how I became Russian

Patrick, of Cash Money Life fame long ago tagged me to give my best financial move in college.  I posted this long ago, but it’s worth reposting.  How I came to become a Russophile is an interesting story – I think.

Steve at the Hermitage in St Petersburg

(me, in St. Petersburg, circa 1997)

Learning an “exotic” foreign language, and how it changed my life.

If you read this blog, you probably know that I’m a Russophile. I lived in Moscow for several years, I can read/write/speak Russian fairly comfortably and my wife is Russian. Even more:  I have been interested in Russian long before I “knew” Russian or Russia.  Key the computer geek theme music: I mentioned that I was a finalist in the International Science Fair: I wrote, in Basic on a Tandy Color Computer with a cassette-tape drive, a very primitive artificial intelligence program that reliably translated English into Russian, grammatically correct. I even had to develop the Cyrillic font. I did all of this after buying a Russian grammar book at a public library for $.10 and using it to set it up – I didn’t know Russian at all.  Pat, pat, pat on the back, Steve.  Score one for geeky computer boy.  The US Army liked my program, gave me a commendation and took the code.  What happened with it after that, I dunno.

Anyway, after the ISF my interest in Russian waned. I always joke that my ancestry is German with a little German mixed in. Even though the Original Blap Ancestor ventured to the new world in the 16th century, my paternal ancestors clung to German ways and traditions and language. And I mean they clung. To the best of my knowledge, my dad was probably part of the first generation of Blaps to speak English at home rather than German. So in high school and college I had a strong motivation to take German, and I did.  I loved it.  I had a great teacher, and I spent a summer semester in Germany as an exchange student.  To this day I speak, read and understand German quite well.

But I always liked foreign languages in general. I took French and Latin as well and decided in my sophomore year that Japanese would be a good challenge. Keep in mind that this was the mid-80s: Japan appeared to be well on its way to becoming the dominant economic power of the 21st century. We know now, in retrospect, that Japan’s economy tripped and stumbled and has never really recovered, and China and India are now careening past it, but at the time it seemed that Japan might become an economic superpower at a minimum and THE economic superpower if everything fell right.

I decided to take Japanese. It was a new course at the University of Mississippi, where I went to school (yes, we had Japanese courses in Mississippi) – only one class was offered. So on registration day I woke up and strolled over to the registrar only to find that it had filled up in minutes and no slots were available. I was disappointed, but I still wanted to take a language. I thought Spanish might be useful, but boring (I didn’t care for French when I learned it – romance languages don’t appeal to me). I skipped through the catalog until I saw Russian and remembered my little project at the ISF four years earlier. And best of all, it was at 10 am so I could sleep late – back in college I had yet to discover the benefits of waking up early.

Russian was fantastic. The teacher was a guy straight out of PhD school, passionate about the subject and the culture. He invited his students to his home, showed us Russian movies, introduced us to actual Russians (quite the novelty in the Deep South in the 80s, let me tell you – we were in the midst of the cold war and that was amazing) and managed to get Russian food. I loved the intellectual challenge of the language – a different alphabet but more importantly a language completely removed from the European languages’ interrelationships.

So why was this a good financial move? I’ve already mentioned it in 8 steps to a six figure career, but here it is in a nutshell: it gives you instant credibility as a smart person (deserved or not). Employers and contacts and almost everyone I meet expresses shock that I can speak Russian, read it and write it. I don’t think it demonstrates much intelligence, personally. Language acquisition is more of an inborn skill, I think. But I do think that learning Russian demonstrated some intellectual curiosity and the fact that I stuck with it indicates some intellectual discipline. I have benefited hugely in my career from knowing Russian. It meant that I was plucked out of obscurity as a junior staff member of a Big 6 (now 4) accounting firm and hurled into the middle of the mid-90s Russian economic explosion. It opened up opportunities I would never have had as just another staff person.

But that’s not the biggest part of it. Without developing my Russian skills I wouldn’t have met, pursued and married my wife. Maybe if I had taken Japanese I would have lived in Japan, developed a fondness for all things Japanese. Hard to say. But I do know that the decision to learn Russian set in motion the life process that brought me to where I am today: with a wife who is focused on the same things I am, personally and financially. So that’s actually the single biggest reason why that was a great financial move.

So what was your best move?