July 05, 2016

Esperanto Fantasy vs. Russian Reality

You, too can learn Russian on Duolingo; get the app or visit them online.

So, the latest news with me is that I'm resuscitating my Russian language skills. Way the heck back in 2001 I went to the world-famous Defense Language Institute, although it's also nicknamed by the students who studied there, "Desperate Love Institute." The quality of instruction is top-notch, but because it's a college campus for service men and women fresh out of boot camp, you can imagine the perfect storm of stress and hormones (and the crop of STD's the base clinic routinely treated.) At any rate, I was given a choice of four languages: Spanish, Arabic, Korean, and Russian. In hindsight, I should have taken Spanish because that's a language that I can really use in North America, but I just did six semesters of Spanish in high school plus a three week trip to Costa Rica, so I was feeling like it was time to do something different. I later found out that according to my aptitude test I would have excelled at Arabic, but I wasn't interested in it, and my father himself took Korean at the DLI when he was a young officer and complained bitterly about how difficult it was to learn. So, with all those factors in play, I asked for Russian.

And I got it, and I was very excited. I was so enthusiastic to start, partly because it was the excitement of going to college, but also because I was in a "mission" frame of mind: give me a mission, something with a clear way forward, and I'll kill it. Because, why not? I was fresh out of boot camp and the programming I had just received was, "Kill the shit out of the mission given to you." Some folks go to boot camp and come out of it not much different than when they entered, but I took the programming they gave to me hook, line, and sinker. The person I was before boot camp ceased to exist, and I was now a US Marine

So for me, once being assigned to learn Russian, it wasn't enough for me to learn the language: I made it my mission to become Russian. I immersed myself in Russian music, bought Russian military uniforms, purchased a large library of Russian movies on DVD, listened to Voice of Russia (I still have fond memories of the VoR jingle), purchased Russian-language newspapers and made-in-Russia chocolate and candies from the local Russian market, tried to learn some Russian cooking, and connected with Russian penpals. At least I had the good sense to not get any Russian tattoos, unlike a few of my peers who now probably regret that ink. 

My voluntary immersion into all things Russian was further motivated by the assurances from my platoon sergeant and detachment commander who regularly assured us that when we finished the course and hit our permanent duty station, it'd be go-time: we'd be chasing the Russian coast guard when stationed in Hawaii, we'd be snooping Russian air and naval traffic when stationed at RAF Menwith Hill, going on week-long Russian language retreats on the beach at Camp Lejeune, and doing top-secret training at Fort Meade. And god-fucking-damnit, we'd better fucking learn Russian like somebody's life depends on it, because god-damned Ivan and the Russkies might decide to start WWIII any day now.

So all these things combined to make me stupid for Russian. I attacked the 47-week Russian basic course full force: 5 days a week, 40 hours a week (plus study hall), I made it my business to achieve the highest level of fluency I could. By the end of the course, more than half of the people who started had failed out, and I graduated with a 3.9 GPA and honors for finishing in the top 10% of my class. I was also a total wreck because I put so much stress on myself, and in hindsight I probably needed medication and professional attention to manage my depression and suicidal ideation. But none of that mattered by the end, because I graduated with honors and was on my way to bigger and better things.

Or so I thought. When it came time to select a duty station, I was told that they weren't accepting any new Russian linguists for Hawaii because they had too many there already. I was also told that I couldn't go to RAF Menwith Hill because they were only accepting staff non-commissioned officers for that assignment. So that left Camp Lejeune, but I was still hopeful because, you know - week-long Russian-language beach retreats, and I could still get a temporary duty assignment to Menwith Hill for super-spy stuff. I finally got to Camp Lejeune, and when I asked, "So, how 'bout that Russian beach party? How 'bout that really-important Russian language mission I've literally spent the last 18 months preparing to do?," the answer was, "There is no Russian mission. And you only do the beach retreat if you fail your semi-annual fluency test. Now take this tooth brush and start cleaning a radio, because the Arab linguists are going to need it for the next field exercise."

Yeah... I was crushed. I had wrapped my identity and complete sense of self into my job as a Russian crypto-linguist, and after being told over and over how important I was and how important my job was to the Marine Corps, I was told in no uncertain terms, "You're not gonna do this, like... ever." Well, I can deal with that: turned out, the radio reconnaissance platoon was looking for recruits and was especially looking for a Russian linguist they could send back to school to learn Serbo-Croatian for special assignments in sensitive areas. Hell, yeah! Sign me up! Then, a few months into training to get my jump wings and scuba bubbles, the platoon commander told me they'd lost funding for Serbo-Croat and I wasn't going.

Well, fuck me in my fucking asshole with a camouflage green dildo. 

I dropped out of radio recon trials to do the go-nowhere, do-nothing job the Marine Corps had for me, but in the end I couldn't deal with the massive blow to my sense of self. This was made even worse when I was told that I was chosen to be the Russian linguist assigned to the next over-seas, on-ship deployment, but then a week later found out that the person in charge changed his mind and picked somebody else with less experience. 

I fell into a major depression and was hospitalized because I was a suicide risk. I struggled to find direction and purpose in the Marine Corps after that point, and the solution presented to me was an administrative separation. Fortunately, the base commander - whose office reviews all administrative separations - must have agreed that I got a raw deal, because his office gave me a full honorable discharge with all benefits that I earned along the way. So I had that going for me, which is good.

There's some more history after that, but you get the idea: I felt that all my effort had been betrayed and the Russian language to which I was so devoted in the past was now a terrible wound that hurt me even to look at it. I always enjoyed foreign languages, so I eventually moved into dabbling with Latin, French, and later settled into Esperanto. In case you haven't heard of it, Esperanto is a language constructed by a Polish man, Ludwic Lejzer Zamenhof, who believed that a neutral language, or a "common tongue," could be used to preserve national integrity but also bring people together in a linguistically neutral setting. He made the language totally consistent so that it could be learned rapidly, and based his vocabulary on dozens of languages so that nobody could claim ownership of it.

Esperanto was a fabulously grand ambition, and you can read the back history if you're really interested, but long story short is that if not for the purges of Hitler and Stalin, or the United Nation's steadfast refusal to even have a discussion about Esperanto, the dream of Zamenhof would probably have been achieved by now. Sadly, the "fina venko" (final victory) is an elusive dream. But, it was a dream that captivated me for a variety of reasons. 

First, Esperanto is an international language, which means - in theory, if not in practice - I can use it to go anywhere and communicate with Esperantists anywhere in the world. 

Second, it's easy to learn and is totally consistent! If you've ever learned to speak another language, you know that the rules and exceptions can be painfully difficult. After all, an adult learning a foreign language might spend 5 or even 10 years on it only to find that he or she is still unable to converse above the level of a child. With Esperanto, I was able to achieve conversational fluency in about 12 months, but others have done it even faster than I have. That's how easy it is. 

Third - and this is probably the most important reason to me - I find inspiration in the myth of the Tower of Babel and the allure of a world without borders in which I can go wherever I want and achieve whatever I want. I place no value in tribe or national identity, so a non-tribal language used to transcend borders is really attractive to me. 

And fourth, because of all the events I've described, Russian is a subject that consistently caused me pain, anger, and frustration in the past. Every time I put my hand to practicing verbs or turning on some Russian music, the predominant mood that overtook me was, "I want to punch somebody in the face," which made Esperanto a great way to indulge my pleasure for learning language without the pain of past failures.

But, as often happens, dreams come to an end. I found that Esperanto is only useful for speaking to other Esperantists, because even if I travel to another country to meet with said Esperantists, I won't actually be able to travel and do business in said country without their constant companionship for translation. And while in theory Esperanto should open the world to me, I found that it didn't bring me the engaging music, entertainment, media, and stimulating personal connections that I had hoped for. What use is a passport to the world if I don't derive any pleasure from it?

So after much self denial, I've returned to Russian and am slowly recovering my fluency. While there isn't any particular need for Russian language interpreters in northern Ontario, the number of Russians I've met in northern Ontario / upper-peninsula Michigan is a whole lot higher than the number of Esperantists I've ever met. To be specific, I've met and actually spoken with 12 different Russians over the past five years, whereas I've met and conversed with zero Esperantists. And while Esperanto theoretically opens the world to me, in practice I've found it only provides surface-level access to other languages' domains, whereas Russian (like other national languages) offers complete access to a rich history of classical and popular music, art, literature, and dining. And this doesn't even get into the delightfully entertaining world of the Russian internet. Yeah... the Russian internet can be really, really, really weird, but also really, really, really entertaining.

I like the fantasy of Esperanto, and while I may yet maintain my Esperanto fluency, the reality is that Russian is a far more useful investment of my time and energy. And while Russian is something that still brings up a lot of anger and frustration for me, it's a reality that can still serve me. I can't say that I've made peace with my Marine Corps career - I think I'll always regret that I didn't choose Spanish on that fateful day at the DLI - but Satanism and its emphasis on brutal self-honesty and pragmatism have helped me come to terms with the pain, anger, and frustration that I experienced in the past.

All of which is to say what I said at the beginning: I'm throwing myself back into Russian, but this time with the benefit of hindsight to remind me that I'm not Russian, I'm only learning Russian. I'm not the second coming of Vladimir Vysotsky, nobody named me an honorable-Russian-for-life, and no matter how much my past imagination said otherwise, I have no cultural Russian heritage. But I do have the benefit of my three best friends: me, myself, and I. For all these things, I give a lot of credit to Satanism and its influence on how I've learned to see myself. I've thrown my past fantasies and misunderstandings into the black flame of my ego, and that fire fuels my strength to embrace the life I have, as opposed to the one I imagined.

Hail Satan!