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My name is Chris Marchant, I am from Rochester, New York, and yes, I am an American.  Like most Americans, I have mixed ancestry, but to the best of my knowledge, not a single one of my ancestors emigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe, let alone Belarus or Russia.  In high school, I signed up for French because I was required to take a language, and I hated it thoroughly, and even failed it one year.  I have always loved science and technical things, so when I started college at Brigham Young University, I declared my major to be Electrical Engineering.  As of March 11th, 1999, the only Russian phrase that I knew was "dah sveedanyah" and I thought it meant 'hello'.  That Wednesday, at 2:00pm, I entered the Provo Missionary Training Center as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

55 years    I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as "the Mormons."  I believe very sincerely certain things, including that God loves us personally and answers our prayers, that God still gives us revelation through prophets, and that we are happy when we know that our lives are in line with God's will.  After my first semester of college, I volunteered to be a full-time missionary for the Church.  I took a deferrance from my university, my family agreed to pay for my support while I would be gone, and the Church asked me to serve a mission preaching the Gospel in Lithuania.  As a missionary, I received no compensation other than the spiritual kind.

uzupis    Most of the missionaries the Church sends to Lithuania learn to speak Lithuanian (of course), but as there are significant Polish and Russian minorities, I was asked to learn Russian.  I spent two months in the states receiving 6 hours of intensive language instruction daily.  This was not really enough but one cannot ride with training wheels forever and I was sent off to Lithuania.  I love and miss Lithuania.  I miss how people would tell us they were not interested in talking about religion, but would still invite us in to offer us cookies and kvass on a hot summer day.  I miss the way little kids would try to teach us Lithuanian.  I miss Uzupis, rokiskio cheese and the little chocolate cupcakes you can buy in Vilnius.

    During my time in Lithuania, I learned to speak Russian passably.  I learned my grammar by reading a grammar reference I had been given while still in the states, and I learned vocabulary by talking to people and looking up words I didn't know in the dictionary (if I could remember them).  It was a little difficult to read Russian because I saw it so little.  There were several words, like 'barbershop', that I knew in Lithuanian, but not in Russian.  There were other oddities in my Russian.  I knew, for example, what 'khloptsy' were, but not 'parny.'  Lithuanians would get upset when I spoke Russian with them.  They would ask why I would not learn Lithuanian since I was in Lithuania.  It is rude to come to someone's country, to ask to speak with them, and then to ask them to speak with you in a foreign tongue.

bus to Minsk    I had been in Lithuania for a year, when I was asked to serve in Belarus.  I had heard stories about the country from other missionaries who had come back from there and was... excited.  I knew it was a lot poorer than Lithuania, a lot more dangerous, and most ominous of all, that it was a dictatorship, unfriendly to the west.

    In Belarus, there is a law that a religious organization can only have missionaries if it has national registration.  National registration is essentially impossible to obtain, even if an organization fulfills the requirements of the law, the bureaucracy will stonewall the religion's efforts to obtain recognition.  Russian Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism are nationally recognized by the government, but not other religions.  Because of this, when I went to Belarus, I did not go as a missionary, but as a humanitarian aid worker.  I was a representative of the International Charitable Public Association "Sofia."  I did not represent the Church, I did not carry a missionary name-tag, I never introduced myself as a missionary.  If, during conversation, a Belarusian brought up the topic of religion, I would discuss it with him, but I would never bring it up on my own.

Bridge over Western Dvina

    I spent nine months living in the city of Vitebsk, with three other Americans.  The organization we did work for, "Sophia", would occationally receive shipments of clothing and food from the states and if that happened we were to help verify that it was distributed properly, but for some reason, the shipments were held up for many months.  The main work that we were supposed to do was to present assemblies in elementary schools.  We would put on puppet shows acting out situations involving tobacco and alchohol and we would discuss the scenes with the kids.  The guys in Minsk would do this every day, but although we technically had permission to put on the assemblies in Vitebsk schools, the bureaucracy would stonewall us and we were unable to.

    When I first entered Belarus, I was fascinated because everywhere there were signs in Belarusian.  It was first of all wierd to see cyrillic, but more than that I could not understand many of the words, and the endings on the words did not make sense.  During my nine months in Vitebsk, because there was no work for us, the only thing for us to do was hang out with the locals.  I spent a lot of time with a small family, the Gusakovy.Gusakovy  The mother, Larisa, was very kind to us.  She essentially was my mother while we stayed there.  Her son Ilya was a terror and the first time he met anyone, he would try to punch them in the crotch.  Little Liza was just adorable, I miss her.  She was only 3 and had trouble saying my name, she would call me 'Masan', and after I left, she would call all the Americans 'Masan.'

    Larisa had been a teacher of Belarusian before she had kids, and I think that's what first get me wanting to learn Belarusian.  There was this old man, we called him "Dedushka", to this day we don't know his real name, and we would go out to his village and help him work out there.  He had nine goats and the milk he got from them was very good, much better than the nasty stuff one could buy in the store.  It was very difficult for me to understand him because he always spoke in 'trasyanka', a mix of Russian and Belarusian.

    This one time, Dave Beck somehow came into contact with this TV reporter, a young women in her twenties, and she wanted to interview him for a piece on the news.  I met her later and was talking to her and I noticed that her grammar wasn't quite right, and I asked her about it.  She admitted that at home she spoke Belarusian.  I had always before this assumed that Belarusian was only spoken by old folks in the villages, but here was a young person who preferred Belarusian, speaking it home.  That is when I knew that Belarusian had not died yet.

    I was uprooted from Belarus and asked to spend the last three months of my mission in Yaraslavl, Russia.  It was heartbreaking to leave Vitebsk.  I cried when I got on the train.  My accent had changed, it was hard to say "mnoga" instead of "mnoha."  I missed the Gusakovy really bad.  In Russia though, I was able to wear my nametag again and be a missionary.  That felt really good.

    After I returned from my mission, there were a few months before the start of the next semester when I could go back to school.  I read a book about James Murray and the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.  The biggest obstacle to the creation of the dictionary was creating an exhaustive list of every word in the language together with illustrative examples of its usage.  I returned to college and I was taking this computer science class on data structures, and while I was falling asleep one night, I had a realization that I could make a computer program that would catalogue the entire Belarusian language for me.  I wrote the program the next summer and now I have a concordance containing virtually every word in the Belarusian language, with usage.

    It is beyond my abilities to create a dictionary out of this monsterous concordance.  There are simply too many words, and the fact is that my belarusian is not even close to good enough for me to do it.  I was able to use it to create a grammar guide.  The concordance shows me how common a word is so I was able to determine the definitive formation of words.  I wrote Fundamentals of Modern Belarusian, my friend Hanna Badruseva helped correct it, and then I received a grant from Brigham Young University to go to Belarus to finish it.  There, Valentsina Rusak, a professor of Belarusian at the National Academy of Sciences, thoroughly went over the guide, correcting it as best as she could.  Now it is posted here.  As an electrical engineer, I believe in the power of open-sourceFundamentals of Modern Belarusian is free.  Anyone may change, improve or redistribute it, even for profit (if they can find someone willing to pay, HAH!)  The concordance is also distributed as open-source.  It is beyond me to create an entire dictionary out of it, but if others participate, it is possible to create a complete, definitive, and free Belarusian-English dictionary.

    Currently, I am attending Utah State University, where I am getting my doctorate degree in Electrical Engineering.

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Email me at vitbich@vitba.org