Russian questions, American answers

Daniel Brooks

Most Russians are happy to have a chin wag with a Russian speaking American. The conversations are almost always friendly. Some of the questions I get are challenging and others are difficult to answer. At times, I get into absurd arguments, although I shouldn’t. Other times, to keep the peace, I agree to disagree. Over the years, I have found that answering a certain way can put complicated questions to rest.

I recently met a Russian who told me, “there is no such thing as an American”. I have heard this from time to time in Russia over the years. It gets my goat. I’ve become involved in several fruitless and emotional arguments, claiming an American is an American regardless of any kind of mixed ancestry. Often, my fellow Russian conversationalists are not swayed. They shake their heads and say, sorry, there is no such thing as an American.  When a foreigner gets agitated in an argument, it’s icing on the cake. Watching foreigners and especially Americans defend themselves has to be great fun. There is a better way.

Artist’s impression of a Scythian and his horse. Reconstruction by D V Pozdnjakov

Sometimes I claim to be ‘NP’. This means ‘neopredelonaya poroda’ (undetermined breed). I add that the same is true for my dog, who is a mutt. If bringing up ‘NP’ doesn’t do the trick, I say there is most certainly such a thing as a Russian despite the involvement and invasions of the Scythians, Norse, Mongols, Poles, Lithuanians, French, Germans and others in Russia. Not to mention the 186 or more ‘ethnic’ nationalities within Russia’s borders and the 6.5% of the population that are Muslims. No intermingling with the Slavic people of Russia took place. Usually, at this point in the discussion, most Russians admit that within every Russian, a Mongol lurks.

In Russia I’ve been told that Americans don’t speak English. True English is spoken by Brits, not lesser types in the ex-colonies. I should ignore these comments and sometimes, I do. However, I sometimes take the bait and argue. My arguments don’t make much of a difference. I have learned instead to deliver a short lecture, saying British English is the benchmark. Canadian and New Zealand accents are second best. American English comes in last, just behind Australian. Meanwhile, most American and Brits somehow find ways to talk to each other without the use of a dictionary. I point out that when I’m in the UK and someone cuts loose, usually after a few drinks, there are moments when I don’t understand a word. If an American goes north in the British Isles and finds himself in Scotland, having a pint, he might as well be in Norway. This small lecture is usually accepted, and the conversation moves on. I’m off the hook.

Sometimes I am asked to explain a complicated English grammatical rule to prove my English is not up to par. I was recently challenged to define the difference between present progressive and present perfect simple. I had no idea. The thing to do is to respond in rapid fire English. Often, those asking such questions don’t understand much English. What they know are grammatical rules.

I’ve heard in Russia that America has no soul whereas Russia does. The concept of having a Russian soul is firmly believed whereas many, mostly ‘western’ countries either lack a soul entirely or don’t have much of one. The Russian soul is felt by many to be unique and it keeps the country stitched together. Russians find a way to be part of a collective, come what may. At most work places, employees get together frequently to celebrate birthdays, holidays or Wednesday. Holidays at home involve a lot of people and everyone sits around for hours, spending time being soulful. At these gatherings, the Russian soul can be felt.  It’s everywhere in the country, in the literature, culture and historical consciousness. Denying its existence is difficult, not to mention bad form. If Russians believe they have a soul and other countries don’t, so be it.  I’ve found that arguing about it won’t change anything.

In Russian, the word for soul (dusha) is similar to the word shower (dush). If someone in Russia says your nation has no soul, act offended, as if you are gearing up to get into a pointless, emotional debate. Build up their appetite for the slaughter, then disappoint them. Say, not true. Americans take a shower (prinimayut dush) every day. Sometimes two (dva dusha). We Americans take our showers seriously. This is a letdown for anyone wanting to bicker pointlessly.  It does, however, get the job done.

Another approach is to steer the conversation in another direction. Ask about the difference between the Russian soul (russkaya dusha) and the Russian spirit (russkii dykh). The conversation invariably veers off into a discussion about traditions, history and all sorts of other confusing topics. Forgotten is the American soul. That’s just as well, since there is no such thing.

I’m often asked why I live in Russia, rather than in the US, especially by taxi drivers. Let us be clear; the US is not universally perceived as the land of milk and honey. Americans have no soul, speak garbled English and are a mongrel race. On the other hand, it is widely seen as a place where a few bucks can be earned, a factor that can trump the other ones. Why live in Russia when it’s possible to move to Seattle at any time?

The logic of living in Russia during the rollicking nineties and the booming 2000’s was more or less self-evident and could be explained. Russia was the flavour of the month, a country where foreigners came in droves to do big things. Now we’re coming up on the 2020’s, a decade that hasn’t been given a name yet. The number of foreigners in the country has dwindled. The term ‘stagnation’ is making a comeback. Perhaps we are entering the stagnate 20’s? Let’s hope not. Lately, I have been pointing out that counter-intuitive thinking has its merits. The consensus seems to be that the Russian economy will be flat for years to come. Counterintuitive thinking would dictate it won’t be. This is usually met with scepticism. That’s fine. The fewer people who go against the grain of accepted thinking, the better. Events unfold in ways we don’t expect. Meanwhile, if some daft American thinks life will improve dramatically in Russia, let him.

Fewer and fewer Americans are wandering the streets of Moscow or riding on Russia’s trains. An American is becoming an endangered species. On a recent train ride from Moscow to St Petersburg, I took the Sapsan. This is Russia’s new bullet train that reaches high speeds and goes between Russia’s two biggest cities in just four hours. A vast number of kilometres are covered, equal to the width of Belgium, multiplied two and a half times. Belgium, as we all know, is the standard European unit of measuring distances, second only to the metric system. How many Belgiums have we travelled so far, ma? Coming up on three.

Before the Sapsan was built, the best way to go to St Petersburg was on the night train, with travellers arriving dishevelled at the crack of dawn after having been given a free cup of black tea with sugar and lemon in a glass cup and silver cup holder, just before pulling into the station. The slow trains still run and if anyone wants the romance of gently swaying trains, sweet tea and the smell of the train tracks, it can be experienced.

I recommend taking the Sapsan during the day. As it barrels down the track, ancient villages with mismatched buildings, grey apartment blocks, shopping centres and factories made of concrete blocks are interspersed between lakes and deep, dark forests. Beer is served on the Sapsan with salty snacks. My favourite is Czech beer with pistachios. The salted herring with boiled potatoes and pickled onions isn’t half bad (a sign of having spent too much time in Russia). Combine these ingredients with a foreigner on the train and a conversation breaks out.  The time inevitably comes to say that I am an American. A moment of silence follows. The Russians are thinking, is this American working for the government? I say, yes, I am a spy. Not to worry, the recording devices have been turned off. Nothing will go into the report, except for the declassified data. Hence this article.

Daniel Brooks, Copyright, 11 November 2018