A new trend has been emerging recently at key broadcasting companies in Korea.
Ilya Belyakov is a 33-year-old Russian born in Vladivostok, the port city of the Russian Far East and less than a two-hour flight from Seoul.
This young man first came to Korea 13 years ago armed with fluent Korean. Having majored in Korean language at the Far Eastern Federal University, he studied at the Korean Language Institute at Yonsei University as a scholarship student supported by the Korea Foundation.
As his Korean capabilities got even better, Belyakov became the first Russian to receive the best-possible grade in the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK). He continued his studies, receiving a master’s degree from Yonsei University. He is currently studying for his Ph.D. in anthropology and linguistics in the department of anthropology at University of South Carolina-Columbia. Thanks to his strong linguistic prowess — fluent not only in Korean, but also in Japanese, French and Spanish — and his solid knowledge, he has been engaged in various activities as a medical interpreter, an employee at a large company, a columnist, a journalist and as a TV celebrity. Korea.net sat down with him to have a candid conversation about his life in Korea and the culture and history of Korea and Russia.
It is impressive to see how fluent your Korean is. How did you study Korean? Was it difficult for you to learn and get used to the grammar, vocabulary and idiomatic expressions in Korean, a language that’s totally different from Russian?
It’s been 13 years since I came to Korea for the first time, in 2003. Though I majored in Korean language, there were no special teaching or studying methods. I guess it must just be effort. I read books, memorized words and studied the grammar. About 99 percent of the professors were Russians, with only one or two Korean lecturers in the faculty. When I studied Korean in Russia, there were some Korean language specialists in the country, but definitely not many. For example, let’s say if there were 20 professors in the Mandarin language department, there would be only one professor in the Korean language department. You just can’t compare the two.
What made you become interested in Korean, as there are many languages across the world?
I didn’t intend to study Korean in the first place. It was by chance. I was so interested in foreign languages that when I was in high school. I decided to study a foreign language at university. So I applied to many language departments, and the Korean department was one of them. I failed in the other languages, except for Korean. That’s where all of this began. Though it started by accident, I never expected how far I would go with the Korean language or how deeply I would lay down roots here.
What was your thesis for your master’s degree?
I received my M.A. in linguistics from the Graduate School of Korean Literature and Language at Yonsei University. The topic of study for my master’s degree was similar to that of my bachelor’s.
The title of my M.A. thesis was “Differences in Syntactic Ideas in Korean Language from Russian, and Syntactic Ideas in Russian from Korean.”
How wide has Korean pop culture and art spread in Russia?
When I first studied Korean, there was no information about Korea in the early 2000s. If I wanted to listen to some Korean music or watch a Korean film, I had to ask someone who went to Korea to bring some back for me. There were no books written in Korean, no Korean music and no Korean films. The Internet was neither fully developed at that time, nor were social media channels like YouTube or Facebook. There was no information about Korea. The only available information was some books and CDs my professors brought back after they visited Korea on vacation. I was literally banging my head against a stone wall.
In the 1990s, when Korea and Russia established diplomatic ties, there were no Russian interpreters in Korea, so the government had to find someone urgently.
Right. That’s because the two countries neither had exchanges nor knowledge of each other. Considering the times back then, a lot of things have changed in less than ten years, a relatively short period of time.
Russian literature, ranging from the works of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky through to those of Solzhenitsyn, has been loved by Koreans for more than 100 years. How did you feel when you found that Russian literary works had been translated into Korean?
I didn’t know that Russian literature was so well known in Korea. I was very surprised to find that. Honestly, though, I cannot say that a lot of Russian literature has been translated into Korean. From a Russian’s perspective, I feel that not a lot of Russian literature is known in Korea. I guess this may be because Russia has so many writers and artists.
Many barbershops in Korea have a well-known Pushkin poem hanging on the wall. You can see that Russian culture is embedded in every corner of Korean society.
Korean literature is actually now well-known in Russia. However, more works are gradually being translated and introduced these days. It’s not popular, though. As the two countries have so many cultural differences, it seems that Korean literature doesn’t match well with the emotions of the Russian people.
On YouTube, there’s a video of the Russian national anthem that shows some of the country’s most representative figures from the arts and science. It seems that Russia is truly a country of “content.” Still, it seems that Russia can’t quite make full use of all that “content.”
That’s true. I’m not sure whether Russia doesn’t want to use its “content” to the fullest, or if it’s simply unable to do so. At any rate, it hasn’t used it all. I believe this is due to financial reasons. There might be limitations to Russia’s current situation.
There have been exchanges between Korea and Russia for many years. Indeed, in the day-to-day lives of the Korean people, many Russian legacies can be found, not only in literature, but also famous Russian songs like “Katyusha,” “Those Were the Days” and “Cranes” by Iosif Kobzon. Unlike the centuries-deep Russian culture, the recent popularity of Korean pop music and soap operas has grown over a relatively short period of time. Where do you think this Korean vitality comes from?
It seems that Korean culture has many aspects that are similar to Russian culture. There is a historic trust between Koreans and Russians, but it is not very well known among Koreans. King Gojong took refuge in the Russian legation to escape Japanese troops. The key to the vitality of Russian culture, and to the way in which it is deeply embedded in the Korean people’s daily lives, in my view, is because both countries are neighbors in terms of geography, so this is natural.
Now, the two countries have more exchanges in the arts rather than in business. Of course, more exchanges between businesses would lead to more exchanges in the arts. If both countries were to have more exchanges in both politics and the economy, I think we could have more exchanges in the arts, too.
Russia was essential in winning World War II, or the Great Patriotic War. The resistance of the Russians, which led to victory, seems to be in line with that of the Koreans, who achieved liberation by persistently resisting colonization. What emotions made Russia so strong, in your view?
When I see Russian culture as a Russian, the Russian people seem to have a strong temper that seeks freedom, especially when I see our national character. When I review Russian history, there was no moment without war. Let’s say Korea had a war every 500 years. Well, Russia has had a war every 10 years. In total, I guess we’ve had some 200 wars. We had many wars with neighboring countries and other overseas countries. We had many fights over territory. Korea had its last war 70 years ago, but in Russia, war is still out there. Russians have such a character. They pursue freedom and consider independence so important. I believe this is because they have undergone so many difficulties and hardships throughout their history.
Especially in World War II, a heavy ideology existed in the Soviet Union. A very strong ideology, such as that promoted by Stalin, is rooted in the minds of the Russian people. For this reason, they had a strong will to fight, I guess, which led to the history of wars.
There was harshness in the era of Stalin, but there seems to be many achievements in return for the suffering.
Yes. There are mixed judgments. Of course, there is the negative side. Historians still have mixed views, even up until today.
A video made during the term of former President Dmitry Medvedev shows all the leaders from the past to the present, including Stalin, Lenin and Russian emperors, such as Nicholas II. Apart from distinguishing what is good or bad, you seem to have a different perspective on history.
Though Stalin did so many bad things in the past, Russians still value him highly. This is because he helped Russia to win World War II and he transformed the country from nothing into a world leader. He also carried out a Russian version of industrialization that made Russia secure and an equal to the U.S. During Stalin’s era, Russia launched the world’s first spacecraft. The first-ever astronaut was a Russian. For these reasons, there are positive reviews of Stalin.
In fact, the Sputnik Shock was a great surprise. Despite such brilliance, however, why did Russia have go through such a worsened situation?
There are so many reasons and it is really complicated.
In the 30 some odd years of your life, there seems to have been a period of rapid political changes in Russia. You were born at the end of the former Soviet Union and then experienced glasnost, perestroika and so many other changes.
Though I was born in the Soviet Union, I didn’t have any memory of those times, as I was too little. What I remember is that Russia became a democratic country in the 1990s after the Soviet collapses. Russia also had too many changes in the 2000s. Now, the country has a vibrant capitalist system; complete capitalism, in other words.
It must have been uneasy for Russians to adjust to changes, as the country transformed itself into a highly capitalistic society from a socialist one.
Yes. My parents, for instance, don’t seem to have yet gotten used to the changes. Especially when I have conversations with them, I can sense that they are still living in the era of the Soviet Union. Russians have many conflicts between generations for this reason, as so many changes occurred in people’s mindsets. It seems to be more severe than the conflict between Korea’s younger generation and the baby-boom generation after the war. This is because so many changes were made in the ideology, mindset and world view of the people. It didn’t happen only in Russia, but elsewhere in the world, too: a transformation into a democratic country from a socialist one over ten years.
Other countries that have followed the path of socialism, such as China, Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela, still follow socialism, except for Russia. It is the only country that underwent such drastic change. Such change made people hard as they adjusted, which caused difficulties in the 1990s.
The Russian Far East, including Vladivostok, your hometown, used to be the foothold of the Korean people, where they gathered to launch their independence movements during late Joseon times. It is known that Russia supported Koreans, both publicly and privately.
It would be appropriate timing for Russia to help Korea so much. At that time, Russia was defeated by Japan in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. Naturally, Russia did not have good feelings toward Japan. In the early 20th century, Japan did many controversial things in the Pacific which led to mixed judgments. So Russia had more understanding for those who suffered. As they were also victims of Japan, Russia probably had sympathy for the Koreans.
During your life in Korea for the past 12 years, you must have experienced many changes. Your hometown, especially, would have been very different from Seoul. How did you adjust to such changes? Did you have any difficulties while living in Korea?
To be honest, I didn’t have any big culture shock. I was open-minded, but it is more because I already had specialized knowledge of Korean before I came here. I was able to speak Korean at some level, with an understanding of Korea to some degree. When I was in Vladivostok, I used to get along well with the Korean students there, so I didn’t experience any cultural shock because I was prepared.
Of course, I needed some time to adapt. I was different from other non-Koreans who come to Korea without any knowledge of the place. Though shallow, I did have an understanding of Korea, so I had sort of a soft-landing and had no problem staying in this country for the first half of my stay here. As my stay became longer, however, when I started to work here and became deeply involved in society, it began to get harder. It became difficult when I began to work. The biggest difficulty was the work environment in Korea. The hierarchy here was the hardest thing of all. We do have a hierarchy in Russia, but it’s not the same as that in Korea. There were some parts which I was unable to understand or unable to accept, even though I understood.
When it comes to drinking, statistically, Koreans drink more than Russians do. As vodka has a high alcohol content, Russians don’t drink much in terms of volume. Soju is not as strong as vodka, however, so Koreans really drink a lot. If we compare the two average amounts of alcohol consumed per person, Koreans drink more than Russians.
What do you like about Korea?
Quite a lot. I love traveling, so I go all over the place. Whenever I go on a trip, I always want to come back to Korea because everything is so convenient here. I want to mention everything, but the best part, especially for Seoul, is good infrastructure. Though Koreans are not aware of it, many non-Koreans find toilets located inside the subway stations to be very convenient. They’re clean, and what’s more, they’re free. This is really amazing. In Europe, you may find a toilet in the subway station in some places, and if there is one, it won’t be free.
In fact, 30 years ago, we also had dirty toilets in Korea, to which nobody liked to go. They became clean as we made an effort.
Right. So many things have changed. Looking back to 2003 when I first came to Seoul, I can see a lot of changes. At that time, we didn’t have the Cheonggyecheon Stream. There wasn’t enough public transport and we had only seven subway lines. Today, we have nine subway lines. If we compare that with Russia, though cities may vary, Moscow would be as convenient as Seoul, but other cities are different, as Russia is a large country with more than 60 ethnic groups.
When you appear on TV, you point out some negative sides of Korean society, such as private tutoring and pre-school education. How did you develop such sharp observations?
It’s not because I have sharp insight. It’s rather because I can witness these as I live in Korea. As I live with Koreans, and get along and talk with Korean friends every day, and watch the news, I can see because I’m not isolated. When I first came to Korea in 2003, there weren’t that many Caucasian people. Koreans regarded White people as all being from the U.S. It was unpleasant.
Maybe that was because Korean society didn’t have a chance to meet non-Koreans.
Yes and I know why, but for that reason, those who were from Eastern Europe, including Russia, were hurt so much. So was I. Now, however, so many things have changed. A lot of the changes have been made in the past ten years.
The “always in a hurry” aspect of modern Korean society seems to have changed Koreans’ attitude toward non-Koreans to be more flexible.
Right. That can be a good thing. It’s rapidly changing a lot. The power of mass media can be one of the reasons for this. Thanks to the TV show “Beauty Talk,” Koreans became more aware that non-Koreans can speak Korean. Then, more non-Koreans began appearing on Korean TV. So is the show “Abnormal Summit.” These shows made Koreans think that non-Koreans can live in Korea and speak the Korean language. This is thanks to the great power of mass media.
You are into linguistics, but also worked as a medical interpreter, which can be seen as both unexpected and very practical.
I wanted to do it because of my character. I thought I should try doing everything before getting to know what it was. So I worked for a large company, worked as a medical interpreter and worked as a freelancer. I became a teacher, did part time jobs, worked as a journalist, and appeared on TV. In the case of journalism, I worked for both a Russian broadcaster and a Korean broadcaster.
You seem to have a lot of experience, considering your age. If put into writing, your story could make a few books.
I do have a dream of writing a book in the future.
What is your favorite Korean food?
I always eat Korean food as part of my daily routine. I like many menu items, but I prefer soups such as ginseng chicken soup or ox bone soup. I’m not sure if Russians would like Korean food because Korean food is very different from Russian food. If I have to choose one, ginseng chicken soup would be my choice. There’s a big difference between Russian and Korean cuisine and they use very different cooking methods.
Korea and Russia once severed ties due to ideological differences, but the two became neighbors over the past 25 years. What efforts would be needed to bring the countries closer together?
More knowledge is needed. Now, there is almost no knowledge about Russia in Korea. If any, most of it is distorted. I hope that can change. Most of the information about Russia you find in Korea is so distorted. Some of it is just false information, and this covers everything: the arts, business or politics.
Koreans have a very low awareness of Russia. I find so much distorted information here. As such, I often receive similar questions from my fans. If they find a YouTube video about Russia, they ask, “Is this real in Russia?” These are really fake videos made to lie about Russia, but people here believe them though they have a script like a movie. It’s so far from reality.
Let me give you some examples. From last year until early this year, there was a lot of information going around about President Putin, about the economy in Russia and rumors that Russia would declare a moratorium. Russians didn’t know about any of this, but it was spreading all over. So the Russians even began to question themselves. “Are we really broke?” This is far from reality. When I find such fake news stories, frankly speaking, I get angry, but there’s nothing I can do. If Korea’s state broadcaster shows such lies, for example, I can’t help it. Just like everyone in the world, people tend to trust the information which the media broadcasts. I always say that the information that Korean media shows about Russia is distorted, but then people blame me when I say that. For example, what KBS shows its viewers is different from what I would broadcast. People trust the media. Not me, though, as it’s not true. For this reason, Russians living in Korea think it’s not fair. I wish you could be aware of this.
It seems that you have an inseparable affinity with Korea and for Korean society. What do you hope will come true by communicating with Korea?
My dream is to become a professor. I want to continue studying and get a Ph.D. and teach linguistics to students at a university. I’m so interested in linguistics and I love that field, so I wish to study more to get qualified and to teach students. It can be either in Korea or some other country, but I want to still teach something related to Korea.
As a linguist, what attraction do you think the Korean language has?
Korean is very logical. If we compare it with Russian, you can see the clear differences. For example, from a linguistic point of view, if there is a rule in grammar, 99 percent of Korean language follows that rule. In Russian, about 50 percent of the time there is an exception. Though Russian has rules, it has so many exceptions. So when we teach Russian to non-Russian students who use a foreign language as their mother tongue, many of them find it difficult to learn. Korean, however, is logical. It has a structure that’s easy to understand. If you know the rules, you can use its grammar, similar to German.
By Wi Tack-whan, Yoon Sojung
Korea.net Staff Writers
Photos: Jeon Han