Learning English for expatriates: An interview with Georgy Slavin-Rudakov and Evgeniia Dudnikova9 min read

 In Civil Society, Interview, Russia
Lossi 36 recently spoke with the founders of English Speaking Club, an immigrant-led volunteer-run English teaching organisation, founded by Russian-expatriates Georgy Slavin-Rudakov and Evgeniia Dudnikova. Georgy is originally from Moscow, but since the war broke out he has been living in Tbilisi. Evgeniia is from Samara but currently lives in Dublin. 

The two met via Instagram and have managed the English Speaking Club since the fall of 2022. The organisation has grown to a team of 30+ volunteer teachers, providing 40+ classes weekly and serving 400 students worldwide. From its inception, the English Speaking Club was designed to help Russian-speakers who relocated as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

How did you start the English Speaking Club?

Evgeniia: After the news concerning the mobilisation in Russia broke, I saw many people fleeing the country, and I know that there are many more who would have liked to do the same, had they had an opportunity. I realised I wanted to support these people but didn’t know what I could do. And then it just happened — I came across a repost of Georgy’s story on Instagram, texted him to see what I could help with, and the project just started growing from there, from scratch.

Georgy: It all started as a hypothesis in my head. Could we create free conversational lessons for both students and tutors? Turns out we could, and did it with flying colours. 

However, it is still hard to believe that we have 400+ students and 30+ tutors. It is a lighthouse for many people who were forced to leave Russia. Imagine you are abroad in a country where no one wants to or can speak your language. You know nothing. It is a nightmare. That’s why we provide conversational classes, to get people ready to talk in different situations. 

Tell me about what you hope to accomplish with the English Speaking Club.

Evgeniia: We’d like to help people who need help right now — they are in a new country, in a new environment, some are changing jobs, looking for ways to stay and survive. A language barrier could be one of those things they no longer have to worry about. This is why our prerogative is speaking, communicating, and dealing with everyday issues.

Georgy: It is hard to answer this question now as we are growing exponentially. We are about to announce a huge partnership with the biggest organisation that helps emigrants who left Russia because of the war. After this announcement, we will create our roadmap and see what we can do. 

Tell me about some of the accomplishments and different courses your organisation has put together.

Evgeniia: We’ve been operating for a little more than a month and we started with about 30 applicants and 10 tutors, while now we’ve processed 250 applications and our team has grown to 20 tutors. We are currently teaching 24 groups of 6 or more students and also give individual or mini-group classes for beginners. Unfortunately, we had to pause accepting new participants due to a lack of tutors. I guess the thing I take most pride in is our team of tutors — everyone’s really supportive of each other and eager to share their expertise. 

Tell me about the students involved in the club.

Evgeniia: The participants of our project come from various backgrounds but all of them either have left the country in recent months or are about to. The majority seems really excited about the opportunity and are really grateful to our team of volunteers.

Tell me about the tutors in the club.

Evgeniia: Our tutors come from different backgrounds too! Many don’t live in Russia. We have a few native speakers who support  our cause, some have extensive experience in teaching, others work in a different field or study but have sufficient language skills and want to help. We, in turn, support every tutor with resources and consultations on teaching.

Tell me about an “aha moment” or community-building wins from starting the club.

Evgeniia: One of the moments I was truly taken aback by was when several students suggested that we should start accepting donations for the hard work that we do which is something I wouldn’t normally expect from someone looking for charity. This level of appreciation is something I’m not used to — I guess we all feel united now! This gives me hope.

Do you have prior English teaching experience?

Evgeniia: Well, I’ve got more than 15 years of teaching experience and my methods of teaching have been changing with time. One of the most common issues my students have faced is the language barrier which is best tackled in an English speaking environment. Thus, my aim as a teacher has become more and more to create this environment where they can converse on the topics that they are interested in in a natural way. In the past, I organised language immersion courses for students to study painting, poetry, cooking, and other topics in English, and that proved very successful. I later started a group of people who meet every weekend to have a cup of coffee and speak English (no topic, no preparation, just talking about things they want). Now I hold a weekly online Club for Conversationalists with a similar purpose.

Tell me why you continue this work even though you have left Russia.

Evgeniia: Unlike many people who were forced out of Russia this year, my husband and I had left before this chaos started. I never cut ties with Russia, it’s my homeland, it’s my heritage, my family is there, and my people are in pain. Helping people has always been my mission in life, now it merely has grown in scale. I do hope our work can transform one day into an international project that helps people in need all over the world.

Let’s talk about how you and your family chose to uproot your life due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. When did you know it was time to go?

Georgy: Well, it is a good question. The invasion dramatically affected my life — I lost my job, hobbies, and the people around me. But nothing has changed for my family. As they have been living in Novosibirsk and were doing their stuff, they still do and will. I think it is all about the bubble I live in. By bubble, I mean people who work in the creative industry as I do. It was pretty clear on the 24th of February that it was time to go. However, I couldn’t do it without preparation. I started to look for a fully remote job (not on the Russian market), and took care of my cat’s docs, vaccines etc. It took lots of planning but now I’m happy where I am. However, it wasn’t very much of a choice for me — my company relocated me to Tbilisi. 

Evgeniia: My husband was offered a job and relocation to Dublin last summer. It was something neither of us had done before — living permanently in a different country and we decided to embark on that journey. We had been living in Ireland for a month by the time the invasion began. I often think about what decisions we’d have had to make had we stayed…

Tell me about the prospects for the people you left behind and what the future holds.

Evgeniia: The geopolitical situation has affected every Russian citizen in one way or another. Some people lost their jobs, others are trying to tackle the crisis in their business and personal life, some have fled…People continue to do what they know how to do best in Russia — survive. Life had been challenging before the invasion, but people learnt to find ways, now it’s just unpredictable. And living in uncertainty is one of the most frightening prospects.

Georgy: Firstly, I can’t say that many people are left behind for me. The majority of my friends and acquaintances have moved to other countries. However, I am sad because I don’t know when I will see my family. They’ve decided to stay in Russia and my parents claim to be too old to move anywhere. Several days ago, I was at a bar with my boyfriend’s friends (Americans living in Tbilisi). They were discussing their plans for Christmas — many of them will spend this magical time back in the USA with their families and friends. It broke my heart. Mostly because of the jealous thought that I was gonna stay here without my parents and many friends. Even though I’m not very close to my family.

Tell me more about the role Tbilisi has played and will play for the many expatriates who left Russia.

Georgy: Well, it is a sombre and challenging topic. Mainly because it is two sides of one coin. The first side is that Georgia is a floating device or life vest for many Russians. Even though Russia is a terrorist state and occupies 20% of Georgian territory, Georgian people are very welcoming, patient, and helpful. Yes, we sometimes are met with negative comments or slurs, which is understandable. However, I want other people to understand that the war situation is not my fault, and I’m sorry that it’s happening. 

The other side of that coin is that this relocation is a psychological nightmare for many expatriates, myself included. We are losing our cultural identity in very harsh conditions. Several weeks ago, I talked to my therapist about it and came across an astonishingly depressing thought that I would like to cross out the nationality from my passport because of the devastating feeling inside of being Russian.

What are some of the ways Russians have built up new networks in Georgia?

Georgy: Of course, there are many chats on Telegram where we all communicate. Imagine you are alone in a new country, and mostly everything is in Georgian. You want to ask for advice, find or make some friends. Local micro self-publishing media has been a great help. Some of our teachers are from these communities, as well as students.

The English Speaking Club is looking for more English-language instructors to be able to support their growing waitlist of students. Click here to become a tutor.

Featured image courtesy of Georgy Slavin-Rudakov and Evgeniia Dudnikova.
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