Walking into the network of houses that make up the School of Modern Languages at the University of Bristol, you realise straight away that the atmosphere is different from what you would normally find in a standard university building. Many of the teaching rooms are former living rooms of Victorian residential houses, with disused fireplaces, ceiling roses and bay windows. It doesn’t feel as school-like as the purpose-built classrooms that other departments have. Instead, it feels like somewhere you can learn something other than exam content that you’ll need this term but forget in a month; these former homes are somewhere you can learn skills that you’ll need far beyond your university career. It’s here that I’m learning Russian.

‘Students performing in the Russian Show, 2019’. Photo courtesy of the Department of Russian & Czech, University of Bristol

My love for the Russian language began when I was fourteen. I have no Russian heritage, have no family living there, and would probably never have even considered learning the language if my school hadn’t taught it. My sister was the one who first took lessons at our school as part of her normal curriculum; Russian was offered alongside French, German, Spanish and Mandarin in our non-specialist secondary school, a fact which now seems quite extraordinary. Hearing how much she enjoyed the lessons, and listening to her stories about our stylish, modern Russian teacher, I decided to study Russian too. It was from there that I learnt not just the language, but about the culture, the country, everything. Once I’d started, I didn’t want to give it up, especially when I realised that I was so fortunate in having the opportunity to learn it in the first place (Russian language as a subject is rarely taught in UK schools). Fast forward about six years, and I am currently studying for my Bachelor’s degree in French and Russian, with an optional module in Czech, at the University of Bristol.

Bristol wasn’t a university I had always had my heart set on, like some people do with Oxford and Cambridge. I went to the open day, and it seemed nice enough, so I thought that I might as well apply. But deciding to study Russian in particular at Bristol was one of the best decisions I think I’ve ever made. It’s not just the facilities, or the extra-curricular opportunities with languages – although there are plenty. What has mattered to me most is the quality of the teaching at Bristol, and the eagerness of the other students to learn the Russian language. Not everyone in first year has done Russian at school, especially up to A-level (the majority haven’t), so the cohort is split into two groups in order to rigorously get the ‘ab initio’ group up to A-level standard in a year. How the teachers manage this, I have no idea – but many of my ‘ab initio’ peers are now better than us ‘post-A level’ students, despite having learnt the language for less than half the time we have.

There’s one question that I’m sure we all get asked time and time again. Why Russian? In the UK, it seems a strange choice, especially when the number of students studying any language is in decline. Often, if people ask what I study at university, I often just say ‘languages’ and hope that they won’t ask any more questions. This is simply due to the fact that once you’ve said you’re studying Russian, you immediately open yourself up to a basic interrogation. ‘Gosh, do you want to work for MI5?’ ‘Oh, so do you have Russian family then?’ ‘Weird. What are you going to do with that then?’ ‘Wow, are you a spy?’ Because it’s so unusual, people seem to find it strange that anyone would want to study Russian at all, especially an average ‘Brit’ with no foreign heritage. Perhaps it is due to the stereotype of the Russian villain or spy, or maybe it is simply that Russia isn’t a typical holiday destination and people feel that it is far removed from their own Western world. I never, for example, encounter such surprised reactions when I tell people I’m studying French.

But I wouldn’t swap it for anything. It’s funny how a language spoken by the biggest country in the world is considered fairly specialist by many UK schools and universities. At the University of Bristol’s School of Modern Languages, the department of Russian and Czech is the smallest. Everybody knows each other, and the professors take a real interest in their students. Other language departments, such as French, have many more students to manage and therefore simply can’t spend as much time getting to know each individual. People often ask if Russian is a difficult language to study, and of course, it is. But the satisfaction from finally starting to understand a concept which we don’t have at all in the English language (over six different ways of saying ‘to go’, each one specific to a different context, is not something you can learn overnight) is immense, and gives you a sense that you’re really achieving something.

It’s not just the language that we receive tuition in; a degree in Russian at Bristol includes compulsory culture modules right from the beginning. In my first year, I studied units on Russian history, literature, and cinema; these included an extremely broad variety of materials, ranging from reading extracts from War and Peace to an intensive study on Dostoevsky’s ‘Pushkin Speech’. We studied cinema too, which was perhaps my favourite element of the culture modules. Three films were carefully selected for us: Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966),Nugmanov’s The Needle (1988), and Zvyagintsev’s The Return (2003). It was an interesting mixture of films, each one with seemingly no connection to the other and covering completely different time periods, as well as taking unique artistic directions. But it was the discussion and research outside of the classroom which sparked something for me. The Needle, despite being a somewhat difficult film to watch, led me to read more about Victor Tsoi, his music, and his ever-present influence on Russian culture. It took me to the film Leto (2018), which focusses on Tsoi’s life. This in turn guided me towards Kino’s music, a now permanent feature on my playlists. For me, this is as good evidence as any that a Russian degree is so much more than just learning a language.

Elena McNeilly is the Language Director of the Russian and Czech department, and also my teacher for Russian grammar, a class that is probably one of the most challenging. She agrees with me that there is something special about studying Russian at the University of Bristol. “Because we’re a smaller department, we know our students very well, and spend plenty of time together doing extra-curricular activities outside of teaching. Students can come to us not just as teachers, but as friends too.” However, it is the time spent in Russia during the Year Abroad, a compulsory part of all language undergraduate degrees at Bristol, that Elena thinks is the most rewarding part of the degree. “All the placements for the Year Abroad are very carefully chosen by the department, and we keep very close links with the academics at our different Russian partner universities. Our students are well looked after there, and make lots of Russian friends. After their Year Abroad studies finish in the summer, many decide to travel through Russia to visit places that are off the beaten track, like the Altai Mountains and lake Baikal in Siberia. They often return to Russia after graduating, either to teach English or for post-graduate studies.” The fact that Elena has been working at the University of Bristol for about thirteen years backs up her testimony; the department, almost sixty years old, is an amazing environment for both students and teachers alike, and leads to many opportunities.

Elena McNeilly visits students on their year abroad in St Petersburg. Photo courtesy of the Department of Russian & Czech, University of Bristol

Like most language undergraduates, I don’t know what kind of job my degree might lead to. Elena reassuringly tells us the employability of Russian graduates from Bristol is very high, and the degree is highly valued by UK employers. I would love to go into a job where I could use both my languages on a daily basis, despite the fact that all of us language students know that these kinds of jobs are very hard to find. But whatever job I end up doing in future, I’m sure, like my peers, I won’t forget about what I’ve learnt whilst studying Russian at the University here. A language degree is not just about learning a language to the point where you can communicate fluently and integrate yourself into another country. It’s about keeping an open mind, always questioning stereotypes, and never forgetting that an understanding and appreciation of a culture different from your own is one of the most valuable skills you can ever learn.

Watch a video blog from BBC journalist Ben Tavener about British students learning Russian at the University of Bristol (2018).