For Mark Scheuer, speaking Russian has always come in handy – whether it is helping out a lost Russian traveler at the airport or being able to break the ice at work meetings. Scheuer, manager of NNSA’s Nuclear Incident Response Policy Program, began his passion for Russian while in graduate school and today considers the language “wonderfully acrobatic.”
Could you share what your journey in learning to speak Russian has been like?
When I went to graduate school, American University accepted people without a second language, but required students to study one to graduate. Fair enough. So in addition to my graduate classes, I started from the beginning and took four semesters of undergraduate Russian on top of my master’s requirements.
By the time I had finished my graduate classes, I still wasn’t feeling confident about my Russian skills. The university managed a study-abroad program jointly with Moscow State University, which gave students the opportunity to live in Moscow with a family of Russian-only speakers, while spending all day in the classroom with Russian professors. At the end of this 3-month program, I would have been eligible for graduation with my master’s degree
My experience in Moscow was so fantastic that when the program ended, I did not want to leave. I managed to find a job teaching that allowed me to extend my visa—and get paid—so I stayed in Moscow for another nine months. While there, I hired a tutor and enrolled in a one-on-one program at Moscow State.
During my extended stay in Moscow, I also met the woman who would become my wife, Tanya, and she’s been correcting my Russian (and everything else I do!) for more than 20 years since.
Can you explain your passion for the Russian language?
I love the language for two reasons: First, I grew up during the Cold War believing that issues between Russia and the United States could be resolved with better communication. While I didn’t serve the Federal government until after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I believe I advanced our mutual national security—ever so slightly—because I was often able to use my Russian language skills to bridge the communications gap between us.
I love the language ... because it is wonderfully acrobatic.
The second reason I love the language is because it is wonderfully acrobatic. It’s hard to describe but the language has incredible flexibility, which allows one to spin a yarn that creates suspense and beauty. In English, word order is imperative; otherwise, without it, the sentence doesn’t sound right—or even make sense. Not so in Russian. I can choose to place words in an array of order that allows me to amplify a point, or build to a dramatic crescendo. When you’ve gotten enough experience, speaking Russian is enormously fun!
How have you used Russian at work?
I worked in NNSA’s Office Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation for many years and spoke the language often during dozens of trips to Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, the two latter being former Soviet Republics. Russian was not required for my job, mind you, but the language skills helped smooth rough edges in our discussions. I was often able to break the ice quickly with Russian speakers, and we often discussed things outside of work like politics or sports, that normally wouldn’t have been covered without my command of Russian. Establishing this sort of rapport with my counterparts helped expedite our collaboration.
How has speaking Russian benefitted your job at NNSA?
I believe my language skills have allowed me to better facilitate the work of our wonderful Department of Energy-employed interpreters, in turn better facilitating departmental goals. I didn’t often jump in to correct interpreters, because their professionalism was so high, but there were times when it became obvious to me that the U.S. and Russian sides were talking past one another because the interpreter was missing the context. Since I understood the context of our work, I was able to recognize when and why each side was missing the points being made and was able to jump in to explain to either the Russians or the Americans. I believe this saved us time during our meetings, and reduced frustration. Reduced frustration means greater trust; greater trust means more gets accomplished.
Can you share an interesting story about you speaking Russian?
I was walking through JFK airport after a flight from Moscow and heard someone shout: “Does anyone here speak Russian?!” I volunteered myself and it turned out a “babushka” (grandmother) who spoke zero English, didn’t know how to get to her gate. I managed to flag down one of the mobile units who drove her to her flight gate. It’s not often that it comes in handy, but that time it did.
What has surprised you the most about being a Russian speaker?
More than once I’ve engaged with a native speaker who asks me where I’m from. When I tell them I’m from Washington, they say, “No, where are you from in Russia?” Ha! That’s always the best compliment.