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Desire to learn Russian heating up again

 Teacher Michelle Quackenbush works Lev Axelrod of Bethesda's Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda.
Teacher Michelle Quackenbush works Lev Axelrod of Bethesda's Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. (Juana Arias for The Washington Post)

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By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2010

Russian used to be hot, the must-learn language of ambitious Americans looking to talk to their rivals. But the end of the Cold War put the language in a deep freeze -- one from which it's just beginning to emerge.

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Students now see Russia as a place to make money, and, with the highly charged rhetoric of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the country appears to be a bit of a rival again. Russian programs in high schools, which had been shrinking since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991, may have stabilized, educators say.

"The worse it gets as far as our relations are concerned, the better it is for our enrollments," said John Schillinger, a professor emeritus at American University who has been tracking Russian class enrollments nationwide since 1984. "That's kind of what's going on now."

Schillinger said he used to track more than 300 schools that had Russian programs at the pre-college level. Since the mid-1990s, that number has plummeted to about 100. But Schillinger said he no longer has to cross off dozens of programs a year.

Consistent district-level data can be spotty. Prince George's County offers Russian at two high schools and one middle school and is adding it to another middle school in the fall. Fairfax County records date to 1989, when 258 students were taking Russian at about a half-dozen high schools. That number hit bottom at 151 students in 1996 but has since rebounded. In the 2008-09 school year, the number grew to 223 even as the number of schools that offer the language went down to two: Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and Langley High School.

"The '90s were survival time," said Valentin Cukierman, who has taught Russian at Langley High for 21 years, most recently out of a trailer he calls the Red October. About six years ago, he fended off a move to shut down his program, he said, and now 170 students are taking the language at the school, just a mile from CIA headquarters. A few years ago, he even hired a part-time assistant to handle some of the teaching load, he said.

Cukierman said he thinks that Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin has helped drive interest in the language in the past few years, along with Russia's increased visibility on the world stage. The State Department's addition of Russian to a list of languages targeted for extra funding has helped the cause, too, he said.

And although foreign languages are often among the first subject areas targeted for cuts during lean budget times, they tend to be trimmed more often at the elementary school level. A proposal that would eliminate foreign language instruction at the elementary level in Fairfax County would leave Russian untouched, since it was never taught in those grades in the first place.

At Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, English teacher Michelle Quackenbush has also been teaching Russian since 2002. Two Montgomery County high schools dropped Russian programs last year because of low enrollment, cutting in half the number of schools where the language is offered. Chinese, by contrast, has expanded to 12 high schools in the past few years and is treated with much the same urgency as was Russian during the Sputnik era.

Quackenbush said that as long as enrollment is strong, her class isn't going anywhere.

"Sometimes it is an absolute one-room schoolhouse," she said, with students of varying abilities crammed into one room. "It's a numbers game from year to year."

One afternoon last week, 11 of her advanced students filed into her Russian classroom, which shares space with the yearbook club. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stared down from a patriotic poster behind her desk.

Quackenbush led the class in an exercise about the imperfect tense, expressing the finer points in Russian. Students called her Mila Petrovna, the Russian formal method of address that uses her Russified first name and her patronymic, a modified form of her father's name.

There was no single reason students were taking the class.

"I didn't want to take a language like Spanish," said Sarah Mehler, a senior who said that Russian is more interesting and uncommon.

"I'm really interested in Russian business," said James King, a junior.

Others said they had family ties to the language. Yarik Kuznets, a junior, recently emigrated from Ukraine and said he didn't want to forget Russian, which he had spoken at home. He took Ukrainian classes when he was younger, he said. But Whitman was giving him his first formal Russian class.

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