Daniel Brooks

We have a river near our house named the Istra. Over the weekend, I went swimming on a warm day and saw a young lad, about two years old, playing in the sand with a small yellow shovel. Several older children were in the river, swimming. Their parents kept up a stream of chatter about the children being cold and the need to warm up in the sun, right now. The two-year-old made the mistake of putting his feet into the river. In a nanosecond, his grandmother and mother were upon him. The mother snatched him up and began drying his feet with Grandma making sure escape was impossible. The little guy went nuts, wiggling, yelling and pointing at the beach. All he wanted to do was dig in the sand, but it was not allowed in the deadly cold water. He was a fighter but had no chance. His day at the beach was finished. All the other parents got into the act, the need to take action against the effect of cold water on children being contagious. They called out to their offspring saying, come back in the sun and warm up. I am glad I wasn’t them. 

Children in Russia are often gathered up by their parents if any kind of perceived threat is within visual range. It can be a car with its motor running, a hundred meters away. A dog on a leash in the next county could get loose and eat the child. A little person can be happily minding his own business and suddenly, the parent or grandparent ends all play after seeing something on the distant horizon that could be fatal. The thinking, apparently, is that you never know what might go wrong. Better safe, than sorry. I wonder if the lesson sinks in.  

I feel sorry for the cows. Since 2006, I have often walked past a dairy farm in our neighbourhood whose cows I have never seen. The cattle in Russia are often locked down, year-round. There are exceptions. Some cows have herders and they are able to wander around in the Russian countryside. These are the lucky few. In winter, things worsen. Russian cows are often banned from going outside in winter because it is believed that the cold weather is bad for them. A Dutch farmer once came to Russia and formed a herd of cattle. When winter came, he wanted to let his herd go outside. He was told by his Russian workforce that it wasn’t possible, because it was cold. When the Dutch guy asked why the cold was bad for the cattle, the answer was, that’s the way they did it. The Dutch farmer allowed the cows out in winter and they were fine. Not many farmers in Russia are from Holland. The other cattle, lacking Dutch ownership, are out of luck. I’d rather be a cow in Holland, any day.

Russians are sceptics. Most plans and facts are doubted. Often, the answer to a question about the future is “posmotrim”, meaning “we’ll see”. It is used similarly to “domani” in Italian or “mañana” in Spanish. The Spanish and Italian words mean “tomorrow”. The Russians don’t mess around with 24 hours; they are fully capable of putting matters off indefinitely. If “posmotrim” doesn’t work, they add “potom” which means “later”. Sometimes it’s better to see how things work out, the future being uncertain and the end, near. 

Behind rules for the sake of rules, excessive caution and potom-ism is an innate wish to be free to do anything at all. When given the chance in this country, it is seized upon, based on the assumption that the window of opportunity won’t stay open very long and things are about to get worse. The idea is to go long on procrastination and bet short when the moment arises. At that point, everyone asks, who let the cows out?

One of my neighbours managed a Russian bank for several years. When the bank came under investigation for various doubtful practices, our neighbour gave out sizeable loans to several companies with no business history and without obtaining any collateral or loan guarantees. This is known as a non-returnable loan, a practice that is recognized and understood in Russia. After the loans were issued, the bank went bankrupt. The bank, our neighbour and their lawyers have argued that no Russian law was broken because such loans in Russia are ostensibly not against the law. Last year, the assets of the managers and top shareholders of the bank were frozen by the courts pending a settlement with a number of account holders and other parties. One shareholder managed to buy land, several apartments, buildings and vehicles before her assets were frozen. A chunk of my neighbour’s assets are being held by the courts. He stands glowering outside his house, plotting ways to take over our gated community. His objective is to get his hands on the dues we pay for security and mowing the lawn. I should feel sorry for him, but I don’t. He believes our neighbourhood association is using its monthly association dues for illicit purposes and has socked away cash that no one knows about, as he did as a bank manager. Our neighbourhood community fees are a staggering 11000 roubles per month ($150 Dollars) per household, paid by forty homes. The guy needs to say “potom” more often. Either that or sell his house and leave. 

Hiccupping is a matter of concern. Many Russians have an unshakeable belief that one hiccup could lead to an onslaught of hiccupping that never ends. When someone hiccups, I’ve often seen Russians become concerned. The hiccupper is given water and provided with urgent instructions about ways to end a lifetime of hiccupping. I happen to enjoy a good hiccup and am glad that at the end of the day, I am not a Russian lad, cow or banker.

Copyright, 12 July 2020, Daniel Brooks

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