Meeting Peter the Great in His Own Language

Taking Russian as a high school student while also getting to learn about the country’s fascinating culture and history is rare. At The Academy, Introduction to Russian Language and History is an elective course taught by Mary Richards. It is open to students of all class years and eight students are currently enrolled. 

When you see a Russian word such as Здравствуйте (hello), you begin to understand that an important part of learning the language is to master the connection between the alphabet and the sounds. “When you first see the alphabet, it looks foreign and a bit incomprehensible but once students get acquainted with the letters, it’s the first step to unlocking the language. There are many Russian words that come from Greek, Latin, or English words – and are very familiar to us, once we get past the alphabet. Some aspects of the language are simpler than English. It’s also really fun!” Ms. Richards said. Students have been working on vocabulary you would encounter in daily life and feel it has been fascinating to learn how to say the names for places and objects.

Students have also been practicing how to introduce themselves to each other. This has enabled students to become comfortable with the Russian terms for the different parts of names: first name (имя), patronymic or father’s first name (имя отчество), and last name (фамилия). Being able to practice such basics frequently is important for students’ success in speaking Russian comfortably. Ms. Richards connected this exercise to the upcoming history lesson, telling students: “We need to know how to introduce ourselves before we meet Peter the Great.”


The concept of introductions was an excellent transition into talking about Peter the Great and his important role in Russian history. By viewing paintings of Peter (on the right in the image above) and his father side by side, students discussed, in simple Russian phrases, the differences in how they were portrayed and what that said about how Peter changed the role of the tsar. Through both conversation and a brief video, students began to see how complex Peter was and that, while he is viewed as a modernizer in many ways, he also had a dark side.

Now the students in Ms. Richards’ are embarking on a biography project. They will each be researching the life of a Russian historical figure of their choice (for example, Catherine the Great, Nicholas – the last Tsar and his family, Anna Pavlovna – a famous prima ballerina of the early twentieth century). Their first step is to create a bookmark that presents a snapshot of the person. Then students will research their subject and make a presentation to the class, giving a detailed view of the individual within the context of their times in both Russian and world history. By putting these famous Russian figures on a timeline (pre-Peter or post-Peter), the girls will gain a foundation for conceptualizing Russian history as a whole. The girls will also be learning new vocabulary and expressions along the way and continue to practice their pronunciation as they strive to master the unique and beautiful Russian language.

Being able to teach a Russian class to young women in high school is very meaningful to Ms. Richards. She started her own study of Russian in tenth grade. She went on to complete her undergraduate and graduate degrees in Russian and Slavic Languages, earning a B.A. in Russian from Indiana University and then an M.A. and Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from The University of California, Berkeley, CA. She studied on exchange at Harvard while writing her dissertation and spent time living and studying in different Russian cities, including St. Petersburg. She also studied in Poland. Through her class at APH, Ms. Richards hopes to inspire the next generation of students to develop an interest in Russian language, history, and culture.

До свидания! (Goodbye!)