‘A world I wanted to understand better’: Hanna Matt, our LEAP Language prize winner 2017, tells us about her fantastic experience learning Russian during her History degree.


Hanna Matt, 2nd Year History Student, Winner of LEAP Student Prize 2016-17

The spark that set the flame alight was my first-year history in practice course with Dr. Kristy Ironside entitled ‘Stalinist Society’, which covered a wide range of topics about Soviet history – from Stalin’s constitution to family values and a study of one of Stalin’s favourite musicals. It was Sheila Fitzpatrick’s ‘Everyday Stalinism’ that started my fascination with Soviet Russia. She paints a vivid picture of a world that is fundamentally different from ours, where ‘normality was a luxury’; a world I desperately wanted to understand better. Letters feature prominently in the historiography and I was intrigued by the types of things Soviet citizens wrote to their government about. Whilst there are great collections of sources translated into English, for example Siegelbaum and Sokolov’s ‘ Stalinism as a Way of Life: A Narrative in Documents’ I knew I wanted to be able to read the original versions.

I had also chosen to study a medieval Russian history module in my first year. Captivated in particular by the Christianisation of Rus I decided to visit Russia after my exams last June to see the splendour of the orthodox churches first hand. I immediately fell for the magnificence of the palaces in St. Petersburg, the unassuming rural beauty of the Golden Ring and above all, Moscow. I was fascinated by the serious atmosphere and strangeness of the Lenin Mausoleum, which contrasts so starkly with the extravagant architecture of the other buildings around the Red Square. My favourite feature was by far the extravagance of the subway stations, constructed during the height of Stalinism. Our guide Igor urged us to ask questions during the long bus journeys through the Russian countryside. I gladly took him up on the offer, asking about every aspect of life in the Soviet and Post-Soviet era. I left Russia with more questions than answers and the realisation that I would have to learn Russian if I wanted to get them.

Having been raised bilingually in German and Portuguese as well as learning English from an early age, I’ve always enjoyed studying languages. I thought that doing a LEAP course would offer me the chance do something a little different to my history modules and learning a Slavic language would be an interesting challenge. Initially, I was slightly apprehensive as Russian is known to be quite a difficult language (my suspicions were confirmed when we were introduced to the instrumental case) but I was motivated by my desire to use it in the future for research and travel.

I really enjoyed the lessons with Elena, who is a fantastic teacher. The pace was quite fast and we learnt something new almost every week, which meant that within a year we went from complete beginners, having to first learn the alphabet, to being able to hold a basic conversation in Russian. We covered a lot of interesting and useful topics and I’m confident that I could put my skills to use and find my way around Moscow or introduce myself and tell new friends about my life as a history student at the University of Manchester. The fact that the classes were quite small definitely helped and over the course of the year we became very close. Thanks to frequent conversational exercises, I have learnt about many different cultures and made some very good friends (as Elena would say verbal aspects are for life).

In April I was nominated as the Russian candidate for the LEAP student prize. Each language group nominates one student who is then invited to produce a short video about their experiences of learning a language at university, which is then reviewed by the senior tutors. A huge thank you has to go to Abdul Pathan, the language centre technician, who helped me make my video. You can watch it here.

I am honoured to have been unanimously chosen by the panel as the winner of the LEAP Student Prize this year. It means a lot to me that my enthusiasm for the subject and hard work this year have been recognised. I am hoping to continue my Russian language studies in the intermediate group next year and until then I have planned to travel to Russia again, spending a month in a school in Moscow to help push my Russian to the next level.


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