Learning a language means setting out on a whole new cultural journey. And if you’ve chosen to learn Russian, then congratulations: you’ve just opened the door to understanding a whole swathe of cultures — old and contemporary, vibrant, and vanishing — not just from across Russia, but all over Eurasia.
The problem, when you’re just starting out, is the sheer breadth of cultural choice. For so many of us, Russian language learning — and by extension our introduction to Russian culture — hinges entirely around our teachers and their own cultural proclivities. Those of us whose teacher was a certain older lady with flaming red hair and very prescriptive ideas about “Russian culture” could very well complete an entire course in Russian while knowing only one of two Soviet singers (each with their own questionable fashion choices). When you are finally able to meet Russian speakers your own age, they’ll probably tell you that they “only listen to American music, actually,” and think you’re weird for bringing it up.
So, The Calvert Journal has chosen our pick of the best Russian-language media for students who want to bring more depth to their learning and incorporate culture into their everyday lives. Each of our main entries are suitable for intermediate learners, but if you’re looking for something to stretch your skills, then our ‘See More’ options will help more experienced speakers. We can’t promise that you won’t cry over your grammar textbook, but we can say that, in the end, it will all be worth it.
Natalya Baranskaya’s 1969 novella A Week Like Any Other centres on the “ideal” Soviet women: a bright 26-year-old who is both a successful research scientist and a married mother of two. But as Baranskaya lays out the details of her protagonist’s daily life, it becomes clear that women like her are being relentlessly ground down — strangled by the dual pressures of a full-time career and a never-ending list of obligations at home. Her husband, meanwhile, seems wilfully ignorant to her plight. He is happy to watch his wife struggle to raise their young children, untroubled by the distant thought that he, too, could be pulling his weight.
A Week Like Any Other is an often overlooked classic in Russia’s literary canon that gives readers a unique insight into everyday Soviet life (as well as the gruelling “double shift” still expected of women around the world.) Luckily for language learners, it’s also fairly short, and packed with useful household words for everyday use.
See also: If you’re starting to move onto more demanding books, then short stories by Anton Chekov, Nikolai Gogol, and Mikhail Bulgakov are a solid stepping stone for anyone who wants to tackle the titans of Russian literature but isn’t quite ready to dive into War and Peace. Our favourites are The Nose by Gogol, The Lady with the Dog by Chekhov, and Fatal Eggs and The White Guard by Bulgakov.
The best thing about exploring other cultures is seeing the language you’re studying come alive in the world outside your textbook. Enter Street Russian. Created by Katherine, an American living in Chelyabinsk, it compiles street signs, billboards, and signage from across the city and matches them to their English translations. Katherine herself has been learning Russian for 12 years, but says her journey has been “worth every single battle with every single noun declension”. Katherine, we salute you.
See also: Social media is full language-learning material: you just have to know where to look. Hashtags like #русскийкакинностранный, (#RussianAsAForeign[Language]), and #русскийязыконлайн (#RussianLanguageOnline) are good places to start.
Other accounts designed by native Russian speakers to help foreign language learners include @Rodionova.Russian, @NativeRussian, and @orisskomporusski. If you’re really looking to brush up on your grammar and vocabulary, then the likes of @gramotarus and @slova_rik__ are also aimed at native Russian speakers.
See also: If you’re ready to go further with your Russian, then your first stop on YouTube should, of course, be vDud’. Hosted by Yury Dud, the show has revolutionised Russia’s modern media landscape, mixing long documentaries on difficult topics, such as the Beslan school massacre, with interviews and travelogues. Some episodes do have English subtitles, which you may have to fall back on at some point: like most Russian YouTube shows, even Dud’s shorter interviews have the tendency to stray past the gruelling one-hour mark.
Russki Norm, hosted by Russian journalist Yelizaveta Osetinskaya, is another great take on the YouTube-interview genre, with The Bell founder going head-to-head with some of the region’s biggest names: director Andrey Zvyagintsev, Belarusian tech founder Mikita Mikado, and Leningrad frontman Sergey Shnurov.
Less rigorously academic, but still a cultural institution, is YouTube channel +100500. A RuNet take on the classic reaction vid genre, the account might not have the clout it commanded back in the early 2010s, but it still remains an excellent way of brushing up on spoken slang (and, of course, some excellent Russian swearing).
We all know that the only real way to recover from a three-hour Russian grammar class is to sleep until the phrase “prefixed verbs of motion” no longer brings on a deep, involuntary shudder. If, however, you are looking for another, more educational way to reacclimatise from your brain being repeatedly smashed on the inside of your skull, then it’s time to turn to the comforting sounds of Masha and the Bear.
If you have kids, then you’ll know that Masha and the Bear has transcended borders to become one of Russia’s most popular cartoon exports. But even if you’re a little older than the show’s intended audience, then the forest adventures of a little girl and her favourite bear will still charm, delight, and help you put away a few cute phrases of spoken dialogue.
See also: For language-learners, the best thing about kids’ TV is that the drama often revolves around predictable, everyday scenarios. A great example is Yeralash. Each episode contains a handful of short and sweet mini-stories set close to home — at dance class, school, or the dentist’s office.
As well as providing tons of everyday vocab, these shows also build some of the cultural background that foreign language learners can miss out on, whether that’s the set-up of Russian classrooms or domestic etiquette. Produced between 1974 to 2018, Yeralash’s 339 episodes are all online — which should mean you’ll never run out.
You can’t really have a cheerful take on mass repression, but if you did, then it would probably look a lot like 2008 film Stilyagi. Translated into English as Hipsters, the film follows young people leading their own small revolution as part of a 1950s Soviet sub-culture: the stilyagi, or “stylish ones”. The Moscow clique duck and dive to escape the authorities in a bid to wear outrageous clothes, create their own music recordings from old x-rays, and flirt with the Soviet Union’s greatest enemy: rock and roll.
Both the on-screen style and storyline make this film worth the watch, but it’s the movie’s musical element that really sets Stilyagi apart. Consisting of jazz-infused covers of some of Russia’s greatest rock songs, the film’s soundtrack comes alive in the kind of large choreographed numbers usually reserved for Hollywood’s Golden era.
See also: The Calvert Journal has already written about how the Soviet Union’s canon of classic comedies is criminally overlooked. Luckily, today all of them are available on the MosFilm YouTube channel. Our favourites include The Diamond Arm, Ivan Vassilyevich Changes Profession (otherwise known in English as Ivan Vassilyevich: Back to the Future), and (the admittedly problematic) Kidnapping, Caucasian Style.
Ukrainian Russian-language show Orel i Reshka (Heads or Tails) revolves around a single premise: two hosts arrive in a foreign city and flip a coin. The winner gets unlimited spending money for a glamorous weekend break, while the loser needs to plan their two-day trip on just $100.
Again, the beauty of Orel i Reshka lies in its formulaic nature, which provides the security that intermediate language learners need to keep a handle on pacier dialogues. At the same time, the choice of diverse, distant, and sometimes unexpected destinations (hello, Nottingham), provide endless inspiration for your next big adventure.
See also: Sometimes it feels as if it’s hard to come across good Russian TV amid questionably dubbed US reruns. But they are out there: short sitcoms such as the restaurant-based Kukhnya (Kitchen) and medical comedy Interny (Interns), have bite-sized episodes which are more manageable if you need to concentrate to keep up with the action. Alternatively, if you prefer drama, then shows like Netflix crime series Mazhor (Silver Spoon), Yekaterina (based on the life of Catherine the Great) and Master and Margarita (based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic novel) all come highly recommended.
If you’re hoping to learn through osmosis, then adding Russian-language tracks to your workout playlist is the perfect way to pick up new vocab and broaden your musical horizons. We couldn’t bring ourselves to pick just one band, but we can recommend this 218-track monster playlist by Clara Lovato. Spanning decades and genres, it’s a veritable who’s who of great Russian language music — with nods to Soviet rockers Kino, Instagram indie-darling Monetochka, and Estonian rapper Tommy Cash. Clara, we don’t know who you are, but we think you’re great.
See also: If you want a more serious soundtrack for your sets, then Coda Story‘s podcast series Yashik Vsevlastya, (or “The Box of Omnipotence”) is an ever-green listen on the life, death, and future of Russian television. Veteran journalist Konstantin Eggert tells the story of television from Gorbachev to Putin, with all of the medium’s drama, intrigue, and scandal.
For faster moving current affairs, everyone’s favourite foreign agent (and all-round great independent news site), Meduza, provides a daily news podcast under the forthright title Shto Sluchilos’ (or “What Has Happened?”). More useful for learners, however, is its sister series, Tekst Nedeli, or Text of the Week. Each episode is tied to an article that Meduza has published that week, allowing you to look up keywords and prepare beforehand if needed.