David Kurkovskiy: "There's something special that happens when you meet people where they're at"

Photo by Jen Siska. Banner design by Neil Freese. 

October 9, 2023

Tell us about yourself and what languages you speak. 

I'm a graduate student in the Slavic Languages and Literatures program at Berkeley. I also have a designated emphasis in Jewish Studies. I speak English, Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Polish, Yiddish, Lithuanian, and French.

What brought you to your language journey?

Some of it had to do with family origin. My parents are Russian-speaking Jews from Moscow, Russia, though their parents and grandparents came from Belarus and Ukraine. They emigrated in 1994, just a year before I was born. So I grew up navigating an ethnically diverse and bilingual environment while growing up in South Brooklyn. Early on during my undergraduate career at Yale, the 2013-2014 Maidan protests (or Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity) took place. A lot of us students in Timothy Snyder's lecture on modern East European history became interested in studying Ukrainian and going there to volunteer or work internships — once I took up Ukrainian, one language led to the other and so on. My interest in Ukrainian led to my interest in Belarusian (they are closely related), which led to my interest in Polish as a contact language for both Ukrainian and Belarusian.

As a graduate student, I shifted my focus to different imaginations and literary legacies of historical Lithuania, the lands of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Located in the contested borderlands claimed by both Russian/Soviet and Polish projects, this region also proved important for Belarusian, Lithuanian, and Yiddish-speaking Jewish intellectuals who worked at the turn of the 20th century to establish the dignity of their language and modern literature.

What is your research focus? 

Currently, I’m interested in the various regional legacies of Slavic Romanticisms that developed in the Russian Empire. For example, the theme of Cossack history is explored in Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian Romantic literature of the 19th century. Translating various works of the Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz was a crucial inaugurating act for both modern Belarusian and Lithuanian literature.

What advice do you have for students who are interested in taking language classes or are considering taking their first language class? 

Well, first of all, I would say not to give up. Learning a new language can be very difficult. When it comes to Slavic languages, it's very easy to get overwhelmed by the case system and all the different endings. As I tell my students in the Beginning Russian sequence, good organization and note-taking is key! I also recommend taking advantage of funding opportunities for summer programs. Students tend to have meaningful experiences through immersion and this has always produced the best outcomes for me (but don't limit your interactions to other foreigners!). There are also immersive programs that don't require leaving the country, such as Middlebury, which has students sign a language pledge. Another thing I’d suggest is to immerse yourself in media in the target language on a daily basis, whether it's looking at music videos on YouTube, following local TikTokers, or watching TV series (use subtitles in the target language!) — whatever your passion happens to be, try to experience it in the target language! Doing a little bit each day always helps.

Why do you think language learning is important?

Things are very much lost in translation, particularly when it comes to questions of identity. As an example, I could have easily spoken Russian with a lot of the communities I study — including Belarusians, Lithuanians, and Ukrainians. But there's something special that happens when you meet people where they're at. This is particularly important for less commonly taught or minority languages. Both Belarusian and Yiddish have been considered endangered in the Republic of Belarus, for instance. Historically, Belarusian and Ukrainians have had to work on many fronts to ensure the survival of their language. Learning a community's native language is not only meaningful (and respectful), but important from the perspective of language preservation.

What does your future hold with language learning? Aside from research and teaching, what do you do with your language abilities? 

Currently in the field of Slavic, partly as a result of Russia's long-scale war in Ukraine, there are a lot of conversations happening around decolonizing the discipline and increasing the diversity of regional and linguistic contexts we teach and study. I hope to be a part of the movement to push the field into a more comparative direction.

Otherwise, I also dabble in translation. I have a lot of fun working as a freelance Ukrainian and Russian translator for the New York Times. I also enjoy translating contemporary poetry from Belarusian, Russian, and Ukrainian with my friend and collaborator Zach Nelson, whom I met studying abroad in Ukraine.