A Swiss in Petersburg – more Russian grammar

The aspects –  I keep on confusing them and my Russian partners

Oh yes, I have been working at controling the aspects for many years, but I keep on confusing them, despite the fact that they are so crucial to understanding Russian. Here are some samples:

  • With Larissa I attended the opera “the flying Dutchmen”. I liked the opera, and I later said to Tatjana, my Russian teacher, that I liked it very much: “спектакль “Летучий Голландец” мне нравилась.” Tatjana rises her eye brows: “oh… so  what happened? You do no longer like it?” – Hm, no-no, I liked it and I still like it. “Well, she says, so… you have to say:  спектакль понравилась. Otherwise every Russian would think that you do no longer like it.”  Okay, I understand, I have used the imperfect aspect and should have used the perfect aspect to make it all clear that I still like it and that the result has not been “canceled”.
  • Tatjana and I sit at the table at home and practice the aspects. The door bell rings. I open the door. The neighbor looks for Elena, but as Elena is not at home, she leaves. Shortly afterwards Elena comes home. “Elena”, I say, “your neighbor came and looked for you…  соседка пришла и искала тебя”‘. Tatjana frowns. “Where is the neighbor? Is she waiting in the kitchen?” – Hm, no-no, she is no longer here, she went away  – она ушла. Conclusion: Result canceled, she left again, hence I have to say  “она приходила”. Will I ever get this right?
  • Tatjana and I practice the words “dress” and “put on”. Another trap here. I put on my trousers in the imperfect aspect means a scandal, if I left the house now. Because “надевала брюки” means that I put them on and then took them off again. I have to say “надела брюки”  in the perfect aspect to express that I put them on and I am still wearing them. Did I make this clear? I think you have to be a native slawic speaker to understand this.

The “canceled result”

Tatjana calls this concept “the canceled result” or “аннилурованный результат”. For Russians this is all easy, they just ask themselves: делал или сделал? (perhaps to translate like this: Did he process this or did he complete it”), but for me, this is still not straightforward. Larissa and my Russian friends are always puzzled, when I hesitate about using the correct aspect. Larissa remembers that she heard about the aspects at school a long time ago… and now corrects me as well.

Another challenge – how to form the aspects?

When I have decided which aspect to use, there is the next challenge… how is it formed? Often the verb is “stronger” in the perfect aspect, e.g. the conjugation is irregular and it is more regular in the imperfect aspect:

  • плавать – плыть, понимать – понять, давать – дать, начинать – начать

Often I can just add  the prefixes “по” or “с” to derive the perfect aspect:

  • просить -попросить, делать – сделать, желать – пожелать, петь – спеть

but then there is покупать – купить which I always confuse. Then there are many irregular verbs in the perfect aspect and often the Russians use two totally different verbs:

  • брать – взять, ловить – поймать, сказать – говорить

To remember that брать is incomplete I needed a ladder… My brother is not perfect. I do not have a brother and hence I am not offending anyone.

Well, I try hard to get these aspects under better control, and I hope that my Russian friends forgive me and understand nevertheless, what I am trying to say.

A Swiss in Petersburg and some difficulties of the Russian language

Daily Russian lessons with Tatjana

Tatjana has written educational books for Russian. One of them is the Учебник Уровень B1, edited by Slatoust or Златоуст. We meet daily, in my first week for 3 hours and then for 1.5 hours to work on the gerund, the aspects, the verbs of movement and more. I enjoy trying to improve my grammar systematically, as I am often cheating my way around the aspects and verbs of movement counting on the fact that the Russians are generous and understand what I am trying to say. And going back to the level of thinking before talking is painful, yet useful, if I want to bring the command of the Russian language to a next level.

Here are two lessons learnt.

Where Russians meet Bern – “two” has a gender

Ernst was from Bern and he differentiated “two” by gender: “zwo Froui” (two women – feminine), “zwee Manne” (two men – masculine) and “zwoi Müsli” (two little mice – neuter). This is where the dialect of Bern and the Russian language meet: Also the Russians differentiate “two” or “dva/dve” by gender: две женщины (feminine) and два мужчины (masculine) – neuter does not exist in Russian. I am from Basel and we just say “zwai”, the Germans say “zwei” and the Anglosaxons use “two” without considering the gender.

What I find particularly confusing is that in Bern “zwo” to me sounds masculine (but it is used for the feminine gender) and “два” in Russian sounds feminine (but it is used for the masculine gender). Hence I am always confused in Bern and in Russia. Tatjana has never heard about this similarity between Bern and Russia – and now spends some time to practice две and два to get it automatically wired in my brain, despite the fact that “dva” sounds feminine, but is masculine.

Gerund or Деепричастия

The Russians know an adverbial construction that is similar to the gerund – the деепричастия. Using them, the Russians characterize an action (i.e. they are similar to an adverb) and, at the same time, this gerund behaves like a verb: it comes in the two aspects (complete and incomplete or совершенный and несовершенный вид) and it can command an object. In general verbs of the incomplete aspect form their gerund on “ja/a” or  “я/а” and verbs of the complete aspect form it on “v/vschi” or “в/вши” (the latter derived from the past tense):

  • читая – прочитав, говоря – сказав, крича –  крикнув, улыбаясь – улыбнувшись

but as always in Russian, there are exceptions:

  • идя – придя, неся – принеся or total exceptions like будучи and едучи – or verbs that do not allow to form a gerund at all like бежать and ездить.

The gerund characterizes an action (how, why, when, if, despite) whereby this second  action can take place at the same time, repeatedly or the action is canceled (incomplete aspect) or earlier and the result is still true (complete aspect). And this is, where it becomes difficult for non slawics like me:

  • Он приготовил обед, слушая радиои = he prepared lunch AND listened to the radio.
  • Он приготовил обед, послушав радио = he prepared lunch AFTER having listened to the radio.

The difference may look small for us, but it is huge for Russians.

There are also fixed expressions based on these gerunds, like честно говоря (honestly or ehrlich gesagt), взяв за основу (based upon), закатав рукава (tucking up the sleeves or die Ärmel hochkrempelnd) or не мудрствая (directly said or ohne Umschweife).

Some conjunctions are also based on the gerund like хотя or несмотря на (despite).

Slatoust has written a whole book about the gerund, but it is currently not available.

A Swiss in Petersburg: Looking for a hidden bookshop

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Златоуст – Slatoust: A governmental institute for the Russian language

Every day I take lessons with Tatjana. She works me through Russian grammar: Gerundium, participle, difficulties of Russian verbs etc.

Today I decided to buy more grammar books, some of them Tatjana has written herself. I take the metro to Gorskaja, and I stroll down Kammennoostroveskij prospekt to find the address 24/24. It is easy to locate the house 24.

Through the подъезд (passage) I enter a messy courtyard surrounded by several buildings, some under reconstruction. There is only one office with a business sign to the right. I go in and ask the direction to Slatoust. “We do not know,” a lady tells me angrily, not looking at me.

What now? There is another door to a building wrapped up in blue metal. Obviously a serious ремонт (reconstruction) going on here. Eventually I notice a very small piece of paper in a plastic bag hanging on the blue metal wall, with Slatoust on it. I follow the arrow, find a hidden door and behind it there is an office with book shelves. Here it is. Why did the neighbor just across in the same courtyard not know?

Slatoust has a wonderful selection of books that support learning Russian. With a heavy plastic bag I leave this friendly place to return to the Graschdanskaja and continue with my studies.

A Swiss speaking Russian in Petersburg – Швейцарка говорящая по-русски в Питере

Дом Расколника or the House of Raskolnikow

As I leave the house that is my home for 4 weeks, I see a large group of tourists around the small monument of Dostojewsky at the edge of Graschdanskaja Uliza. Raskolnikow, one of the heroes of Dostojewsky, lived under the roof in “my” house, and a guide explains the story standing in front of a plate with the number “4”. As she waits for the next group, I ask her in Russian, what this is about. She is confused, aswers in English, hands out a flyer to me that shows all the posts that tourist groups are looking for today and turns to the next group. There seems to be a special Dostojewsky day,  but neither his birthday nor his day of death. I also heard that the code to enter “my” house had been published in tourists’ guidebooks and the house switched to an electronic contact system later.


Они все читают карты, я зто делать не умею – they all read maps, I cannot do that

Now at Sennaja Ploschtschadj, I am looking for the metro line that would take me to Ploschtschadj Alexandrogo Newskogo. I intend to visit the convent that Peter the Great built for this hero of the 13th century who conquered Karelia for the Republic of Novgorod (which in the 15th century became part of Russia).  I hear a voice say in Russian that they all read maps here and that she cannot do that. It is the woman selling ice cream. I answer that reading maps is not so difficult She opens her eyes wide: Do you speak Russian? Oh, I am sorry… where are you from?…

Вы Русская? Вы проваславная? Ну, входите! – Are you Russian? Are you Orthodox? Well, enter!

At the gate to the Newskij Monastyr or Convent, tourists now have to pay an entrance fee. I approach the cashier and ask: Сколько стоит (how much does it cost)? He looks at me and asks, whether I am Russian. No,  I answer, я просто  Швейцарка говорящая по-русски (I am just a Swiss speaking Russian). He asks me: Вы праваславная (are you orthodox)? No, I am not, I answer to him. He looks at me… and says: Ну, входите (well, enter). So I enter this convent without paying, as the Russians do, and, in the church, I light a candle, before visiting the cemetaries.


Tam – вам – фото or there –  you – foto

My next stop is the Kusnetschij Rynok, a nice fruit, vegetable, meat and fish market. Between cherries and abricots, there is a young chap selling his fruit. He approaches me in some sort of pigeon Russian: “There – you – foto”. I do not understand him. He repeats his words. “You can speak normally”, I respond in Russian.  Now he explains clearly that he wants to take a foto of me with his cherries… and for the foto, I also buy some cherries from him.


Дом Быта – Dom Beat

To round off the afternoon, I try the Dom Beat. The waitor serves a tasty Cappuccino with cinnamon. I look for Anna that I had met in the plane. She has her free day and is not there. The charming manager already knows and Anna. We arrange to meet next week.

Летучий Голландец or the Flying Dutchman by Richard Wagner

Larrissa has acquired tickets for the Flying Dutchman in the Michailovskij Teatr. A great setting for this tragic opera. The actors sing in German, and I follow the Russian subtitles to better understand the German words. Young artists, a young stage director and a young conductor have set up this opera with a lot of creativity, placing it into our times with rolling suit cases and mobile phones. The singers were excellent, especially the flying Dutchman and Senta, his angel who saved him.

Why do they call the Flying Dutchman “летучий”and not “летающий”? Tatjana explains to me that it is a characteristic of the Dutchman that he flies – he permanently flies (letutschij) and he does not just happen to fly right now (letajuschij). Well, Russian has a lot of nuances, and I know, I still have to learn a lot.

На дачу or to the Datscha

After the opera, Larissa takes me to her Datscha north of Petersburg. Another Russian experience ahead of me.