Volunteering Stories: Russian Language, the real hassle – by Răzvan

I haven’t really struggled studying Russian and I didn’t need it that much either. But living and volunteering 2 months in Belarus requires from time to time some language skills.


Belarus has 2 speaking languages: Belarusian and Russian. Although in Minsk everybody speaks Russian, there are lots of villages and towns where people speak mostly Belarusian on the streets. If you know Russian, you will be fine in 90% of the cases, but, on the other hand, knowing some words in Belarusian will impress everybody. (Tested!)

But what about me? I am Răzvan, I am Romanian (no, we don’t speak Russian) and I finished Computer Science (Informatics) this summer. I enjoy Science and geeky stuff and I spent most of my life thinking about myself I am bad in languages. I’ve been studying French for 8 years in school and I can only present myself and misspell a couple of sentences.

I volunteered for 2 years during my high-school at T4UTH in Baia Mare, my hometown. During those years, I developed a desire to go on an exchange, with the volunteering service, the same way Niels came from New Caledonia, the Panda from Mexico and other 50 people I met there.

“And right now you decided to go in a new country and rely only on your English skills?”, I would ask myself after living 1 month here.

“Yes! Why not? I managed harder things and I can face this too! What could go wrong?“, I would reply to the younger self, the foolish and naive one from 2 months ago.

“Ok. You have courage, boy.”

What did go wrong

As I said, I haven’t really struggled with the Russian here. I managed to overcome the challenges most of the times by myself, or by the help of my host organization OIP, here in Minsk.

English class

But, still, teaching English to beginners that know only Russian and Belarusian with you knowing only Romanian, English is not a good match. Not to say that you cannot communicate entirely with the students: “Did you understand? What is unclear? I can help you!” means nothing if you don’t know the language.

Nevertheless, after some struggle in the first 2 lessons, I came into my comfort zone again. And that is thanks to my coordinator, who gave me amazing ideas and who, most importantly, opened my eyes and told me the sky’s the limit. (“I managed harder things and I can face this too!”) We live in the 21st century! Use technology. You finished a degree and you play with apps all the time. So, you cannot imagine how easy it is to even with this language barrier.

School presentations

This is simple: you go to school, sit in front of the class and speak about yourself, about your country and about volunteering (in which you did many such that you can speak freely. Actually, I could say volunteering is my second degree after CS).

“Easy!”, the past me.

Well, in what language would you speak?

How many of you knew English so good during highschool to understand a presentation? And when you were in school?

Not everybody know English.

At my camp presentation in Gomel, where student representatives from Youth Parliament in schools came to learn about non formal education, I saw the confusion of half the group whilst I was having a speech about what volunteering means to me. And those 15 minutes passed so hard for them.

Daily life

I mean, in the daily life is not so big of a problem. You can always use your phone to translate or to show pictures.

But what when you need to change your transport card and you need to speak to a lady through a thick glass? Or when you are in a different city and you need to buy the ticket back home by yourself (happened only once)

Or when you go in a canteen where you queue up and move along with the queue? You don’t have lots of time to take out your phone and translate. There is lots of things like that:

  • Reading the Russian label of products in supermarket, such that you don’t eat eggs, milk or meat (vegan struggle)
  • Reading and translating panels in museums
  • Translating websites for Movies, Theaters, VR games and other entertainment places you want to go to
  • Going to cafes and guessing which drinks have no milk (again, vegans…)

… but this experience is worth all the effort

But you know why I managed to do all of these? It’s not because I have super strength or super intelligence. It’s because Belarusians are so kind and friendly that my stay here was super easy. They don’t have part of lots of tourists, nor occasions to speak English to a foreigner. They are so appreciative about a person curious about their country and they love when somebody does not think Belarus is not white Russian, nor Russia, nor anything like that. They love when you tell them you’ve visited their cities and you put interest and effort to learn the history. Even if I don’t speak with some of them, I can speak from the heart with them.

I don’t know how to translate the next sentence. But it’s what I feel about the country.

Belarus e un meleag pitoresc românesc, e un acasă al meu.

The volunteer is hosted by Office of Initiatives Promotions in a joint project with our organisation, on a two-month European Voluntary Service project in Minsk. The content of this testimonial does not reflect the official opinion of the European Union. The responsibility for the information and views expressed in the article rests entirely with the author.
If you want to know Răzvan more, check out his website: http://razvanfarte.ro/