Sunday, 23 September 2012

Pesky Russians and their Pernickety Language

Russian problems
Russians are very precise. And also complicated and pretty weird. How do I know this? Well, many things clued me in, but a great example is their language. Below is my homework for this week.

Verbs about reading
Surprised? This should be easy: lire, leer, leggere, lesen, לִקְרוֹא (likro). Even Hebrew just has the one verb. Then there’s Russian:

читать – to read. This is the imperfective infinitive...okay, I can handle that.
почитать – to read a bit of
прочитать – to read to the end of
перечитать – to read over
дочитать – to read up to
вычитать  – to take away from a text
вчитаться – to analyse, think about, concentrate on
зачитать – to read to/aloud
зачитаться – to lose oneself in
отчитать – to give an account/report
начитаться – to have enough of reading. Extremely relevant here.

That’s just a taste of Russian linguistic precision, not to mention the conjugation, stress, pronunciation, different prepositions and cases required (not always the same case for the same preposition hahaha).

The real stinker is verbs of motion, otherwise known as VOM. Oh, Russia. Why can’t I simply tell you that I went to the shop, or to France without considering the effort it will take, deciding against talking to you at all and eloping with Spain?

What does Spain have that I don't have? You tell me, Russia...
Spain lets me ir however I want. I don't have to consider the mode of transport, regularity and intentions behind my journey. I also don't need to convey whether my journey was a return trip, whether I went directly to my destination, stopped off, or wandered, or the actual directions my journey took (round? across? along? past? up to? etc...). Once I've figured all this out, I then have to consider the right prefix to put on the right conjugation of the right aspect of the right verb with the right preposition with the right case. 

This alleviates the inadequacy I've been feeling lately, having spent 2 years studying Russian and still being unable to say simple sentences to people. I only just noticed the vast improvement in my Russian when I don't have to use verbs of motion. I'm also now wondering whether I now pay more attention to the details of my journeys, as Russians must with the linguistic influence. 

Don't even get me started on Russian numbers. There is no need to say years as 'In one thousand, eight hundred and forty-sixth year'(prepositional case) or 'On the 3rd of march, one thousand, seven hundred and eighty-second year'(all genitive, thank you) - stop punishing yourselves! Especially as you have to conjugate both cardinal and ordinal numbers according to case and gender. Apparently Russians just avoid this in daily speech, but I have to do it anyway, because...

It's difficult enough learning a language that, imported European words aside, is entirely different from your own. It's difficult to recall words and it's nigh on impossible to guess their meaning without obvious context. This is not helped by the fact that most of their nouns end in some kind of '-ение': '-шение', '-щение', '-чение', '-тение', '-ление', '-мение' and '-нение' aren't easily distinguishable when you're put on the spot.

Also I have to say, the argument that English is difficult because of its strange colloquialism, spelling that differs heavily from the pronunciation of words and multitude of words that have many different meanings, or words that sound the same but are spelt differently, falls kind of flat with respect to Russian. While it may be phonetic, there are many sounds that are alien to English speakers, who then discover that many letters have a completely different sound depending on their stress or position in the word.

 Otherwise, Russia has all the same linguistic traps, as well as grammar that is completely different to other European (Edit: Romantic! DUH) languages. For example, 'угол' - corner and 'уголь' - coal. Or 'пол' - floor, gender, sex, Paul. Even having previously studied Latin only gets you so far.

There is a verb for 'to have', but it's not commonly used. Instead you say 'у меня' - 'to me' + object. There are no words for 'the' or 'a'. If you want to say you don't have something you say 'у меня нет' or just 'нет' (+ genitive, of course) - I have no/There is no. To say 'there is', you use the infinitive of the verb to be, 'есть', which also means 'to eat'. 

If you want to tell the time, you need to remember that you need a different case depending on whether you're using the number 1, 2/3/4, or 5-0. And that's just to tell time by the hour. If you want to be more specific than that (and it's Russian, of course you do) you use a different structure depending on whether it's 1-30 minutes past the hour, or 29-1 minutes to the hour. 

Simple, you say? Not so fast - the ordinal numbers are back! For example, 'ten past five' is translated as 'ten minutes of the sixth hour'. So, not only can I not tell time, I'm going to be an hour late for everything. 

 I haven't even touched upon the many different adjectives divided by gender and hard/soft consonants (different endings, different sounds, doing it all wrong) and conjugated by case and number. Or on the participles that are doubled in number by short/long form - totally necessary to lop off that last syllable in very specific circumstances. 

I will admit that you have to just acclimatise and accept that to speak this language, you have to let go of your surprise at the onslaught of linguistic pitfalls. Much like trying to get used to living in Russia, actually. It's all just very, very different. Nevertheless, I still get the urge to photocopy this rant and liberally distribute it to all the Russians who patronise me when I stumble. That means you, 10 year old girl that I taught today. Four years of English won't help you understand this!

She's still way better than me...

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Peacocks, Georgians and the Real Reason for Banyas

Food>Peacock. Even with that 7ft of tail
The above is a perfect example of what does not happen in Russia. Yes? This is the exact opposite of what I'm going to write about. I say write about, this is mostly just captioned pictures. Relaaaax.

To put it delicately, Russian men are generally less attractive than their female compatriots. To put it more bluntly:
Okay, point made. But really, it's a strange phenomenon. The Russian student I lived with in Kazan' told me that Russian men are 'ugly and stupid' and that Russian girls love Georgians (who were apparently permanently clustered in one bar in that city, but I never investigated further).

As a point of reference, Georgians look like this:
Irakli Kakabadz
Some other guy
There is also a serious shortage of men here. Go into any school, shop, library or museum and a male worker will stand out like a sore thumb, unless they're one of the beefy security guards by the door. 

This explains Russian women's penchant for Western men with Western passports and dressing like this:
Annual high heel race, downtown Moscow
It's not at all unusual to see beautiful women with ugly men, Russian or Western. This was more remarkable in Kazan', but the lack of men means that women are the peacocks - even very attractive ones have to dress up all the time to compete for the rare men. In Russia, beautiful women chase you.

The general consensus among all the foreigners I know is that there is also a big discrepancy between attractive Russian girls and the remaining ones. On first impression, there seems to be no middle ground between:

However, once you've spent some time in Russia and more importantly around some actual Russians, you notice that there is a sliding scale of beauty just like there is in the West. 

As quite a few Russians are staring at us on the street and occasionally addressing us in English when we've been silent, my roommate and I have been trying to decipher what makes a person look Russian - and therefore, what is giving us away.

So far, we've come up with:
  • Large domed forehead
  • Small eyes
  • Flat cheekbones
  • Narrow, long nose
  • Long cleft
  • Big lips
  • Small chin

Some of which can be observed on this polite articleAnd there was me thinking banyas existed only to cure hangovers...

According to the Internet, these are the average faces of Russia:
Fairly accurate
Then again, I'm not sure about this lady...
Just to clarify, I don't spend all my time in Russia peering at the locals like they're some kind of anthropological exhibit. However, I do feel like I might be one and not just because I'm darker than them. 

It's definitely an entertaining pursuit if not a worthwhile one, closely examining the integral differences between our countries. And anyway, attractiveness is not a bad stereotype to have. Consider the first Google Image hit for 'English girls':

Okay. Maybe the staring does make sense.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Russians Who Have Shouted At Me

It's been a bad 24 hours for Russian relations. Putin is expelling US Aid from the country, aliens have struck again and I seem to have inadvertently made a few people angry. However, with some helpful adjustments, hopefully I won't make these mistakes in future:

Lesson One: When using any kind of automatic machine, have a quick look at the area surrounding it. There just might be a large sign saying THIS MACHINE DOES NOT GIVE CHANGE and you will feel quite silly when the resident babushka who has to open the safe to give you change is tapping it and ranting.

Lesson Two: If in doubt, do nothing and find the nearest friendly babushka. Babushkas are only friendly if you don't piss them off first, and helplessness is much cuter than stupidity.

Lesson Three: Babushkas can hold a serious grudge - as learned by Laundry Babushka's gruffness on our return 2 hours later. Next time I do laundry will be in disguise.

Lesson Four: Pay everything in exact change. Russian cashiers are forever short of change, and very reluctant to part with large sums of it. The best places to cash your 1000r (£20) notes are in supermarkets/large chains - you will get laughed out of the Produkty for having even a 500r (£10) note. Don't even think about it.

Lesson Five: If you can't adhere to Lesson Four, either get good at understanding cashiers (they mumble, a lot) or hold out a selection of shrapnel when they ask you for extra change. It is not fun being told 'No girl, eleven - ten plus one is eleven'. 

Lesson Six: Cyrillic slogan t-shirts can be provocative. However funny 'Say No to Vodka' is (very funny, obviously), even wearing one briefly on laundry day draws a lot of stares and apparently makes you look puritanical rather than ironic and hilarious. It may also cause a drunk to slur at you, '[something I didn't catch] to/for your husband, remember that'. 

Lesson Seven: When using a communal shower, timing is of the essence. If you choose to shower at 10am on your day off, assuming everyone with urgent plans has left already, apparently 10 minutes is your maximum. Remember to lock the door because inevitably a Russian will try to come in, THEN bang on the door to say you're taking too long.

Lesson Eight: If you see a man with a singular large dreadlock, a cowboy hat and boots and a badge saying 'I am against Putin' - avoid, avoid, avoid. This has not been learnt the hard way.

Lesson Nine: Russians like to throw small change at various statues and fountains. This can prove relatively lucrative if you wait around for people to leave (ploy of a lot of babushkas).

Lesson Ten: You are a foreigner, you must acclimatise, even when things seem set up to annoy you. For example, 
  • Nearly every Russian consonant/vowel pronounced completely differently to what seems logical
  • Needing a stamped official document to do the simplest of things, ie buy a dongle, or get a library card.
  • The local hypermarket alternately playing the first 15 seconds of this
with lion roars. Inexplicable? Yes. Annoying? You have no idea...
  • Dill on EVERYTHING from soup to sushi to pizza. The word we thought meant dill, 'zelen'' actually means herbs. It's just used synonymously, which says a lot.
  • The same Russian who nagged you about the shower will turn up in the corridor soon after in a group of people chanting, waving yellow scarves and shouting 'Ooooohhh!' for a lot longer than 10 minutes.
  • Russian drains can't break down loo roll, so you follow the 'urgent request' signs and put it in a bin next to the toilet. A certain 'crew' I know would seriously appreciate this.
  • At any time there could be a brass band outside your window. Expect the unexpected. Otherwise, expect it when you have a hangover.
Nevertheless, I caught myself drinking black tea, eating cold sprats and gnawing on a hunk of bread the other day. Then I realised my idea of going native is an animalistic lack of table manners. Mnye zhal', Russia...

Monday, 17 September 2012

The Russian 'Dusha' in The Window to Europe

Surprisingly microcosmic
The cultural and political capital of Russia has been called both the 'most artificial city in the world' by Dostoevsky and a 'window to Europe' by Pushkin, two fundamental figures in the adoption of the idea of the Russian 'dusha'. 

Most accurately translated as 'soul', the concept of an innate Russian identity originated in Gogol's publication of 'Dead Souls', a reference to landlords' accounting term for 'serfs' as 'souls' - which seems exaggeratedly cold. It's remarkable then, that this variety of Russian nationalism was equally influenced by German Romanticism and serfdom. 
Portrait of A.S. Pushkin by the Romantic artist and former serf, Vasilii Alexandrovich Tropinin
 Slavophilism gained in popularity in the 19th century, in the wake of a society split between those pro-Westernisation and the traditionalists. 

After such progressive leaders as Peter the Great, Alexander I and the famous Francophile Catherine II, who made French the aristocratic language, a revival of Russian nationalism was needed beyond the 'Official Nationality' of Emperor Nicholas I.
Ekaterina II, with various male officials under her feet
Rather than strict adherence to 'orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality', the quest to find the Russian 'dusha', the integral spirit common and unique to all Russians, was a more sensitive nationalism, an attempt to pinpoint what was already tangible.

The very infrastructure of the city is undeniably European (while sadly Russian in its lack of maintenance). You could be forgiven for forgetting that you're not in Paris or Prague among the ornate, pastel-coloured terraced buildings and occasional accordion player.
Due to the many canals, Peter originally intended the main form of transport to be by boat, as in Amsterdam and Venice. This is not the case - Russian marshrutki, tramvai and trolleybusi are the main transports aside from the ornate metro (very deep underground to avoid the layers of swamp - nice one Peter).

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of literature from around the 1840s onwards in the formation of the Russian 'dusha', regarding both the circulation of the concept and its firm establishment in Russian culture. While the city itself looks European, there are widespread homages to both writers and fictional characters throughout the city.

Mikhail Yureevich Lermontov
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky
Mayor Kovalev's nose - a character from Gogol's famous short story, 'Nose'
Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin, head of the Russian dusha (and he knows it)
The arts in general are at the forefront of modern Russian life. At the moment, an operatic interpretation of Evgeniy Onegin is being performed at the Mikhailovsky Theatre, a poema of Pushkin linked to the protagonist in Medniy Vsadnik, the epic poem about Peter the Great and St Petersburg. 

Additionally; ballet, opera, classical music performances are all frequented not just by the highly educated elite but beloved by a significant proportion of Russians (in an already large population). Unlike Westerners, Russians are well-versed in the creative fruits of their country, particularly literature, by the time they leave school. 

It is hardly a secret that under the Soviet Union, which emphasised a delineated Russian identity, there was an absolute rejection of the 'bourgeois' adoption of European customs/languages - and obviously travel was almost impossible. The city's saintly namesake, who held the key to (European) heaven makes the political changes even more pertinent.

I find modern Russia a pastiche of strong traditions of orthodoxy, palaces, Soviet architecture and memorials, alongside a new influx of European brands, chains and cuisine; hence the multitude of dill-coated sushi in all Russian cities. 

Kazan' Cathedral
Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood: so no one can walk on the assassination site. Look familiar?
At the moment, there seems to be an attempt to Russify certain English things that have been adopted. For example, Russians seem to be keen to distinguish between 'Inostrannie slova' (parlament, restoran, taksi) and their Russian equivalents. 

Although us English have no problem adopting foreign terms as our own, I think this is linked to a)the many different invaders who have colonised us and bastardised our language and b)the lingering imperial sense of linguistic superiority - ie, "I will say 'café' on a regular basis, but refuse to learn French."

Mikhailovsky gardens. Russian: 'Urgent request - don't walk on the grass!' 
There are also some commercial examples of this: as any Westerner in Russia will tell you, the closest you can get to a normal flavour of crisp is 'green onion'. Others include 'sour cream and dill', 'dill and cucumber', 'sour cream and mushrooms' and 'crab' (the living worst: tastes like moist, mushy crab).
An example more of rather nouveau riche taste than russification (classic English snobbery from me) is the decoration in the nice part of town. One particular street off Nevsky Prospekt, 'Malaya Sadovaya' is a wonderful mix of ostentatiously proud architecture and fake grass. 

I definitely thought these were real
They also have some statues in line with the quaint Petersburg interactive traditions - my favourites commemorate the role of cats post-World War II in fighting the rodents.
Pretty proud kitty
People throw kopecks at their sitting for good luck
Cannot remember who this is - but rubbed his nose and sat down for luck
I would argue that modern St Petersburg has elements of Petrine Euro-focused policy about it. With Russia righting itself after years of Communist dictatorship, it is natural to look to previously outlawed Western commerce. Still, a lot of people work 7 days a week and there is a flat 13% tax rate for everyone, regardless of income. 

Although St Petersburg is known for being not exactly welcoming to minorities, it is certainly an international city. This lovely artist above was chatting to some tourists who were admiring his work in a mix of Chinese and English, telling them that it was cloudy when he started painting the church so his rendition was slightly different from the reality.

Nowadays rather than providing a window onto European 'heaven', St Petersburg seems to me to be a gentle introduction to the previously alien and totally mysterious expanse that is Russia. 
Attempt to provide a more thematic post turns me into a pretentious dryballs. Pity the fool who has to read my essays...

Sunday, 16 September 2012


The story of the crushing disappointment of a poorly-planned attempted excursion.
One hungover morning, we awoke to the news that two creepy Russian men sitting on our floor of the hostel -having made it through the gate, past reception and up three flights of stairs - were accosting sleepy passers-by, animatedly trying to find two of our friends that had gone out (to a Stolovaya) the night before. Being the sensible people that we are, we pointedly avoided their room, texting and calling around to warn them. 

About an hour later, we found out that after one of the Russian guests tried to point out their room (creepy enough), the Russian receptionist had gone downstairs to look up the right room number and given it to the two men. Why is it Russian workers are suddenly really helpful in the most inappropriate circumstances?

Anyway, our extremely hungover friends opened the door to be gifted with a pineapple, strawberries, champagne and a SIM card. Apparently when they were extremely drunk the night before, they'd stormed out of the Stolovaya having had enough of the locals' forwardness, to be followed by the security guards at said cafeteria, who presumably spent the rest of the night sourcing exotic presents and generally being creepy.

My roommate and I, after our 'ice-cream, wine and Bridesmaids' night, were feeling fairly under the weather, but we all perked up enough to set off to see Peterhof, residence of Peter the Great and the biggest tourist attraction in St Petersburg. There was a festival on Friday and Saturday night to mark both 200 years since Russia's victory over Napoleon and shutting off the fountains.

Not sure if like Fireworks' Night or they need to get over it...
We trudged off through the ornate Metro stations (apparently it's a criminal offence to take photos) and after some negotiating with the locals, found the right marshrutka (minibus) for 'Petergof'. It was quite refreshing to get out of the city and see some ugly buildings for once and reminiscent of the countryside in Kazan. 

That is, until we found ourselves on a dirt track through the forest, with the whispered news that our hungover friend at the front of the marshrutka was being sick out the window. We were quite disconcerted when the marshrutka slowly pulled over, worried we would all be unceremoniously left in the forest as punishment. Luckily, my roommate had just bravely gone out to find our chundering friend's glasses, which had fallen off her face as she had lunged out the window. Unluckily, there was a resounding 'nyet' as she returned, and we drove off, leaving the glasses somewhere in the forest.

Rather than being a result of her heavy night before, we found out she had been drinking cold water from the dispenser marked 'Only hot water' - leaving her queasy and a bit frail for the rest of the day. We soon found a place to eat - the familiar-sounding 'Pizza Express'. On entering, there were three drunk and mistrustful Russians to our right, and one on our left, slumped on a table and later dragged out by the police. The pizza we ordered was exactly what we needed, but we beat a hasty retreat when we realised that the toy gun our neighbour was fiddling with was real.

Finally, we made it into Peterhof! The grounds at the front were free entry and there were many brides taking advantage of this to take pictures. 

The fountains were absolutely beautiful and we were all excited to see the extensive collection inside the 'Lower Park', which were what we'd really come to see.

We slowly made our way through the grounds, leisurely taking pictures until we reached the ticket offices which were definitely closed. Then a sign was put up, informing us that the offices had closed at 14.00 and would reopen at 17.30. It was 14.30. 

Having for some reason got up at 8.30 that morning with a swilling hangover, I was less than pleased at this information. However, we decided that since we'd come such a long way, we could kill 3 hours meandering around the immediate area. 

We attempted to find some pavilions that the guidebook reliably informed us were just up the road (they weren't). Instead, we found a pond and some local wildlife.

We did find a cathedral that was a copy of St Basil's in Moscow and after finding various ways to cover our heads, we went inside. 

Not St Basil's
The interior was typical of Russian orthodox churches - every inch of the walls and ceiling was daubed with paintings of icons, along with gilded frames and statues of more icons. It was interesting to note the old Russian alphabet used a lot more Greek letters before it evolved into modern Cyrillic. Women with covered heads crossed themselves and bowed while we shuffled through the candlelit silence in awe at the overwhelming decoration and trying to stop our headscarves from falling off. 

When we were done with the church, we discovered for a small donation of 50r (£1), we could ascend a rickety staircase for a panoramic view of Peterhof and a collection of icons. Aside from the overall instability of the staircase, they had helpfully made it look like scaffolding and blocked out most of the light.

Not scary at all
When we reached the top we were met with a charming whitewashed tower, that we assumed was the main dome. There were a lot of plants, a lot of light and a beautiful ceiling, in stark contrast to that stupid staircase.

We also discovered that the 'panoramic view of Peterhof' actually meant 'panoramic view of the immediate boring area, which was the whole reason we came up here but we're so bored we'll take it anyway'. There were some lovely and mysterious rooms that felt like peering into someone's attic and finding a startling collection of Jesus paraphernalia.

I did manage to get a picture of the cathedral overlooking the 'Hotel Complex', a seeming retreat for the Peter-emulating oligarchy, where we presumed you get your own hotel. Of course. 

Lots of Hummers outside there. Lots of bling.
Once we'd squeezed all the fun out of the cathedral, we gave up and went back to wait by Peterhof, in the café. We were all looking forward to giving our feet a rest and getting a hot chocolate 'without milk' for 80r (£2), which seemed fair considering we would eschew the milky kind for the thick, melted chocolate anyway. 

What we actually got was the disappointingly small instant kind, made with hot water. Like the kind we drink back at our hostel, but smaller. Peterhof strikes again.

We attempted to kill more time by using their free wi-fi, going for a wander to the toilet (20r. Gah!) and exploring the mini-market (absolutely nothing to see there, it was a shop). 

The Russians are coming!
There was a brief glimmer of excitement from the parade of policemen that marched by. We took lots of pictures and tried not to get arrested. Though to be fair, that would definitely have killed some time.

Eventually, we followed the cunning Russians who started queuing an hour before the desks were due to open (Soviet-era smarts, anyone?) and queued from 16.45 to 17.30. In this time, our feet and ankles got sorer, we noticed a few Russians with handfuls of large, autumn sycamore leaves and it started to rain. 

By this point, we were all laughing (a lot) at the failure that was this day and imagining what else could go wrong. Our guess that only one ticket desk would open and it wouldn't be our one was totally wrong. We didn't imagine that once the desks did open, rather than the 200r we were expecting, the price would be 500r 'for all categories of citizen'. Ie, no student discounts. 

We discussed it and decided that it was worth a tenner to go inside even though we'd be too tired to stay for the show at 21.30 (and have no way of getting back). We got our tickets gruffly and with brevity so they wouldn't spot our foreignness and double the prices - yes, they actually do that.

Then, the excitement picked up - large speakers were blasting the 1812 ouverture, men in long overcoats lined the steps and through the bustling crowds we could make out gold statues, fine architecture and carefully sculpted grounds. One question remained: why were the fountains not working?
It quickly became apparent that the one thing we had really come there to see, that would have made the entire day worthwhile had been wrenched away from us. It hadn't occurred to us that a festival to celebrate the fountains being turned off would occur after the fountains had already been turned off. 

Nevertheless, we were in, finally and we set about trying to make the most of it. We were followed down the path by the Lord of the Rings-esque battle music, with really intimidating drums, and then dubstep, because this is Russia.

The gardens really were pretty, but it was difficult not to be somewhat bitter:
'Water Avenue', with significantly less water
Probably quite nice when it's less slimy
Little house with no moat
Ugliest fountain...ever
Until we found this one round the corner
We also met two girls called Nastya and Masha on the Gulf of Finland who told us our Russian was bad and took our emails. Hopefully the start of a beautiful friendship. We did have a great time getting out of the city though and even without water, the grounds are seriously impressive. Highlights being:
The gardens
This ridiculous thing
The Gulf of Finland - Finland is the dark blue line. You can't see it but I saw it and it was great.
Red squirrel/Bigfoot
This fricking mushroom
Leaf-fight therapy
The fountains came back on!
We all got given free flags and were surrounded by Russians loudly lecturing their children about the Russian victory - I still think get over it.
Mine broke after about 5 minutes. Thanked my stars Russia's a democracy now.
There was a respite from the onslaught of disappointments on the way home, apart from managing to get the exact same marshrutka with the exact same driver (bit embarrassing for some). 

Then we ran all the way home and I slept for about twelve hours. 

Edit: We have since found out we managed to pick the one day the fountains weren't on before they get properly turned off in October. There are no words.