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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Pocketbooks are not the only Impoverished Thing in Russia

The Moscow Times reports that not only Russian pocketbooks but also Russian vocabularies are impoverished by the failure of the USSR (which Russians are now feverishly trying to repeat):

Russians, it seems, have a big problem. It's not the U.S. missile defense shield or Iran or plunging energy markets. They don't know to talk to one another.

In pre-revolutionary times, men were gospodin, sudar or barin (sir); and women were gospozha, sudarynya or barynya (madam). The communists simplified things, addressing everyone as tovarishch (comrade) or grazhdanin (citizen) or, for women, grazhdanka.

Alas, what are people living in post-tsarist, post-Soviet Russia supposed to call one another?

Fashion historian Alexander Vasilyev, who lectures frequently on etiquette at Moscow-area institutes and has designed costumes for the stage in the United States, Chile and elsewhere, said Russian manners had been decimated by decades of communism.

"We don't have polite address now because in 1917 there was the revolution, and the Bolsheviks, who were uneducated people with peasant roots, came to power," Vasilyev said.

No matter who's to blame -- communists, oligarchs, the FSB -- the reality is that many in Russia today, and especially foreigners seeking to fit in, have problems addressing one another -- at supermarkets, on street corners, and in the metro.

Elise Woirhaye, 25, from Reims, France, was shocked, she said, by the rudeness of Russians calling each other "man" and "woman." "I also don't like it when people call me 'girl,'" said Woirhaye, a lawyer at the human rights group Memorial. "It would be better not to say anything at all."

Fellow expat Alan Broach, 54, of London, was similarly astonished by the crassness of local conversation. "People often say 'Where's this?' or 'Where's that?'" said Broach, a partner at Deloitte's Moscow office. "I think it's very rude. In Britain, we'd never speak like that."

Psychologists and linguists agree that forms of address in post-Soviet Russia lack a certain polish and that this alters how people encounter and think about one another. Marina Konovalenko, a Moscow psychologist, said the Russian vernacular "shows that in this society, there is no respect for the person as an individual."

Leonid Krysin, head of the modern Russian department at the Vinogradov Institute of Russian Language, appeared to agree with Konovalenko. The current reliance on terms such as "man" and "woman," Krysin said, irons out social differences among people. Russian, he added, is one of the only modern languages without a polite form of address.

Still, Russian retains an emotional depth that is perhaps missing from other languages, said Maxim Kronhaus, director of the Institute of Linguistics at Russian State Humanitarian University.

Russians, Kronhaus said, often use terms like "mother," "father," "daughter" and "son" when speaking with complete strangers. Older Russians also tend to favor tender diminutives such as synok (sonny) and dochka (little girl, lamb or sweetie pie).

"This indicates that Russian culture is emotionally warm, compared, for example, with the emotionally colder British culture," Kronhaus said.

There have been attempts in recent years to reintroduce gospodin and gospozha, among other forms of address, but the country has yet to settle on a new etiquette.

ROMIR Monitoring, a Moscow-based polling firm, found in a 2003 survey that there was wide disagreement among Russians about how best to speak to one another.

According to the poll, which included 1,570 respondents, 29 percent of Russians still use the word tovarishchi, despite the word having fallen out of fashion during the perestroika era. Another 15 percent prefer grazhdane (citizens); 9 percent like damy i gospoda (ladies and gentlemen); and 1 percent prefer sudari i sudaryni (ladies and gentlemen), especially in the Urals.

What's more, older people, not surprisingly, prefer Soviet throwbacks like "comrades" while younger business people take to "ladies and gentlemen."

Nadezhda Taratsevskaya, 56, an engineer from the Moscow region town of Noginsk, tries to avoid using "woman" when addressing elderly women and prefers "girl" when speaking with a young woman. As for men, everyone is a "young man" to Taratsevskaya. "Some think it's a joke," she said. "But I can't say 'man.' I don't know why."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mail sent to the blogger:
"My name is Elise Woirhaye and I've just found, by accident, on your blog an article given by me to the Moscow Times on 24 February, 2007. (link:
In this article, I explain the reasons why I don't always like the way to address to people in the street in Russia. You use my name for a cause that I don't subscribe and I don't agree with.
Considering that I don't subscribe to your point of view and the goal of your blog, I require that you delete the part of the article where my name is mentioned from your blog.

Waiting for a positive answer from you and an immediate reaction,


Elise Woirhaye"