Nachalo is a textbook series used in the Columbia University Slavic Department to teach introductory Russian language courses. The series, published by McGraw Hill, consists of two textbooks, each of which are very expensive. Each textbook has an auxiliary Workbook and there is one Video Guide that goes with both books. Each of these three items is also needlessly costly. In addition, the department insists on all students purchasing the most recently published edition of the book, and there are no used copies available in the Columbia bookstore.
The Nachalo books and their accompanying materials cover the basics of Russian grammar, composition, vocabulary and locution, and help to further confuse students about such already impossibly chaotic topics as verbs of motion and adjectival case forms. Nachalo attempts to make students interested in Russian by encouraging discussion of such banal or depressing topics as studying at the university (as if you're not thinking enough about studying already)or life in a Soviet-era apartment building in which the elevator does not work. Additionally, Nachalo should be noted for its sometimes bizarre choices in terms of when to introduce certain vocabulary words- for instance, a student will learn how to talk about going to the electronics store before he knows the Russian words for basic colors such as red, green or blue, and he will learn the Russian phrase for "home remedies" by heart.
If you end up in an elementary Russian class at Columbia, you will probably find yourself more interested in the story that unfolds throughout the readings in Nachalo than in fundamentals of Russian grammar. This is because Nachalo masterfully uses these texts to weave a rich and sometimes suggestive narrative about several characters living in and around a certain Moscow apartment building. It can be assumed that these characters are completely realistic and reflect typical Muscovites. The actors who portray them in the video series are also excellent.
Descriptions of the characters are provided in the opening pages of each book in the Nachalo Series, but these brief, two sentence blurbs do not do justice to the complexities of many of the characters' personalities. You may find the following descriptions of the Nachalo characters more helpful.
PROFESSOR PETROVSKY is a professor of history at the University of Moscow. He is old, bald, big-nosed, and curiously single. He was born in the Caucuses, but later moved to Moscow, sort of like Josef Stalin. He has a weak immune system and apparently doesn't know how to use email. It is suspected that he might be having an affair with Tatiana Dmitrievna, a woman who lives in the same apartment building whose husband seems to have either died or abandoned her.
JIM RICHARDSON is an American graduate student from Boston who is studying in Moscow under Professor Petrovsky. Though he speaks Russian well, he knows absolutely nothing about Russian culture and is often completely unaware of his surroundings. He is almost kidnapped on the Moscow Metro by two weird old ladies who make a habit of seducing foreigners who they meet in train stations. Jim is about as self-aware as a child, and probably should not be permitted to walk the streets of Moscow unsupervised. He is also possibly homosexual, despite suggestions by Nachalo that he has feelings for Tanya.
SILIN is a very bald, stupid man who lives with his family in the same apartment building as Professor Petrovsky. He does a half-assed job as the director of the building, and doesn't really fix anything. As a result, some people don't have running water, others can't open the windows/close their doors, and the elevator is constantly broken. Silin's full name is Sergei Petrovich Silin, but everyone calls him simply "Silin", as this will imply a lack of respect for and an attitude of scorn towards this impossibly stupid man. Silin hates anything cultural, including opera, ballet, and any publication more literary than a newspaper, and is only interested in soccer and hockey. He is a complete failure of a human being and often makes situations twice as bad whenever he tries to help other characters resolve problems (which is rarely, because he doesn't really care about anything besides sports).
NATALIA IVANOVNA is Silin's wife. She is a complete bitch. She hates music and tries to control the lives of her two children. She has never said anything nice to anyone, and is constantly pessimistic. She is much smarter than Silin, but is far less lovable or goofy. Her heart is made of iron, and it is commonly accepted that she eats steel wool for breakfast and shits out razorblades. She once went on a post-menopausal rampage and destroyed Tokyo.
LENA SILIN is the daughter of Natalia Ivanovna and Silin. She is a journalism student and a complete slut. When her parents aren't home, Lena invites strange men such as Karl the Swedish journalist over for "dinner", forcefully enlisting her ten year old brother Vova into helping to facilitate her debaucherous trysts. Nachalo suggests that Lena is dating Victor, but it is more likely that he is secretly pimping her out to/for the Russian mob. She is occasionally irritable and often bossy, which may be due to her addiction to cocaine.
VOVA is a smart-assed little boy who is stuck living with a family full of unlikable and or moronic characters. With a family like his, it is not surprising that he turned out to be such a punk. He has a friend named Petya with whom he often skips school. Other than Petya, his only friend is the family dog, Belka, which is probably because Belka is the only other tolerable living thing in the Silin household.
GRANDMA AND GRANDPA KRUGLOV live with their grandson Sasha on the tenth floor. Grandpa Kruglov is an auxiliary character who doesn't really do much and generally isn't very important, though he does know where everything in Moscow is. Grandma Kruglov is a batty old woman who insists on curing her neighbors illnesses with "home remedies" such as forcing them to inhale steam from boiling potatoes or stick their bare feet in tubs of mustard powder. She may have gypsy blood in her, or she might just be batshit insane.
SASHA is the Kruglovs' grandson, who plays piano and studies at the conservatory. When he practices the piano, he constantly pisses off Natalia Ivanovna, because Natalia Ivanovna is a bitch who hates music and despises the fact that anyone might be doing something they enjoy and/or producing something that might be enjoyable for others. He entertains the idea of hooking up with Lena when the two first meet, but eventually thinks better of it, knowing that all he would be likely to get out of such a tryst would be various venerial diseases.
TATIANA DMITRIEVNA is a weird old woman who rents out her son's room to Tanya and Sveta. She is either a widow or a divorcee. She is possibly having an affair with Professor Petrovsky, but is otherwise rather uninteresting.
TANYA AND SVETA are two young women who rent a room from Tatiana Dmitrievna. They study way too much and don't really know how to have a good time. Still, Jim and Sasha go over to their apartment a lot, as Sasha is hot for Sveta's ass and Jim, being gay, needs an excuse to hang out with Sasha. Sveta works in the medical service and helps take care of Silin when he catches a flu, leading to a very kinky scene involving a young nurse and a bald, fat, dirty middle aged man. Tanya is madly in love with Jim and is constantly trying to gain his attention. She even goes out on two dates with him, to the opera and to a nice restaurant, but she will eventually disappointed once Jim comes out of the closet.
VICTOR is a street-savy mobster/businessman who rents rubber boots to people. Also, he runs a driving school and dresses like Euro trash. He is Lena's pimp and cocaine supplier. Through his mob connections, he is able to obtain tickets for just about everything on the black market. He went to school with the fictional Russian hockey star Volodya Manin. Victor is that guy every man wishes he could be- slick, sexy, dangerous, and romantic. Sasha is probably jealous of Victor, and Jim would likely be jealous also if he were straight.