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Living languages/Living heritage: how to combine Russian language and history

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Living languages/Living heritage: how to combine Russian language and history


Svetlana Smetanina

If you look at Europe from the standpoint of Russian cultural heritage, you can find a lot of interesting things in virtually every country. So why isn’t such material used in lessons of Russian? Initiators of the Living Languages/Living Heritage Project invented an unusual mixture of history and language lessons. Igor Zhukovsky, head of the Russia-Aquitaine Association (Bordeaux, France) tells us what has become of it.

You proposed an interesting initiative - to talk about Russian cultural heritage in the Russian as a foreign language classes. How did this idea come about? 

– Fifteen years ago my wife Antonina and I established a language school of Russian here in Bordeaux, in the south-west of France. It was established as part of the Russia-Aquitaine Association. Students began to come to us. They were adults interested in Russian for various reasons.

Meeting of contributors of the Living Languages/Living Heritage project / Project page on Facebook

It is known that France has always attracted the Russians, and even now it attracts them like a magnet. The same was true in the 19th century, when all our intelligentsia traveled there and synchronized their sentiments with Europe. And the same was true for the beginning of the 20th century and the post-revolutionary waves of immigration. 

Some descendants of immigrants from those waves came to our classes. These are the people whose both parents or one of them were Russian. They were born here, grew up, but they still have interest in Russia and Russian language.

If you look at France from the standpoint of Russian cultural heritage, it is concentrated within the triangle: Paris, visited by all our celebrities, the Cote d'Azur (French Riviera) with Nice and its surroundings, and the Biarritz resort on the Atlantic Coast.

So this very triangle sparked our interest, which went well beyond France.

Orthodox churches of Nice. Living Languages/Living Heritage Project

Many of our students have travelled around Europe and, having returned from a trip, shared their impressions. And they always notice a small Russian church or a large temple somewhere in one of the countries. Those are the centers of the Russian presence in Europe.

One day a student came from Netherlands, where she visited the city of Leiden, and she noticed poems, including poems by Russian poets, written on the walls of houses. So it inspired us to have a special lesson. 

We respond to wishes of our students. After all, they do not get a diploma here - we work within the framework of informal education, so we are able to structure our lessons the way our students want.

And after that, in 2010, we got at idea to apply for a grant to the Programme of Adult Education - Grundtvig Program grant. Grundtvig was a Danish thinker who proposed the idea of establishing people's universities at the end of the 19th century. This is the very informal education I spoke about. That is, people spend time with great benefit - spiritual and cultural.

We invited six countries to this project and travelled along the trails where there were some traces of Russian presence. At the end of this trip, contributors from each country prepared articles to be included into a general collection for our students.

Years passed, and we saw that time does not stand still. The collection of articles is good, but now we have such information technologies available that it is impossible not to use them. And in our new Living Languages/Living Heritage Project, we asked ourselves how such new technologies could help our students in discovering Russian cultural heritage. 

So we again invited six countries, though different ones. In some of them Russian cultural heritage is traced quite rarely. In particular, it is Scotland (Edinburgh), Denmark (Copenhagen), Cyprus. France is also participating in the project, since we come from there, as well as our compatriots from the city of Karlsruhe (Germany). It is located near Baden-Baden. But after all, this whole land is a complete Russian presence. And we also have Poland involved, which is one of the most “Russian” European countries in terms of survived cultural and historical Russian heritage.

Russian Warsaw. Living Languages/Living Heritage Project

We decided to create a Youtube channel, where we began to post short films about our trips around these countries. Such films shall be a teaching guide, so each of them will be accompanied by the text to enable students to watch and to read at the same time.

Were these films actually shot and edited by the project contributors?

– Each of our partners can pick five stories relevant to Russian heritage in their countries. And it should be a short film - no more than 10 minutes.  They also have to provide an audio version of the text recorded in the studio.

Naturally, our contributors had to master a lot of technical issues: shooting, editing, text selection and adaptation for teaching sessions. We have already held preliminary meetings in Paris, where our project was launched in the Russian Spiritual and Cultural Center. The Project’s final will be held in Cyprus, where we will sum up our work.

And what places of the Russian presence were found in Scotland?

– It is about Lermontov’s family tree. He never travelled abroad, but his clan originated from Scotland. Its descendants were found there. They erected a monument to the Russian poet. A very interesting story is connected with the Russian cruiser Varyag, a monument to which is also installed on the islands in Scotland. It was sent there for repair, but sank off the Scottish shores. And in Edinburgh we found a very interesting portrait of Nicholas II wearing the uniform of Scottish shooters.


Traces of White emigration can be still found in Cyprus. Some families settled there. A site with Russian graves was accidentally found at the cemetery. A book was written about one of the officers buried there. Princess Dagmar was born in Denmark. She became Maria Feodorovna, the mother of Nicholas II.

On a visit to Lermontov / Living Languages/Living Heritage Project

But since our project is called “Living Heritage”, our Danish partners suggested to include into it not only historical facts. For example, there is a Russian sculptor living in Copenhagen. He made the bust of Princess Dagmar. And then there is the Balalaika orchestra, which is already 70 years old. We have made an attempt to include the cultural heritage that lives today.

All the texts have already been published at our website. They can be found in the public domain. We decided to indicate all these places on an interactive map, which can also be found on our website. Thus, such information can be used by Russian tourists who want to see more than traditional routes offer.

You have been teaching Russian for adults for quite a while. What is the tendency: does the interest in the Russian language remain unchanged?

– There is some increase; it is there though slight one. People are interested in Russian because they travel. We cooperate with a travel agency that organizes tours to Russia. We hold joint meetings, evening gatherings, where travelers share their impressions of what they have seen in Russia. During these few years the number of such travellers has significantly increased. And they bring back very good impressions of today's Russia. And our students, when they go to Russia, choose not-so-easy routes, such as from Moscow to Saint Petersburg: they want to see rural areas. And some of them then return to Russia several times. But we, of course, stir up such interest in our lessons.

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