no longer the traditional military parade, as President Zelensky has decided to instead allocate those funds to support military personnel of the ongoing war in the Donbass.

I also asked about this holiday to several locals on the streets, who gave similar accounts, yet focused more on the festivities than the history of the holiday. One of them emphasized the circuses and concerts that always accompany the day, calling those his favorite part of the holiday. Another recommended I see the many public markets and street performances that take place, which I assumed would be pretty impressive considering the already bustling markets that filled the streets of nearly every square or metro tunnel of Kiev. Interestingly, while I was unable to stay for the holiday, I did see plenty of fireworks during the week before. Perhaps this was a sign of the anticipation for the exciting day to come.

Slang Phrases of Ukraine

Statue of Yaroslavl the Wise outside of Zoloti Vorota “The Golden Gate”

In addition to expanding my vocabulary of more academic and formal words, I hoped to develop a good sense of the slang words used by Ukrainian Russian speakers. To do this, I visited the park near Zoloti Vorota and the NovaMova language school I was attending to ask four strangers about some of the slang I had heard. These strangers included a man and woman in their 20s, and another man and woman in around their 40s-50s. There were 3 slang phrases I had heard of prior to coming to Ukraine, which I hoped to get their opinions on. Hopefully, I would get a better sense of their use, the context in which to use them, and their relative appropriateness. 

The first of these was the phrase “V luzhu pyornut,” meaning “to fart in the puddle.” Just based off its English meaning, I could tell it would be crude, but I decided to ask about nonetheless. Both the younger man and woman thought it was quite funny when I asked them about the phrase, and they told me that it is often used after someone has said something very foolish. However, as the older man warned me, it is used in a much more informal context and should not be used in decent conversation. He, as well as the older woman, both agreed though, about the general usage and meaning of the slang phrase.

Building of the NovaMova Language School in Kiev

The next phrase I asked them about was “Vot chuma!” — an exclamation meaning “that’s plague!” While it was difficult to get a precise answer from any of them to find a clear English equivalent, I could tell it meant something like “shucks!” or “blimey!” — an expression of bewilderment, either negative or positive. The older woman did stress that this too should mainly be employed in an informal context, like the previous phrase.

The last phrase they were asked was “Ne ponos, tak zolotukha,” meaning “if not diarrhea, then scrofula.” Again, this phrase got some chuckles out of my interviewees, who were able to explain to me how it is used to mock a person who annoys you by claiming to be sick all of the time. I thought this phrase in particular was a fine example of how languages can develop different words and idioms for a very precise situation or feeling, and how translation tools, while helpful in a basic, survival context, often leave out these more complex nuances of culture and language. I was fortunate to be able to discover these phrases directly from their native speakers, and I appreciated the variety of perspectives on their usage.