Today, I completed the certification exam in Russian. The sense of accomplishment that comes with having that behind me is tempered somewhat by my tutor’s pointing out two days before the test that I have been mispronouncing the word “certification” for YEARS. “Kate, you know it’s syertifikatsiya and not tsehrtifikatsiya, right?” I did not.

The test falls under that weird category of high-stakes yet unstandardized tests that strike me now as quintessentially German. UNICert is available in most major European languages, and most universities offer at least English, usually more. The levels of the test are standardized (UNICert I corresponds roughly to B1 in the Common European Framework for Reference, UNICert II to B2, III to C1, and IV to C2). But from then on formats vary, and information is sparse.

Still, the UNICert is vastly preferable to my other option for Russian certification, the Test of Russian as Foreign Language. You may remember my frustration with the TORFL level 2, which I took the summer before we moved home from Cherepovets. I wasn’t in a big hurry to repeat the experience if I had another option for leveling up, especially after doing a little reading about the TORFL level 3 online: “As the exam has hardly changed since its creation 25 years ago, it requires skills that may not exactly come in handy in everyday life, such as writing various notes and reports and engaging in nearly obsolete forms of communication. Many have argued that the TORFL exams assess test takers’ foreign language abilities, as well as their analytical and reasoning skills. Teachers joke that not every native Russian-speaker could pass the TRKI-3 or TRKI-4 tests!”

So I signed up and paid my fee (language certifications are free at the university where you study, adding another 100 euros onto the money the FU has cost me by not offering upper-level Russian classes. What nonsense). A few weeks later, my professor sent out the 5 topics for the speaking portion of the exam; three of them were topics we had covered in class over the last 2 years, and we were invited to suggest two more that interested us. At the exam, we would draw two topics and choose one. She advised us to prepare all of them in advance, including a Powerpoint (if desired), so that we could give a 10-minute presentation on-site. She said that we could bring in a list of statistics if we wanted, but no other notes. A week later, she wrote us again to say  that no, we could not use pre-prepared slides (which was fine by me, although I had already made the presentations for three of my topics, which took a few hours of my life I can never get back). Furthermore, she said she had been mistaken about the list of statistics, too: we would have 30 minutes to prepare our presentation on-site, and any notes we made then could be used during the presentation. However, anything that we wrote down in there had to be either from memory or from a monolingual dictionary (which they would provide).

Let me tell you something. These were not easy topics to present from memory. History of the dissolution of the USSR, for instance. Economic federalism and the struggling oil market in Russia. Yuri Gagarin, space education, and Mars One. Lots of facts and figures that I did not have in my head. But we had to do it from memory, so Tonya (the other examinee) and I set about memorizing which republics joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (all the Soviet republics except the Baltics and Georgia), how much of Russia’s economy is dependent on gas production (50%), and, in my case, the names and original languages of Nabokov’s memoirs (Other Shores, Russian, Convincing Proof, Russian, and Speak, Memory, English).

The written portion was scheduled for yesterday from 10:00-16:00, which was the only information we had. We had no idea how many listening samples, how many reading passages, how long we would have to write the essay(s?). You guys. I packed. So. Much. Food. A lovely little salad, some boiled eggs, some pasta, a jar of peanut butter (you never know), an apple, a nectarine, plus a thermos of coffee (thanks, Cary Beth!) and a Mason jar of water. If I failed this exam, it was not going to be because of a caloric deficit.
I arrived about 2 minutes late (train’s fault, not mine) and sat down to see a video clip already loaded. This was the moment of truth: you see, European language exams always have a theme. I don’t really know what the motivation for this is; it does make the test more interesting to take, as each section builds on the information you worked with in the last, but I think that the danger of a student’s outside knowledge/interest in the topic influencing their performance is a more pressing concern than entertainment value. But for some reason, I appear to be the only person who feels this way. Anyway, the video loaded revealed that we would be spending the rest of the day on the topic of space travel. The exam started with a 15-minute clip from the Russian national TV channel about Soviet astronomy; the reading was an article from the website of the Russian space program about Yuri Gagarin; the writing was about Mars One. Standardization was not even a consideration in this exam, apparently.

After each section, I would look up to see Tonya with her arms neatly folded, patiently watching the professor while they both waited for me to finish. She never had to wait long–we were pretty evenly matched in speed. We ended up completing the allegedly 6-hour test in just shy of 2.5 hours. By the time we turned in our essays, the professor had already graded the reading and listening. She was eager to chastise me for one error in arithmetic (“You wrote down the correct dates, but that doesn’t add up to 9 years. Check it again.” There’s a reason I study linguistics).

All in all, Tonya and I both found the test to be easier than expected, and I was all too happy to be home in time to enjoy my portable feast in the comfort of my own room.

That evening, I prepared for the speaking subtest by refreshing my knowledge of probability in order to calculate the chances of drawing a topic that I already knew. Based on my personal experience, I can only recommend this study method: the following morning, I wound up drawing not one, but both of my favorite topics! Then it was off to a room that was empty save for an ancient-looking dictionary and an ancient-looking professor who was to ensure that I didn’t do anything illegal in the 30-minute preparation period.


This is the dictionary we used. It’s one of the more beloved Russian dictionaries (yes, dictionaries are a thing Russians have opinions ab0ut), but it was published in 1949 and was therefore not so helpful on an exam about space. I’m still not sure how to spell “Martian,” which I tried to look up for my essay, and after the dictionary failed me on the speaking test, I had to perform some amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics in order to avoid the term “normal distribution.” 

My topic was the research I had conducted in Kazan; it was nice to have a chance to share it with someone, since it seems a shame that all that work just sits in a pile with unburned DVDs and bits of string in Nathan’s apartment now. It went relatively well, and I enjoyed the discussion, since I rarely get the chance to discuss that project with people who are interested in the topic (unlike my American buddies) but not personally invested in it (unlike my Kazan buddies). Then they asked me to step out while they decided on a grade for me. I opened the door to find a ball of nerves named Tonya standing in the hall, muttering to herself and flipping frantically through a notebook. While we waited, she told me that she was terrified and had studied all day for the speaking section. “But aren’t your parents Ukrainian? Don’t you speak Russian at home?” Well, yes… she replied, but I’m really bad at economics and politics. I gave her this look:


(thanks to Alexandra for the evocative selfie)

In the end, the test was not nearly as traumatic as expected, and I was glad that I hadn’t wasted more time studying harder (that’s the spirit!). To celebrate, I met up with my brewing friends to bottle our last batch of beer, a dubbel that wasn’t nearly as bad as it should have been, given all the things that had gone wrong during its creation. And that’s how “It definitely could have been worse” became the theme of the day.