A Course of Russian Military History through Movies as a Means of Linguistic Competence Growth, Background Knowledge Enlargement, and Increase of Learning Incentive

Yelena Vasyanin, Moscow State Linguistic University

This paper begins with a brief overview of new textbooks and courses designed in Russia in the last few years. As the analysis shows, they as before are often oriented towards the student’s ethnic origin or scholarly specialization (Russian for philologists, students of humanities etc.). At the same time, the falling interest in Russian language learning which has been quite evident in the last years in the West and the changing body of students, demand from teachers of Russian and those who design university curricula and programs to pay special attention to the student’s future or present profession, way of life, interests, needs. In many cases they have to create “tailor-made” courses for some categories of learners (this notion gave birth to such programs as Russian for Lawyers, Russian for Humanitarian Organizations’ Members, Russian for Hotel and Restaurant Staff, Russian for Housewives, Moscow Youth Slang, etc.)

This paper describes a course of Russian military history through movies which was created as an attempt to answer to such a special request for an “oral practice course for advanced learners with the special attention to Russian military history, including some acquaintance with Russian culture, traditions and mentality (60 academic hours).” It will also show why and how following this “order,” a course combining elements of traditional courses on Russian cinematography and speaking practice was designed. Several parts of lessons with different types of linguistic, speech and communicative exercises will be demonstrated as well.

Besides sixty hours of classes (eight hours a week) the course has included additional homework on viewing the movies (a total of ten) and, as it was conducted in Moscow, the course was combined with several theme tours (sixteen hours).

The classroom lessons, movies and excursions were deeply interrelated. For example, study of the subject “The Battles of Old Days” was preceded by a guided tour to Moscow’s Kremlin Armory where students got acquainted with most important individuals and events of ancient Russian history and saw arms and armor of the past. The students’ background knowledge of the Russian military history was recalled next day in the classroom while they were discussing what they already had known. At the same time they worked on texts, figures and fiction extracts connected with the Russian military history, did a lot of lexical and grammar exercises and prepared for a movie demonstration. By the end of the lesson students received homework, which was only possible to complete after viewing the movie, Aleksandr Nevskij. The next day there was an in-class discussion of the movie’s events, characters, cinematography methods and ideological background. Additional texts helped students to learn more about the “massacre on the ice” and Prince Aleksandr’s personality, history of making the movie, its popularity among the Soviet people during the war years (1941–1945), leading the students to a discussion about the role of cinema in forming public opinion and to a debate on the issue of whether the cinematography could (should) be an ideological tool.

Ten popular Russian movies were selected for the course. All of them were representative in a sense that, on the one hand, they covered some of the most important and well known events in Russian history and, on the other hand, they clearly reflected the most popular, widespread opinions and views of Russian people on their country’s past. Despite the fact that nowadays the perception of almost all historical events has been revised, and the popular opinion has been changing, these ten movies still reflect the most stable connotations, related to the military history. For instance, the War with Napoleon in 1812 is perceived as difficult but romantic time with lots of songs, poetry, brave, honest and handsome hussars; the Second World War for Russians is still more understandable as the Great Patriotic War, a horrible but just war of liberation; the Chechen War is viewed as a dead-end campaign which is useless, strange and cynic. The greater the differences in Russian and Western points of view, the more interesting and lively was this discussion in class.

As for the historical component of the course, by contrast with traditional history courses, we paid special attention to typical Russian stereotypes and allusions related to historical events. For our purpose, the acquaintance with Puškin’s “Pesn′ o Veščem Olege” or Lermontov’s “Borodino” seemed to be more important than memorizing the dates of Car′-grad’s capture and studying the details of Borodino battle.

The paper also raises the issue of positive and negative outcomes of interdisciplinary and limited time courses. According to students’ evaluations and test results, the goals of the course were reached: we saw the growth of linguistic competence in the professional field (military), students learned a lot about Russian history, saw several “cult” movies, increased their background knowledge of Russian culture and people. The negative feedback received from the students was in a way connected with a nonsystematic approach to teaching Russian history and history of cinema, although the students understood that the time frame of a course could not allow it to be done in a different way. The lacunae which students discovered in their knowledge, were sometimes frustrating but at the same time were stimulus for further studies.