The Russian Word’s Worth
This Christmas’s “must buy” for expats in Moscow struggling with Russian has to be The Russian Word’s Worth, the newly-published collection of writing about the language by Moscow Times guruette, Michele Berdy. Michele has been publishing weekly articles about how to speak idiomatic Russian for the last eight years and close to half of these have now been collected in book form, neatly edited and provided with a comprehensive and extremely useful index.
Michele’s life story gives hope to all of us who struggle with the complexities, subtleties and ambiguities of Russian. She is not a linguist, a philologist or even a polyglot. She claims no special facility for languages, and she is not one of those who, as she says in the Introduction, “knows everything about 16th century verb usage in Rostov”. She is simply an American lady who studied Russian as a second language at Amherst College in Massachusetts in those distant days when you could not get rich in Russia, and therefore took such courses simply for the love of them.
Michele is, in the best sense of the word, an amateur. Yet she is also a professional in that she subsequently acquired a sufficiently deep understanding of the language, and therefore the mind of Russia, that she has been asked to interpret for Boris Yeltsin and Nancy Reagan.
Michele moved to Moscow in the late 1970s and has lived here most of the time since, working in various branches of the media and also as a teacher. “Since Brezhnev was in his dotage,” she writes, “I have been pondering, discovering, contemplating, positing, theorising and occasionally arguing about what makes Russia so, well, Russian, and how that differs, or doesn’t differ, from what makes Americans so American.”
That is what makes this book so interesting. It is a series of lessons interspersed with socio-political observation and a lot of human-interest stories which would be worth reading in their own right, even if they were not used to sugar the pill of language learning. Each section is graced with an introductory page or two which sets that part of the book in a personal context.
For example, in the chapter on religion and the famous “Russian soul”, Michele says that that was one of the things which first attracted her to Russia. But when consumerism hit, suddenly the country had less soul. Worse still, in the early 21st century Russian spirituality came to be used as a weapon. Russians were now said to be spiritual people while the rest of the world, especially Americans, were “money-grubbing, mercantile, Molochloving swine… No matter that the malls were packed with consumption-mad Muscovites, clients were reneging on fees, dark-skinned foreigners were being beaten up and killed, innocent people framed on trumped-up charges, minor criticism of the government on a blog resulted in death threats, and corruption was spiralling completely out of control. Deeply spiritual? The whole nation? I don’t think so.”
Combined with a willingness to look Russia in the face and report candidly what she sees, Michele’s writing I also distinguished by a gentle wit which is very appealing. I cannot believe she did not chuckle when she wrote about the words for luck, both good and bad. She starts by saying: “You know what it is like. You oversleep; your car won’t start; the 140 roubles in your wallet won’t cover the taxi fare; your company is down-sizing, starting with you; your significant other has found someone else; and just when you decided to drown your troubles in a six-pack and a night in front of the tube, the entire apartment block is plunged into darkness. This, ladies and gentlemen, is чёрная полоса (chornaya polosa), a ‘losing streak’, literally, ‘a black stripe’.”
Then she goes on to describe the word for good luck, везение, after which she writes: “It is almost impossible for English-speakers to use this next word, but a synonym for везение (vesenye) is фарт (fart). This is originally underworld slang that made its way into colloquial Russian particularly and—to the dismay of parents—youth slang. You could say, Ему фартит (yemu fartit), meaning ‘He’s lucky’, or exclaim happily, Ну тебе и подфартило! (Nu tebe i podfartilo!) Meaning ‘You had a nice piece of luck!’”
There are sections about grammar, technical words, children, Russian foibles, animals, politics, food, nature, slang, jokes and even old Soviet expressions which Michele says she misses now that there are no shortages, queues or black-marketeers to talk about—though 12-hour traffic queues help her explain the ways Russians express “frustration”.
Another piece of history I found interesting was her discussion of the language of politics, especially that of then-President Putin. (Most of these pieces were written before 2007; presumably another book will follow in a year or two.) The flavour of political discourse is noticeably different from today’s. Putin is aggressive, commanding, haughty, legalistic and self-assured: quite unlike the Lada-driving self-publicist who would be unlikely to say: “The secret services shouldn’t stick their noses into civil society.” We have moved on from that innocent idea.
It is hard to imagine anyone in Russia who would not find something to savour, something to learn or something to chuckle at in this unprecedented book. Ask Дед Мороз to put a copy under the ёлка for you. And if you don’t know what that means, you really need Ms Berdy’s book.