By the time my Russian course started on 11 October 1976, I had already learned all the Russian letters in their various printed and handwritten forms. Thanks to my part-time study with the Linguaphone Russian Course that I had bought soon after the aptitude test at North Luffenham, and assisted by Vera Ristich, one of the civilian instructors, I could read Russian texts out loud quite well.
Vera was a remarkable lady: she was fluent in several eastern European languages and had a doctorate in Old Church Slavonic, a language that I had never even heard of. I was fascinated to discover from Vera that once you've learned the Russian pronunciation rules there are virtually no exceptions to those rules. Russian children from the age of 4 or 5 years can, it seems, read any Russian text perfectly; they don't know what all the words mean but they do know how to pronounce them, and spell them, correctly. Think how much easier it must be to teach very young Russian children to read and write than it is to teach English-speaking children of a similar age.
The school ran separate courses for airmen and officers. Eight officers started our course but that number changed from time to time. We were a motley bunch: a wing commander pilot destined for an Air Attaché appointment at a British Embassy (but not the Soviet Union); and several flight lieutenants from various branches of the Service who, like me, were expecting postings to Berlin on completion. None of us had a Moscow appointment, which surprised me. We were briefed by the RAF wing commander who commanded the school that we were not to discuss appointments with anyone, including our fellow students. After the first couple of weeks we were joined by another flight lieutenant who already had a university degree in Russian and really needed only a refresher course to bring him up to interpreter standard. For quite a while we were wary of him. He left us long before the end of our course and ended up at the four-power Berlin Air Safety Centre (BASC), more of which later.
Our instructors were a mixture of British civilians headed by the one we always referred to as Headmaster, much to his amusement and the disapproval of all the other instructors, and a group of splendid men and women who hailed originally from various eastern European countries and who spoke English as their second or third language. For all I know they were naturalised British citizens but the need to enquire into that never arose and they didn't encourage questions about their past. One of them was the delightful Oleg Grigorievich Kravchenko, a portly gentleman with a ready smile and endless patience - and he certainly needed the latter when teaching us.
The first thing Oleg Grigorievich taught us was how to pronounce his first name properly. Most English speakers pronounce it wrongly as "Oh-leg", with the stress on the 'o'. To be correct, the 'o' should be very light, almost like a very short 'a' (as in English apple) and the stress should be on the second syllable, pronounced with a palatalized 'l' thus: 'alyég'. Oleg Grigorievich did not see the joke when we, rather cruelly, suggested that perhaps he spoke pre-Revolutionary Russian. Incidentally, we always had to use both his first name and his patronymic (the Grigorievich part – which means son of Grigori) when addressing him in Russian or English; to miss off the patronymic would have been very disrespectful.
At some stage during our course we learned that Oleg Grigorievich had three teenage sons named Mikhail, Nikolai and Viktor, always shortened in the home environment to Miki, Niki and Viki. One day Oleg Grigorievich told us that while his three sons were out walking through a small village near North Luffenham, they saw a large Russian articulated vehicle stopped on the side of the road. The driver leaned out of his cab and shouted down to ask, in fractured English, the way to his next destination. Imagine the driver’s surprise when one of Oleg Grigorievich’s sons replied in fluent Russian. The driver was even more astonished when the other two, also speaking Russian, joined in pretending to have a protracted argument about which was the best way to get to the driver’s destination.
Because of my pre-course study, I started with a slight advantage over my fellow students but that didn't last more than a few days. I have always, even in French and Latin lessons at school, found it difficult, and tedious, to learn vocabulary. The school method of teaching languages back in the late 1940s had suited me: learning paradigms of conjugations and declensions by heart from written tables (amo, amas, amat; bonus, bona, bonum; and all that). At North Luffenham most of the teaching, and all of Oleg Grigorievich's, was done entirely in Russian. I could not get on with that: I needed to know the grammar rules; simply listening to Russian did not work for me.
In the evenings I had to resort to my Linguaphone tapes and the associated text books that I had bought before I even arrived at North Luffenham. The Staff definitely did not approve. I had also bought myself a large, heavy and very expensive, Russian - English dictionary which accompanied me to every lesson. It had about 1,000 pages. I encountered an unexpected problem in my early attempts to look up Russian words in that dictionary: you had to know the alphabetical order of Russian letters.