Speaking in Tongues

When the language you love becomes a weapon of war

A distorted image of a man wearing a suit and tie on a TV screen, his mouth obscured by static

When I was five years old, I often entertained myself by pretending to speak a foreign language. I recall reading long passages from a German version of Alexander Volkov’s book—a Soviet retelling of The Wizard of Oz—and translating them into Russian. The translation was simple; I knew the original well. I sang the letters as though they were musical notes, which delighted random guests and neighbors. Later I realized I didn’t need the book to “read” the German text. I improvised the words on the spot. It was an important stage in the development of my relationship with language. By the time I was in first grade, I “spoke” many tongues.

In college I had a habit of piling up words and chaotically tossing them at my interlocutors. I believed that each word would find its place in the listener’s mind, like the final puzzle piece fitted snugly into the jigsaw’s gap. Here are the lumps of sense for you to sort out. I enjoyed the shimmering of meaning and sound in a single word so much that I did not strive to be understood. I saw language as a space in which the mind could experiment, not as a sharpened blade for honing arguments or pronouncing commandments.


Growing up in the late 1980s, I was accustomed to a constant polyphony of tongues. I was born in a resort town lost in the dusty folds of the crumbling Soviet Union. Under imperial Russia, it had been a place where undesirable dissidents from the capitals were exiled; later, it gradually filled with the hum of numerous Indigenous peoples from the North Caucasus, people who still retained fragments of their language and folklore. Foreign words surrounded me, beckoning, promising me secret knowledge. By the age of ten I knew how to say “Any smokes?” in eight languages; I knew the words for male and female genitalia in ten languages. I could move between all these languages at once, and the Russian language, which was full of loanwords, seemed capable of accommodating this diversity of sound.

The large collective farm field was just behind the school, not far from our house. It was flanked by a flat stretch of road that led to the neighboring village. There, when I was twelve, I saw a man being shot with a machine gun fired from a passing car—a short burst from a Kalashnikov assault rifle, of which there were too many in my town. I crouched down, like one sits to take a break. There was no fear. I knew I wasn’t a target. My job was to avoid becoming an accidental victim or, God forbid, a witness. I understood from the elders in my neighborhood that no one likes witnesses—not criminals, because of possible complications with the verdict; not the police, because of the extra paperwork. Don’t believe, don’t be afraid, don’t ask.

At least a dozen events have been proclaimed as historical turning points in Russia’s transition to capitalism, but I don’t believe there was a single one that changed life overnight. Instead, there was a gradual slide into “wild capitalism,” a primitive competition to loot the Communist pantry. Suddenly everything had a price, even things that could not be weighed and boxed. Deals were struck until a new player or a higher bid emerged. Then an all-out high-stakes bidding war ensued, often culminating in death or disappearance. It seemed that in the 1990s the slowly bubbling cauldron of the North Caucasus was being stirred with a giant wooden spoon, and that spoon reached the very bottom. The police were tampering with the law, money was constantly changing its type and value, veterans of the Afghan War were bringing the war home, and the Soviet Union had collapsed, exposing ethnic divisions. The faces of the adults around me were filled with only one desire: to survive.

To do so, I had to grasp the right narrative, recognize the enemy, feel the deception behind the flattering words. I knew I could not trust people in the new Russia, where a compliment on your looks might be a prelude to selling you a fake fur coat, or praise for your intellect might be followed by a Ponzi scheme. Sincerity was a luxury afforded only within a narrow circle of friends and family. Everywhere else, the language of fear and aggression held sway, and it had to be spoken fluently and without hesitation.  

But language was a short-term defense. Like pepper spray, it could stop a random assault. Once deployed, however, it wasn’t worth waiting for the attackers to brush away their tears. It was necessary to hurry off the verbal battlefield. Brute force would quickly expose a trickster, a sneak who hacked the system’s tongue. Too smart to be strong. At that point no word in all the languages of the world could buy you a ticket to staying alive. All that’s left is to shout profanities into the silent void.


On February 23, 2022, muteness began to creep in. I was waiting for a connecting flight in Amsterdam when I saw Putin on every screen in the airport. Carefully captioned in Dutch, he opened his mouth, but no sound emerged. I tried to understand what he was saying, but all I could comprehend was that he was very angry and proud. I caught myself blocking it out. I didn’t want to hear a word about the vital role of Russia in the history of Europe, about the vocation of the Russian man, or about the shenanigans of Russia’s many enemies. Nothing new—this was the usual state of the president. Malicious statements aimed at dominating by any means.

I’ve had enough of this kind of talk, I thought. I’ll take a break. It was the first time I’d ever dodged the Russian language. It was a joke gone farcical. After all, the purpose of my trip was to study Russian-speaking communities in Oregon. I was interested in the preservation and evolution of language in closed immigrant communities in the Pacific Northwest. It had taken me a long time to realize this project, through applications and grants. At last, I was nearing my destination. 

I stared at Putin’s mouth as it silently opened and closed. How important were the words he was speaking if he needed Dutch subtitles? I failed to hear him make the declaration of war.


“What’s his endgame?” my colleagues at the university asked me once I arrived in Oregon. I felt numb, still not fully recovered from jet lag. I chewed on the ends of sentences, trying to answer. It later became clear to me that what I felt was not simply jet lag, but a larger state of confusion and bewilderment that would linger for a long time—not only for me, but for many people, and for entire countries.

On the first day of my research, I began my preliminary interview with the common greeting in Russian, dobry den, meaning “good afternoon.” Mikhail, a stocky, bald truck driver, cast a suspicious glance at me. “Is this a provocation?” he asked. He sounded wary. “How can any day be good when bombs are falling from Russian planes onto European cities?” 

Propaganda began to claim phrases from Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Brodsky. Its ornate wording—a mix of slang and literary language I had heard during squabbles between bandits, or from enforcers and fixers—dragged the Russian classics into the space of war, melting semantics into shells and words into bullets. So I became mute. I could no longer write or work in Russian. I had come to Oregon to study Russian-speaking communities, and now I couldn’t bring myself to speak Russian. It felt like my mouth was filled with blood. And it wasn’t my own.


A quick way to get better at speaking a foreign language is to start thinking in it. I kept thinking in Russian; I used its figurative constructions, syntax, verb tenses. But the words in my thoughts were English words. If I didn’t know the word for something in English, then I tried not to think about it. I eliminated double negatives, common in Russian, and quickly got used to the lack of gender in English. Russian syntax still punctuates my English; metaphors from Russian literature bleed in. To this day, the word da, meaning “right,” pops up in my speech. But soon I began to learn English constructions, spoken and written. For the first time since the war against Ukraine began, I felt calm. The kind of calm you get in a medically induced coma. No dreams, no visions, no thoughts. Then came the long-awaited joy. After three conversations with consuls and a journey through half a dozen European countries, my family made it to Oregon. We were together again. I could hear Russian speech again. That’s when I realized how successful my attempt to abandon the Russian language had been. I spoke Russian words and phrases, but I did not recognize them. It felt like a nightmare in which friends turn into enemies and behave unexpectedly and frighteningly. I thought of the pain, blood, and deception that existed in these words, and I wondered how they could ever be used to shape my thoughts or speak of love and compassion. And the more I listened to my native tongue, the deeper my despair became. 


As part of my research on Russian-speaking communities, I found myself at a gathering of a Slavic congregation in Portland. A nice man named Semyon led me to the service. It was a small group of working people from Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. There I heard my first testimony, a prayer in tongues. A bulky man in a shiny blazer stepped up onto the stage of a rented church and said he wanted to thank God for giving him back the paycheck envelope he had forgotten at Fred Meyer. He closed his eyes and continued speaking as he had spoken before—with the same intonation. I heard the familiar roots of words, the syntax filled with new sound, the meanings bouncing off rational understanding. I felt like I was witnessing an intense one-on-one conversation, its words understood only by the one to whom they were addressed. I listened, mesmerized. A middle-aged woman jumped up from a neighboring chair and began to translate the words of gratitude into Russian. Those around the man supported the translator with their own versions in their own languages. The room immediately turned into a sacred space, a play of interpretations.

I realized that here was my language, in its highest manifestation: a creative act taking place in the present tense. 

I would want my tongue to have such poetry. But with each passing day, I realize more clearly that the poetry of the Russian language has already begun to elude me. I am afraid of not finding it in English. What will be the base of my polyphony, my witnessing—English or Russian—when I speak in tongues?


The first rule for dealing with fear is to learn how to listen. I was afraid of losing Russian and thereby my ability to think. To lose the joy of discovering new dimensions of the universe, replaced only by the discovery of new brands of breakfast cereal and fast detour routes. 

Then I started listening to all the languages around me. I went back to work at a Russian-speaking community theater. There I work with other people’s speech, other people’s stories and language. I am a witness who is present for a prayer to the only consciousness that can understand. I am waiting to find my own speech, for my thoughts to touch my heart and revitalize it with the words of a language I don’t know yet. 


Culture, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Religion, Global and Local, Language, Fear


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