At home with the president's Russian language teacher

  • 2002-01-17
  • Elina Cerpa
RIGA - It's a rare occasion indeed when you meet a person who is comfortable with herself and free in her soul. I was lucky on Jan. 12 because I got to meet such a person.

Galina Vesele lives in a tiny apartment in a small green house somewhere in Jurmala. Her space is decorated by a photo collection of cats, flowers and her pupils, some of them are better than those you would find at a photo exhibition.

Vesele is a teacher at Bulduri Horticulture Technical School and has gained media attention because of her star pupil in the Russian language - Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga.

And the results have been good - Vike-Freiberga beautifully presented a selection from "Eugeny Onegin," a poem by Aleksandr Pushkin, at the Russian Drama Theater at the end of November.

The Baltic Times: How did you decide to apply for the job of Vike-Feiberga's Russian teacher?

Galina Vesele: The first time I saw Vike-Freiberga on television, I understood that I could get on well with her and thought, "God, I would like to work with this person." I wrote an application to the president's chancellery and waited for an answer. I also carefully followed the news to see if somebody else was accepted. Then I got a call from the chancellery saying that the president wanted to meet me.

TBT: How do you think she became the president?

Vesele: I think it was the hand of God. I mean, she became president when she wasn't even a politician! This person didn't endure a long fight for the position or anything, she just jumped from the sky like out of a fairy tale! The opportunity was there and she took it. It's such a pleasure to work with a person like her.

TBT: How often do you have lessons with the president?

Vesele: We have lessons when the president has time. Sometimes that is once a month, sometimes twice a week.

TBT: How long have you been working together?

Vesele: We have studied together now for half a year, but we have only had a total of 50 hours of lessons.

TBT: How did you begin to teach her?

Vesele: We started with the Russian alphabet. I asked her if she knew the Russian alphabet and she said, "No, I don't." I thought - interesting, how far will we get? So we started to read, write, learn pronouns and syllables and finally words. We read short poems about things we both enjoyed, like flowers, cats and the sea. We read a lot of children's books. Later we picked up more complicated subjects and discussed newspaper articles. Then we tried to tackle Onegin.

At first I thought it would be too difficult for her, that we should choose something equally interesting, just less complicated. But when we contacted the organizers at the Russian Theater, they said it was too late to change the poem. So, what could we do?

TBT: When you work with the president can you feel what kind of day she's had?

Vesele: Well, she is an open person - she's not the type to pretend. Yes, there are moments when I feel she is tired, when I can see it in her face and eyes. Then I feel very sorry for her and guilty that I have come to take up what could be her leisure time. But she never gives me any reason to feel that way. We start the lesson, and she seems to forget her problems. After an hour has passed, she is in a good mood again.

TBT: Were there any rules you had to consider before you started to work in the castle?

Vesele: No one told me what I could or couldn't do. I was surprised because I thought there must be some rules to follow. Both the president and chancellery left it up to me. I don't want to bother the president with something that isn't important. A lesson is a lesson, and if we have a private meeting, then I ask her what I want to ask her. If she's been on vacation, then of course I ask her how it was. Or I'll ask her if she's gone mushroom hunting and what her haul was like (to this she smiles and says that her bodyguards pick most of the good ones and that there is nothing left to put in her basket!).

TBT: It's very possible that, starting in 2004, Latvian will be the primary language in schools in this country. What do you think about this? Are you worried about this, being a Russian language teacher?

Vesele: When Latvia became independent, Latvians wanted to close their eyes to the fact that a huge number of Russian people lived here and made up almost 50 percent of the population. I understand the anxiety Latvians have, the pain that remains from the past between the two cultures. It was very difficult for Latvians before.

Latvians want people living in their country, whether they are African, French or Russian, to learn their language. I understand that. And if Latvians weren't oppressed by the Russians in the first place then things might be different, but that is the psychology of this nation.

At the same time, good doctors and lawyers suffer because there is a demand for native Latvians and the Latvian language. This is unfortunate because, in a way, what is more important is what kind of specialist they are.

On the other hand, it's understandable that Latvians should occupy these positions, to do things and go on with their lives - remake their nation. I think that there must be one language in Latvia and that is Latvian.

TBT: Do you think a person has the opportunity to choose their language in Latvia?

Vesele: I think that language is something that is almost impossible to suppress. For some people it is possible but difficult. A person speaks the language they want to speak. The goal is to speak in Latvian, but still half the country speaks Russian. And Latvians speak Russian, too. If a Latvian wants to sell something in the market to a Russian speaking person, they will speak Russian. It would be stupid on their part to refuse to speak in Russian because it's in their best interest to sell their product. Really, a language fights a battle on its own. You can put a language in a cage, but you can't keep it there.

No matter the law, if Russians live here - and they have lived here and will continue to live here - they'll speak Russian. However, it is the clever people who will learn Latvian.

Already I have taught Latvian to Russians and it makes me happy to see how an eight-year-old child speaks Latvian freely and with joy. But I still see people who don't understand a language they should understand and that is sad. It's a problem on the cultural level.

I think what will result from this language law is that there will be private schools for Russian children as well as state schools. To refuse that would be like cutting the branch we are sitting on, then we will all fall.

TBT: What about your parents?

Vesele: My mother was Russian and my father was Latvian - my mom came to live here.

I think that Russians in Latvia aren't really Russians or Latvians, they are something else. Once I heard an interesting lecture about how the soul influences a language and character and how the language can influence a soul. They said that people who live on an island have a different way of thinking than people on a continent - either you are a member of a small nation or big one.

There is something inside each person's genes that is essential for them, something that makes you happy, something that you can hold on to. How do we understand and evaluate that?

TBT: How have you dealt with students over the years?

Vesele: Maybe it sounds banal, but each task must be done with love. I say that to my students - no one in this world is unwanted, every one has their own place but first they must consider what it is they like to do. If you like to bake muffins, then do it and you'll live a happy life. People will speak highly of you and will thank you for your fantastic muffins. For example, Pushkin understood at the age of six that he would be a poet and nothing else just as Tchaikovsky only knew when he was 20 years old that he was a musician - the music called and tempted him, but he did not believe in himself and someone else had to tell him he was a musical genius.

So now I ask my pupils what they think is most important. Some say money, but I tell them that money is only a means to realize yourself so you can do something you love.