Russian Learning Scenario:
Pirates of the 20th Century

Author: Konstantin Urvantsev
Level: Intermediate

A Soviet commercial ship is legally transporting opium for pharmaceuticals. While at sea, it is attacked by pirates who have a goal of seizing the opium and selling it on the black market. To cover their crime, the pirates make a ruthless attempt to eliminate all witnesses—to kill all the crew. Several survivors have different plans, however. They want to have their ship back and bring the pirates to justice. This exciting Russian film, Pirates of the 20th Century, sets the stage for a unit in which students learn about a Russian historical event, and compare Russian ideas of heroism with their own, and have an opportunity to connect the past to the present by perhaps talking with survivors of local disasters.

ACTIVITY SET 1: Linking the Past to the Present
Learners may at first doubt the relevancy of a film on sea piracy. Help make the link between the past and the present by asking a variety of questions such as the following: When we say sea pirates, what period in history do we picture? What kind of piracy can we expect today? Cyber piracy? Intellectual property theft? Terrorism? Why does an attack by sea pirates seem incredible in today’s world? We do not expect sea pirates in the modern world, but this fact may only make us more vulnerable. Students may name various cases of modern piracy including international act of terrorism such as the Munich Olympics in 1972 and the more recent attacks on the World Trade Center.

Provide a world map to locate regions that learners mention, and supply key vocabulary as needed to help them express as many of their ideas in Russian as possible. Such words as terrorists, attack, pirates, etc. can be learned easily because they are cognates. Several verb phrases in the past tense can be repeated by the teacher such as captured hostages, held hostage, demanded ransom, claimed responsibility, and attempted to negotiate. The class can compile a common key vocabulary list to which they add, or learners may keep a personal vocabulary list of topic-related words to use throughout the unit. Students further discuss in smaller groups what they know about terrorist attacks or any disasters in Russia using the new vocabulary to the extent of their comfort. Their goal is to name as many as possible and briefly describe each (a sentence or two) using the new phrases. (Normally, students try to copy their teacher. When the teacher values communication over a vocabulary exercise, students eagerly use the new “cool” phrases.) To illustrate real-word use of the vocabulary, the teacher should bring several newspaper articles in Russian featuring the new word, if possible.

ACTIVITY SET 2: Video and Discussion
Watch the video before showing it to the class, and choose language structures to review or introduce relative to your curriculum and the students’ proficiency level (e.g., adverbs such as suddenly, unexpectedly, and fiercely; names of the characters who survived; action verbs).

To begin, announce that the movie is based on real events. (At this point, students have reflected on a lot of battles with terrorists. However, there still are those only a few know about.) Prepare and give students a list of 5-10 true/false statements based on the first part of the movie, which includes the seizure of the ship and cargo by the pirates. Sample statements include: “The pirates demanded a ransom,” or “Sergei escaped alone.” Students watch part one with either Russian or English subtitles, depending on their Russian proficiency. As they watch, their task is to mark all the statements on the list as true or false.

After viewing, students get into teams and discuss their answers, sharing intelligence. As if a special division of police investigating the case, they retrace the terrorist attack on the ship using a map and their imagination. Students talk about what the surviving crew should do next, and they create an emergency plan of action. Help students by providing key words in Russian as needed. Students may also review or be introduced to several Russian nouns and action verbs (infinitives) as well as some modal structures such as they should, they should have first … and then… Before watching the second part, students work as a class to summarize what happened in the first part, using the new phrases they learned in past tense. Each group reports on their emergency action plan, summarizing what they think the surviving crew should do.

After groups have specified all the steps on their action plan (5-10 items), they next transform the plan into a hypothetical scenario of what they think will happen next, creating their own list of true/false statements in the present tense (“Sergei swims to the neighboring island and sets a fire,” etc.). As they watch the second part, students compare their strategy proposals (T/F statements) to what the characters are actually doing. Here they may learn more verb phrases in the past tense as well as try out some should have constructions. They check their statements as true or false in the same way as the list of statements prepared by teacher. Finally, learners can read the true statements from both parts to summarize the movie plot.

ACTIVITY SET: Follow-up Activities and Projects
Learners have an opportunity to expand their understanding of the topic and language use through a variety of activities and final projects that demonstrate what they have learned about the topic. The teacher may choose an activity/project to engage the whole class, or students may choose one for themselves or a group from among those that follow.

  • Students reflect on the concept of courage as they see it exemplified in their own culture and as they saw it illustrated in the Russian film. They investigate through newspapers and the Internet other events in Russian culture involving acts of courage, comparing the concept in the two cultures as illustrated by the events they have researched. As a final product, these students imagine a reunion of the characters in 10 years. (What are they doing? How have the events they lived through together changed their lives? When they meet, what are they discussing?) Students stage a short play in which the former heroes are meeting in a restaurant to remember their heroic past when another accident happens (e.g., a bank robbery with several people taken hostages) and their courage and leadership is needed again.

  • The movie is based on real events. Learners search newspaper archives in the library and the web (NPR archives, CNN, History Channel, etc.) to learn more about the event and several other real episodes where planes or ships were seized by pirates. Students could explore such emergency situations as the Kursk submarine disaster or space emergencies. They learn about the people involved and what they had to do to survive. Students may interview members of the local Russian community about whether and how one of the disasters affected them personally. Eventually, students make a presentation on an event of their choice before their classmates and parents who have been invited to the presentation.

  • Students relate the subject of “survivors” to their own lives by talking to their parents and neighbors, searching the archives of a local newspaper, or going to the local museum to learn about disasters in their own city, county, or community (fires, floods, tornados). If possible, they contact some of the survivors or journalists who interviewed them. Students can also invite several Russian friends (from the local Russian community) and have them share in the discussion on the topic. They might tell them about the disasters that happened 10, 20, 30 years ago, invite them to watch the movie together, and ask them questions or for a cultural comment on the movie which was a huge hit when released in 1980. (What was Russia like in 1980? Why was it a hit?)

As a final project, students can make a collage, develop a PowerPoint presentation, or create a graphic organizer to discuss the images of a hero in Russian and American cultures based on what they have learned in the preceding activity. As an alternative, they may present a dramatization of the real story of the Pirates of the 20th Century or a similar real life story before their classmates, school, or community.

In all cases, the teacher may want to connect with the local community by inviting the local television station to cover the final presentations. Publicity could be posted in school and around the community announcing the broadcast on the evening news. The television station would likely be willing to provide a copy of the tape which could be replayed for the school. If the television option is not available, try the school newspaper or invite some parents to do the filming and mix it into a short movie. Show the movie at Back To School Night.

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Targeted Standards


  • TV-VCR
  • Computers with Internet access
  • Large world map
  • Several sheets of drawing board-sized paper

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Reflections on How the Standards Are Met


Communication: The interpersonal mode is used during group discussions and activities; the interpretive mode is used as students watch the video and search for information on-line and in the community; the presentational mode is used when students present their final projects.

Cultures: Students investigate Russian practices and perspectives as they reflect on the concepts of heroism and courage in Russian culture.

: Students use Russian-language sources on the Internet to learn more about the events of the movie. They connect to other disciplines such as social studies as they learn about historical events in Russia.

: Students compare people’s actions in critical situations in Russian and American culture; they compare the image of a hero in both cultures.

: Students search local information and present their final projects before their school and/or local community. They engage members of the local Russian community or those of Russian heritage in the activities where possible.

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Expansion Ideas

  • After watching the movie, more advanced students could discuss what security devices should be installed on ships and what measures taken by the crew to prevent being cut off from the rest of the world—or prevent terrorist attacks altogether.

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NOTE: These Internet resources may have changed since publication or no longer be available. Active links should be carefully screened before recommending to students.

    Pirates Of The 20th Century (DVD, NTSC), English or Russian subtitles
    The Air Crew (NTSC, English or Russian subtitles) Another capturing thriller; a Russian passenger aircraft with 150 passengers aboard is moving down a runway chased by burning magma when an emergency occurs.
    This book in Russian speaks about the mystery of the Kursk tragedy, as well as other military tragedies during the peace time.
    The Kursk: Birth, Life, And Death (a book in Russian)
    Offers good Russian movies and music as well as links to books, magazines etc.
    VHS videos in Russian that have English subtitles
    DVD titles that have English subtitles
    Russian books available in the US