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Skills Russians Rock Posted by on Jul 31, 2014 in Russian life, when in Russia

Russian people may sometimes surprise you by certain things they seem to do effortlessly. A Russian person probably takes these skills for granted because they are emphasized in the Russian education system, but they may still stand out to people outside Russia.

Unaided math

One thing people educated in Russia and, I would suppose, the neighboring countries are good at is doing math in their head (считать в уме). More often than not students not allowed to use calculators (использовать калькулятор) in math class and during tests. They are expected to do long division and multiplication (делить столбиком and умножать столбиком).

At the same time, Russians are not comfortable with approximate calculations and plugging in numbers. The school math instruction is built around formulas and algorithms, and Russians will often feel lost if there isn’t a cut-and-dry algorithm for the solution.

Reciting poetry

Another major part of the Russian school curriculum is memorizing poetry (учить стихи наизусть; the singular for “poem” is стихотворение). Reciting poems (рассказывать стихи) in front of the class is a requirement for literature classes, and your delivery (выражение) is also graded!

Moreover, when Russians write essays about poetry for a grade, they are expected to cite relevant lines from memory! So, chances are if you friend was Russian-educated, they can recite a good chunk of the 80-line rhymed letter from Tatiana to Eugene Onegin (письмо Татьяны к Онегину), narrated below.

Formal grammar

For years, staring in elementary school, Russian kids learn to identify parts of the sentence (члены предложения) with a degree of precision not common in contemporary US education — the subject (подлежащее), predicate (сказуемое), object (дополнение), and so on. There are special graphic designations for them, too, with the subject being underlined once, the predicate being underlined twice, the modifier with a squiggly line, etc.

That doesn’t mean that Russian kids are familiar with a variety of linguistic theories — they are just good at identifying parts of the sentence from a certain perspective. However, that may be why so many Russians, especially older ones, are not comfortable just “picking up” a language from exposure, watching movies, or talking to native speakers — they want to know how to construct a meaningful utterance from the “building blocks.”


Cursive writing (approximate equivalent письменные буквы, “handwritten letters”) is pretty much the default for anything handwritten in Russia. No one prints (писать печатно) unless explicitly asked to do so, for example on a form. It goes without saying then that no one struggles with cursive, although not everyone’s cursive is legible. Since Russians are taught and expected to use cursive throughout their education and career, and many classes and presentations require you to master the fastest and slickest shorthand possible, cursive is pretty safe in Russia.

Of course, there are things Russians are comparatively bad at. Playing musical instruments comes to mind. Yes, there are the music school goers, who study piano for 7 years and become very good, but there is no band class in schools, and the rest go without ever touching an instrument. I would say certain aspects of science are not as popular in Russia. For example, I can’t think of people bringing up individual dinosaur species in conversation, like they do in the US — think of all the T.Rex jokes (Russian dinosaur lovers, correct me if I’m wrong!). But that is a subject for a whole other post.

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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available on her translation site and on Twitter at @intorussian.


  1. Tom Maholski:


    Although I never went to a Russian school, you described my education almost to a “T” . My early education in the States was with Roman Catholic nuns from Poland. All their teaching skills must have been from the homeland.


    • Maria:

      @Tom Maholski Tom, thank you for your comment. Interesting. It could be a combination of the teacher’s preferences and also the prevailing teaching philosophy at the time. Sounds like both of these were similar to the Russian approach in your experience.

  2. David:

    Maria, this is fascinating. You described my late 1940s/1950s UK education almost to a T as well! Long multiplication and division, calculations involving £s, shillings (20 to the £) and pence (12 to the shilling), learning the nuts and bolts of grammar, etc. When learning French at school, my class was given the task of memorising the poem “La cigale et la fourmi” – I still remember it perfectly! When I first started learning Russian (scientific Russian as a subsidiary course to chemistry) it was more or less: 1st lesson, the alphabet; second lesson, verb conjugation tables; 3rd lesson, noun declension tables; after that practice at translating extracts of scientific Russian texts. Similarly with scientific German. That’s still the way I like to approach new languages. Having met with many East Europeans who were educated in the Soviet Union days,, I’ve got the strong impression that life. including the eduction system, was not unlike UK life about 10 years earlier!

    • Maria:

      @David David, it’s fascinating to see that a few of the readers had a similar experience in their countries, albeit earlier in the 20th century. I find that Russian education in general is closer to the European model of the early 20th century German Gymnasium and French lycée, with an emphasis on liberal arts and, for better or for worse, rote learning. In other words, Russia is somewhat slow to catch up with the newer teaching methods, like cooperative learning and what not.

  3. Laurie:

    Maria, did you see the Russian subtitles on the Onegin Letter video?
    Very weird! But thank you for all your great posts.

  4. Yulia:

    T-Rex’ popularity seems to originate from pre-school picture books and TV shows where that dinosaur is a frequent character rather then from science classes.

    • Maria:

      @Yulia Yulia, I probably have to agree, although Jurassic Park was big in Russia, as well. But dinosaurs are somewhat like aliens in the Russian popular mind — you never discuss the species and differences between them. Even look at the wikipedia page for “Birds” in English and Russian. The English page says birds evolved from certain dinosaurs in the first paragraph. On the Russian page, it is buried deep in the page as a theory of their origin.