Learning Russian



You would think that the most obvious place to learn Russian is Russia, but not so if you were an aspiring intelligence officer, keen to become a Soviet specialist at the time the Soviet Union was seen as a menace. Brian Giffey, my pin-up boy, first heard the language spoken in the Caucasus when he was 30 years old and he began to study it at the age of 40 in Riga, the capital of Latvia. At the time, in 1928, Latvia was an independent country where there were enough Russian emigrés who could teach him. Brian had also met a local mystery man, Roman, who inspired him to learn the language.
Riga is a stunning city, renowned for its Art Nouveau buildings. One can walk around mesmerised by the beauty and wealth of detail. There is quite a substantial area full of buildings that would stop you in your tracks, some of them surprisingly substantial. The more you look, the more you notice: a turret here, a human figure there.
I think that Brian enjoyed his time in Riga. And he achieved good results: with his newly-acquired Russian he was accepted by Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). Posted to Tallinn in early 1929, he continued to improve his Russian and, according to his notes, he pretty much lived in Russian for the first five years in Estonia. His official title there was 'passport control officer', a cover for his intelligence work.