Military types get cultural grounding

June 20, 1997

A college in St Petersburg is playing a key role in ensuring that the arms reduction agreements Europe made after the cold war are observed.

Rusistika Plus, an independent Russian language school based at the city's historic Russian Academy of Sciences, is providing intensive courses in Russian language and culture for British military personnel training to be interpreters and arms control inspectors.

The Joint Arms Control Implementation Group, a cross-service military unit under the direct control of the ministry of defence, uses the college to give trainee interpreters the chance to brush up their language skills and improve their cultural awareness of Russia before taking a three-year or longer tour of duty with the unit.

Most JACIG inspectors have done an 18-month Russian course at the Defence School of Languages at Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, where the emphasis is on technical military terminology.

The two-week, intensive language courses at St Petersburg, during which students live with Russian families and are expected to use their interpreting skills both in and out of the classroom, aim to provide an experience of the living language.

David Anderson, a retired intelligence corps major in charge of JACIG's interpreters, said inspectors had to be ready at a few days' notice to conduct arms control and reduction inspections in foreign countries or escort incoming groups visiting British military bases.

Most British inspections in countries of the former Soviet Union where Russian is used as the main language take between three to four days, with the last day typically including a cultural visit.

Interpreters need a thorough understanding of technical military terms and to be able to speak fluently about general topics.

"The purpose of bringing the students to St Petersburg is to give them a more general knowledge of the language. They gain experience in interpreting non-military topics and confidence in the language through living with a Russian family. They get away from the rather artificial classroom situation of England."

The rash of arms reduction and control treaties agreed in Europe in recent years, including the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty of 1990, the Vienna Document of 1994, and more recently the Dayton accords covering the former Yugoslavia, has created the need for frequent audits, inspections and re-inspections of military equipment and facilities.

JACIG's brief covers the inspection of tanks, artillery, helicopters, aircraft and armoured vehicles.

Its 84 personnel, including NCOs and officers from all three services, have to be prepared to leave for missions in central and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union at 72 hours' notice.

The language requirements make JACIG postings both challenging and demanding. The St Petersburg courses are designed to contribute to students' mental agility.

"There is very little time for an inspector to do any homework on a country before an inspection, although geopolitical briefs are given, so I always encourage them to do what they can to pick up some prior knowledge, which is often essential when interpreting on unfamiliar topics," said Mr Anderson.

The demands made on the interpreter-inspector are evident as a team of five tour Peter and Paul Fortress, one of the cultural spots the school uses for practice sessions. Many members of the Russian royal family are buried in the cathedral there, and the numerous historical and artistic references create problems for a team more at home with military terms.

For Trevor Forsythe, an RAF flight sergeant with 23 years' service experience who learned his Russian three years ago on an airforce course, the advantages of the course are obvious.

"It's crucial to come to Russia," he said. "It would be very difficult to go on an inspection never having seen the culture at first hand. I'm just completely engrossed in the whole thing."

For Hugh Devlin, a Royal Marines captain with some experience last year of interpreting for the British military attache in Kiev, the St Petersburg visit is less crucial, but first-hand experience of Russian life, he agrees, is a key element of interpreters' training.

The courses, organised by City College Manchester which has a long association with Rusistika-Plus, are individually tailored to the military's needs. Tuition is provided by language teachers drawn from St Petersburg State University and the Academy of Sciences.

Olga Britikova, director of Rusistika-Plus, said: "These courses allow the students to get a taste of real life in Russia and to improve the flexibility of their language skills."

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