The gloriously surreal phrase that forms the title of this and last week’s article is just the tip of the iceberg where Russian idioms and phrases are concerned. There’s an absolute goldmine of good stuff – and it’s only reasonable to share some of it!
In spite of the stereotypical stoney-faced Russian demeanour; absurd humour plays a role within the culture and tends to ‘come out’ through various modes of speech. A lot of it is contextual and makes sense only in a post-Soviet system where memories linger and humour was/is an armour. In other words: ‘you had to be there’ as some of it is untranslatable or means little to the rest of us.
Yes, Russians do smile, even laugh – but you may not understand why, and such behaviour may only be reserved for the ‘right time’. However, the idioms and phrases at large betray the humour behind the unflinching, detached façade and give clues as to what is going ‘back there’.
Conversely, some of their idioms fit perfectly within our Western mentality, lending an immediate familiarity that paradoxically feels strangely out of place considering the non-Western origins. Perhaps we are not so different? Perhaps. Consider the following, translated directly from Russian:
“Altyn thief hung and Poltinnik honor(ed)”
The words Altyn and Poltinnik are common names for monetary amounts of 3 and 50 Kopecks (hundredths of a Ruble) respectively. So with a little more ‘Westernisation’, it becomes: “The thief of an Altyn is hung (but) the thief of a Poltinnik is honoured”. We may not have an equivalent phrase, but this resonates perfectly with certain Western views on the fate of the banking fraternity et al, compared to that of the ‘little guy’ when it comes to crime and punishment.
Oddly enough, a Bob Dylan lyric for his track Sweetheart Like You (1983) contains an almost perfect translation (who’d have thought it?):
“Steal a little and they throw you in jail, Steal a lot and they make you king”
So: Bob Dylan channels Communist Russia, McCarthy would have had an aneurysm. Frankly though; a brief look at our respective modern histories should indicate just what “absolute power” does – whichever side of the cultural divide you are on. It’s reassuring when we discover that another cultures wants similar things and opposes similar evils to our own, even if the spoken manifestation of such ideas is couched in terms that are initially alien. Take for instance:
“In Tula with his samovar don’t drive”
What could this possibly mean to a Westerner? Well, the word order is confusing for starters,
“No driving to Tula with his own samovar” would untangle it somewhat but further illumination is needed. When Russian’s talk of “going somewhere”, the default understanding is to ‘take a ride’ there, hence our equivalent: ‘drive’. To illustrate that you were travelling on foot would require additional clarification. That’s just the way it is.
“Samovar’ is out of our common cultural vocabulary, being an item usually found in central/Eastern Europe and the Middle East. It’s an ornate metal container used for boiling water; the Rolls Royce of the kettle world. The closest we have are those bland, aluminium boilers with a dispensing tap, found at polystyrene-cupped conference refreshment stalls or village garden fetes – but samovars are pure luxury by comparison; works of art. Tula is the spiritual home of the samovar, the city renowned for crafting the best samovars in Russia, so according to the saying:
“No one rides to Tula with his own samovar”
Instead, he utilises what is there, he does as they do over there. Or in our vocabulary: “When in Rome; do as the Romans do.” See how alike we are after all?