Russian / soviet cinema as a resource for learning Russian
Do you know…
  • Which university building appears most often in movies about Moscow?
  • Why Tauric Chersonese is called "Stone Actor" in Crimea?
  • Which film based on the book by A.Green for many years became a symbol of the fulfillment of dreams for young people, and its name became the name of the annual all-Russian graduation for schoolchildren in St. Petersburg?
You can easily answer such questions if you like Russian or Soviet cinema. Of course, it is better to watch feature-length films when you already speak B1 Russian — you will be able to understand the mysteries of the plot, dialogues and jokes, and get to know Russian cities. For example, St. Petersburg acted as a "living scenery" in the films "Unbelievable Adventures of Italians in Russia" (1974), "Say a Word for the Poor Hussar" (1981), "Autumn Marathon" (1979), "Could One Imagine?" (1981), "Gardes-Marines, Ahead!" (1987), "Brother" (1997), "Piter FM" (2006), "Abigail" (2019).
But what if you are not so fluent in Russian yet, but you still want to understand the movie plot without subtitles (especially since we know that automatically generated subtitles are not of much help)? You can try watching separate scenes from movies that are based on literature — this will allow you to understand the plot, if not its full version, then at least with the one adapted for foreigners. You don't have to watch the entire movie: if you know the major milestones of the plot, it's enough to watch a sequence or a scene and compare it with the corresponding scene in the book, for example:
Oksana's monologue from "Evenings on a farm near Dikanka" by Nikolay Gogol

The interrogation of Ivan the Terrible from the play "Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession" by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Cartoons based on the works of Russian and Soviet writers can also be of use when working with texts. They usually follow the original story closely due to the shorter timeline, in comparison with feature films. Excellent examples of author's word embodied on the screen are, of course, cartoons based on Alexander Pushkin's tales:
"The Tale of the Golden Cockerel"

"Tale of the Priest and of his Workman Balda"

Learning Russian with movies can become fascinating if you break your work on the plot into several steps. Here is an approximate algorith:
  1. Try to find the exact match of the text and the scene that you want to work out.
  2. Watch the scene without dubs and subs, try to understand its main points.
  3. Read the text, mark the keywords in the text that helped you understand the main points (at this stage you should not worry about missing details).
  4. Write down phrases or sentences that contain the words you highlighted — see if you understand that sentence in the text.
  5. Watch the sequence again and try to make out the words and phrases you wrote down, take note of the characters' intonation in the sequence, see if these are key phrases in the whole sequence;
  6. If your vocabulary lacks words crucial for understanding the plot, you can find them in the text and compare them with the audio sequence (the director could cut out some parts of the text) — translate these words, find them used in another context, write down a few phrases with these words (preferably in all their possible forms).
  7. Try to render the plot in Russian language, you can record it and reflect on it.
  8. If you want to hear other opinions about your rendering, you can upload your video on the Internet and get comments from different people — perhaps you'll find native Russian speakers among them.
If you are learning Russian with friends, then watching a movie together can be a great idea for a party. Of course, you should choose a movie that all your guests know. You can give one another tasks on various topics, from grammar to music.
You can play with movie names: add missing words, make antonyms for movie names, correlate the movie name and its poster.
Or you can play with names of the characters of a movie: think which move a character is from, listen to a remark from that movie and guess who said that, recognize a character by their outfit detail, guess a character by their appearance description.
It is also possible to use music OST from movies for tasks: remember which movie you heard the song in, continue the song from where it stops playing in the movie, remember the lyrics by listening to the intro, guess a song by its brief description.
Movies will also come in handy when training communication skills. You can do this exercise for practicing dialogs which includes listening and reading:
  1. Choose a 1-2 minute sequence that contains clearly pronounced lines, simple in form and content.
  2. Write down every line to separate cards and indicate what character said that.
  3. Give your friends a complete set of cards containing the dialog.
  4. Watch the sequence without looking at the cards, and then put the lines in the proper order.
  5. Watch the sequence again and check the line order, practice reading the dialog.
As you can see, watching movies can be both entertaining and useful for acquiring new knowledge, especially since people in Russia regularly use phrases from the most popular films, and sing songs from their favorite movies on holidays. Learn Russian with pleasure!
Olga Kryakhtunova
Acting Head of the Department of Linguodidactics and Intercultural communication of the Preparatory Faculty of RUSS University