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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pushkin Institute Awards Top Students of Russian

When Tylo Dirksmeyer heard a Russian professor call his name, he beamed and crossed himself. Then he rushed to the stage of Moscow's Pushkin Institute to collect a gold medal for his excellent Russian language skills.

The German teenager was one of the winners of the Ninth International Olympiad for Russian Language and Literature for Schoolchildren, which brought to Moscow 215 young people aged 8 to 19 who study Russian as a foreign language.

"I wanted to study an exotic language," Dirksmeyer, 17, who speaks French and has been learning Russian for three years, said after the award ceremony Friday. Overwhelmed with impressions from the 10-day olympiad, when he could communicate with people from 28 countries in Russian, he said he has plans to continue studying -- "preferably in Russia," he said.

Some of the most talented older participants have been given a chance to study in Russia. The Russian Education Ministry has allocated 15 stipends for winners of the olympiad to study anything -- not necessarily language -- at any Russian college.

This year's olympiad featured children from countries of the former Soviet Union and former Socialist bloc. As it was sometimes impossible to compare language skills of participants from Poland or Moldova with, for example, those from the United States, each participant received an award.

Participants had to show their reading and conversational skills, their knowledge of Russian culture, and write an essay. A textbook the Pushkin Institute put together for the olympiad contains excerpts from works by Russian classic and modern writers including Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago," adapted to five levels of language skills.

While for children the olympiad was a celebration, it was hard work for their 44 teachers. One idea behind the olympiad is sharing professional skills and methods of teaching Russian, said Yury Popov, secretary of the International Association of Teachers of Russian Language and Literature, based at the Pushkin Institute.

The olympiad, which concluded Saturday, is a tradition that professors of the Pushkin Institute and Education Ministry are struggling to maintain. The first competition in 1974 was attended by children from 54 countries. The Soviet government even paid for return tickets for the participants.

Since 1991, in the countries of the former Soviet Union, native languages have replaced Russian. In the Baltic states and countries of the former Soviet bloc, such as Poland and Hungary, where Russian was taught in schools, not speaking it became a political matter. Russian is now offered as an optional foreign language.

A member of the examination commission, Maryana Katayeva, complained that she had to explain herself in German at a store while visiting Hungary a few years after the Soviet Union collapsed. "The salesperson looked at me like I was speaking a martian language rather than something she obviously studied at school," she said.

Now she takes her mission very seriously. The olympiad "is the best way to support our culture and authority in the world," Katayeva said. "Any ideology and politics fade away when you see these children explain in Russian why they chose to study this language."

Some of the essays the children wrote on one of 10 topics moved teachers to tears.

"It seemed that Russia was such an enormous country where there was nobody who supported or even knew us," wrote 16-year-old Anna Franskova from Slovenia in her essay called "My first impressions of Russia." "The concert [we were greeted with] I didn't just like -- I felt it with my whole self. What a celebration ... for a group of schoolchildren! I felt like we were being taken seriously and these people wanted to give us a good motivation for studying the Russian language."

Austrian Edith Mayer, 17, described the happiest days of her life. She wrote about her first visit to St. Petersburg last year, when she met a Russian boy who fell in love with her. One of her strongest impressions was of the metro.

"People were reading literature -- I mean books. Nobody was looking at the comics, like in Austria," Mayer wrote.