Russian Language Blog

Uniquely Russian School Assignments Posted by on May 26, 2014 in Uncategorized

In a comment to a previous post, I was asked what has changed in the Russian educational system since the Soviet times. From my (perhaps limited) experience with Russian education, the things that have changed actually bring the system closer to that of the US. Four-year university degrees, multiple-choice tests, typewritten papers — you name it, these things that are quite run-of-the-mill in the US and some European countries are still sometimes seen as foreign fads in Russia. This is also reflected in unique types of school assignments, which are uncommon or unknown in other countries.


During a диктант, or dictation, the teacher will read a text for the students to write down. First, the teacher will read the text quickly for the students to get an idea of it. Then they will read it sentence by sentence, pausing to give the students time to write. A dictation is meant to test the students’ knowledge of spelling and punctuation. Unlike English, Russian has pretty hard and fast punctuation rules, so there is a right and wrong way of punctuating a sentence. The only exception is авторская пунктуация (a [well-established] author’s punctuation), or the non-standard punctuation used by writers of fiction for special emphasis, even if the rules wouldn’t normally warrant their usage.


Изложение involves “retelling” in writing of a story you are read. It is different from a summary in that students are expected to show some level of detail. Изложение is similar to the диктант in that the teacher will read the text at a normal pace at first. The teacher then reads the text one or a few more times, and the students take notes. This assignment is meant to train your memory and teach you narrative and recap techniques — along with testing your punctuation and spelling skills.


Сочинение is technically an essay, but it is often quite different in  its choice of subject matter and register from its Anglo-American “cousin.” Сочинения often have a quote by a famous person as their prompt. Other times, students are asked to elaborate on a literary character, a work of fiction, or an author in their essays. Naturally, in these latter cases, the student is expected to have read certain literary works and to be familiar with literary criticism in order to address the prompt. Сочинения used to be written as part of the high school exit exams and (separately) as a university entrance exam. Nowadays, Russia is switching to a standardized test that serves as both.

The more personal writing assignment where the student draws on personal experiences and presents their point of view may also be called эссе. These are more common in grade or middle school. A stereotypical prompt for this sort of essay is “Как я провёл лето” (How I spent this summer). This title is intentionally corrupted in the title of the award-winning film “Как я провёл этим летом” (How I Ended This Summer).

I would like to emphasize that even though Russia is gradually adopting other forms of testing, these assignments are still very widely used in Russian classrooms. In fact, they are usually graded and, in many cases, fairly high-stakes. Perhaps some of the readers who studied in Russia will have written some of them. They certainly require more writing than the average American test, but I think some useful skills may be learned from these longer, (almost) uniquely Russian assignments.

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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 in English on her website and Twitter and in Russian on Telegram.


  1. Helio:

    Привет Мария!
    Большое спасибо за блога. Очень интереснный 🙂

    May I ask you to write a post about soviet/russian films that are dear to russians? One that comes to mind is “Ирония Судбы”, but I’m sure this is only the tip of the iceberg.

    Всего хорошего!
    Элью (из Бразилии)

    • Maria:

      @Helio Спасибо, Элью! That’s a great idea. Let me do some research and watch a few famous movies I always meant to watch but never got around to (like Белое солнце пустыни) and I’ll write about it.

  2. David Roberts:

    Ирония Судбы is excellent! I got it on a CD with choice of sub-titles in English, French, Spanish and German. The songs in the film are also very good for learning from.

    Maria, you piece on education is oчень интереснный. I’ve met quite a few East Europeans who were at school in the USSR days, and I certainly get the impression that the soviet education system was very good – rather like a lot of people think the UK system used to be in the “good old days of the 1950s”. The soviet film “Letayut zhuravli” (have I got the title right or am I mixing it up with the war film with the very poignant song Zhuravli by Mark Bernes), is set in a school in the 1960s, and is very good – the kids could have been been my schoolmates!

    • Maria:

      @David Roberts Thanks, David!
      Oh yeah, Ирония судьбы is definitely a film that’s on TV at least every year, if not more often.
      From my experience, yes, the traditional educational system is fairly rigorous, but I’m not sure it leaves enough room for exploration and error. Some of the practices, such as randomly drawing 2 questions from a list of 50 at university entrance exams are quite extreme in their expectations. It’s important to strike a balance between rigour and student comfort, from what remember from my school years.

  3. Alexandra Leontieva:

    I teach Norwegian as a Second Language (in Norway), and must say these assignments are not at all unique.
    Norwegian teachers use dictations (“diktat”), izlozhenie (“referat”), and essay (“stil”). The dictations, however, focus on spelling, since there are fewer punctuation rules and they are often neglected 🙂