12 random things I’ve noticed while learning Russian

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This list is less about language and more about culture, but here are 12 odds and ends that I’ve noticed over the past few years…

 

1. The Little Prince

The book’s popularity in Russia is no surprise- after all, it’s pretty much the most translated piece of fiction in the world. In 1959, Nora Gal was the first to translate this book into Russian. Even today, it’s a common sight in any Russian-language bookstore.

In the article В чем секрет популярности «Маленького Принца»?, the author ranks Antoine de Saint-Exupéry up there with  Hemingway: Когда в 1959 году в журнале «Москва» впервые был опубликован «Маленький принц» в переводе Норы Галь, в стране начался настоящий бум. Экзюпери тут же стал такой же культовой фигурой, как и Хемингуэй.

You’ll even come across random references to the story, like this drawing on the “video not found” page of a major TV channel:

 

2. Older men -> kiss your hand?

Is this a real thing? It happened several times in Nizhny Novgorod. The most memorable time was when our group was touring churches. Instead of going with the rest of the students, my (girl)friend and I decided to wait outside the church. A stern-faced охрана eyed us from the entrance as we stood outside the church gates. After an awkward few minutes, he finally walked over and asked us what we were doing. His gruff demeanor totally changed when he heard our accents. “Americans! You know, I was a sailor back in the Soviet Navy. We were enemies then, weren’t we? And look at us standing here now!” This was followed by him excitedly taking our hands and kissing them. He wasn’t the first (or the last) to do this that summer.

 

3. The story of this bench

Take a good look at this bench.

If you look closely, there’s an entire story in this bench.

  1. The bench is bolted to the apartment building so that no one can steal it. But then…
  2. Someone steals parts of it anyway. Now no one can use it. But then…
  3. Someone brings their own materials to make a seat for others to use.

It’s possible, of course, that the bench was simply never finished but I like my version better because this story has played out over and over again in history. Some people steal light bulbs, building materials, staircase railings, and power lines to reuse or sell. Other people volunteer their own resources to come up with solutions.

A friend in Ukraine (the one who shared his stories on the topic here) was offline for a few days. When I asked him what happened, he said that someone stole the phone cable.

 

4. Remodeled apartments

Speaking of people, I’m always struck by pictures like this one.

Everyone lives in the same building yet you can read their incomes from the outside: who has new windows, who has an enclosed balcony, who has extra insulation/soundproofing on their walls, who has an air conditioner… and who doesn’t.

 

5. “наш

I encountered it first in Ukraine, this idea of наш, when seeing lots of billboards for things like the наше радио channel. But wherever there’s наш, there’s bound to be не наш. Walking through a park once with some friends, I heard the teenagers behind us say “Они не наши“. (I turned around and said “Нет, не ваши“. Is that bad? They looked shocked.) I saw this concept of наш often in Russia too, in names like наш супермаркет or Moscow’s торговый центр «НАШ».

 

6. русский / россиский

In a way, this relates to the idea of наш. You probably know that Russia has many different ethnic groups and languages. Sure, there’s the standard русский but there’s also россиский, which includes all every ethnicity: the Tatars, the Yakut, the Evenki, everyone. It’s like if the US government had a concept of American vs. United Statesian. Both groups are full citizens of the country but one group is less diverse/more diverse than the other. Or maybe you can think of a better explanation? (And then there’s also славянский, a discriminatory word often used in job ads and housing ads. Here’s an example I saw from someone renting out an apartment: только славянской внешности парню.)

On the other hand, sometimes the русский vs россиский distinction confuses me. Take this cheese, for example. We say русская еда, right? So why is it россиский сыр and not русский сыр? Is it some kind of politically-correct cheese?

 

7. Restaurant vs Cafe

There’s a very clear distinction between a cafe and a restaurant for many people.

“Hey, let’s go to a restaurant!”

“Oh no, I can’t.”

“Hey, let’s go to a cafe!”

“Sure, what time?”

Cafe or restaurant? This place was in the mall and serves бизнес ланч so I argue for cafe.

A cafe is simple, cheap, and ubiquitous. It’s not a fast-food kiosk (забегаловка) or a cafeteria (столовая) but it’s nothing you need to dress up for or stress over. A restaurant, however, is the real deal. It’s fancy, it usually requires planning, and you’d better show up looking nice. My mother-in-law was endlessly disappointed when we invited her to a “restaurant” for the first time… and the restaurant  turned out to be Chili’s Grill & Bar. In Ukraine, I asked my friend why he turned down my invite to go out to a certain restaurant. To me, it seemed like we always met at restaurants. “What? No, we don’t meet at restaurants. Those are just cafes!” It was the same story with Sveta in Russia.

 

8. Loans

Perhaps this is connected with those remodeled apartments…

“I wanted a loan so I got one!”

The US has plenty of loan advertisements and credit offers too- who doesn’t walk away from their mail box every day with at least one application?- but in Russia, wow. The bank ads were everywhere!

 

9. Stairs

See these rails in the ground? I don’t know what to call them or why it took so long to figure out what they’re for.

What are these things called?

They usually accompany an underground crossing, a metro entrance/exit, or an apartment building entrance/exit. They make it possible for people to get around with a baby stroller or folding utility cart, which gives you an idea of how common those items are in places where car ownership is limited.

 

10. Streets

Speaking of the stairs…

There’s a saying: В России две беды, и одна из них ремонтирует другую.

 

11. WWII is still a big deal… a really, really big deal

This is Славянка (A Slavic Woman), one of several hundred statues in Moscow’s Muzeon Park of Arts.

I can’t find any info about the statue online but I imagine it shows a woman saying goodbye to her husband, one of the millions of Soviet soldiers who never returned from the battlefields of World War II.

World War II was catastrophic beyond anything most westerners can imagine. The Soviet Experience in World War Two is a tragically fascinating read on this topic. (Really, please do read that article.) Millions and millions of people died, both soldiers and civilians. It wasn’t a matter of soldiers going off to war and civilians pulling double shifts to keep the country and military afloat. Instead, war came and knocked right on people’s front doors.

As an American, WWII seems like a distant, dusty horror. My parents never talk about it, my grandparents didn’t mention it, and it’s quietly fading away in our collective mentality. If we remember the war at all (do most people even know what a PT boat is?), it’s from  a single high-school history class or perhaps as a topic of interest among military history buffs.

This isn’t the case in many of the former Soviet countries.

The war- known in Russian as Великая Отечественная война (The Great Patriotic War)– lives on.

The surrender of the Nazis is commemorated with a Victory Day celebration every May 9th. *Cue footage of tanks rolling through Red Square* It’s more than just a military parade, though. In Brisbane, Seattle, Toronto, Manchester, Los Angeles, London, and many other cities, thousands of people carry family photographs in an event called бессмертный полк (the immortal regiment). Here are pictures from 2018’s бессмертный полк.

Meanwhile, all year long you’ll see cars with massive спасибо деду за победу! (Thanks for the victory, Grandpa!) stickers plastered across the rear window.

If a new TV miniseries comes out, there’s a good chance it’ll be yet another tale of that war.

My husband’s mother, whose first few years of life were shaped by the war, has stories of the war passed down from her own mother. When my husband thinks about WWII, it feels personal to him; although he was born 50 years after the war ended, he remembers stories of how neighboring families survived, who got sent where after the war, and who simply never came back.

 

If that Славянка statue were a song, it would definitely be this famous song: Прощание славянки (A Slavic Woman’s Farewell), often sung in tribute to those who fought in the war.

Прощай, отчий край,

Ты нас вспоминай,

Прощай, милый взгляд,

Не все из нас придут назад

Farewell, homeland,

remember us.

Farewell, o dear gaze,

not all of us will come back.

 

12. 4D (and up) theaters

Have you been to a 4D theater yet?

A 4D experience in a real movie theater is amazing. We saw Вий in a 4D movie theater in Ukraine. As the characters traveled across the country by horsecart, the chairs bucked and bounced under the audience. On-screen wind and rain were brought to life with small fans and water. You could even “smell” flowers, baking bread, etc (but I wouldn’t describe it as very authentic).

And then there’s the other kind of 4D experience, which is also called 5D, 7D, and 12D, though they all seem to be the same thing: you get strapped down by a bored attendant, a grimy headset is slipped over your face, and you “experience” 1992 computer graphics in a chair that could be nicknamed “whiplash-o-matic”.

These 4/5/7/12D rides must be popular since they’re everywhere. After seeing a thousand of them in Anapa, I came up with a genius idea… if 12D is good, 72D would be even better! (And the same thing, but hey.)

And then, just after I told my husband my idea, we saw that someone else had already beaten us to it.

Next to a usual 7D кинотеатр stood a 99D! How could my poor 72D ride compete? And thus ended my dream of starting a virutal reality business in Russia, haha.

 

 

What would you add to this list? What things have you noticed about Russian language and culture from your own language studies? Leave me a comment! 🙂

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