Or ‘How to cause an international incident!’
“Don’t call me Comrade!” If you think about it: they’ve probably heard that particular ‘C’ word before. I’ve been swatting-up on Anglo-Russian etiquette and trying to build upon lessons gained (sometimes unfortunately) by experience. Ah, so much still to learn.
The word “Comrade” is from an altogether darker period of Russian history, 25 years (approx) in its grave and counting. A large percentage of the adult population will have grown up under the Communist regime and may have some very bad associations with that particular double-edged epithet. Its literal meaning is “friend” or “colleague”, but in the darker days of the Soviet Union, those addressing you in such a manner may easily have been neither – and possibly a good deal worse. It’s also one of the clichés that have travelled westwards along with Vodka, Ushanka-hats and “the Russian Bear”. No marks for using it then.
So, imagine a foreigner approaching you (as a Brit) and ‘cleverly’ making fun of ‘your’ bowler-hats, tea at 4pm sharp and pet bulldogs. Impressed? Probably not. With “comrade”, you are taking a chance. There is, however, the renowned black humour that certain Russians indulge in, heard outside the most polite circles. If you manage to transcend the status of ‘ignorant foreigner’ and venture into dark, post-soviet irony whilst hitting the right ears, then maybe – but that’s a particularly thin and convoluted niche to target. Particularly if you are still getting-by on the Russian words for “hello” and “pleased to meet you”.
The ‘patronymic’ is worthy of mention, because it’s something that we don’t (usually) do here in the UK but still counts – even officially – in Russia (and several other countries). A Russian’s patronymic name is a middle-name (in our-speak) that is derived from the addressee’s father’s Christian name as a way of saying ‘son of’ or ‘daughter of’. I inferred ‘not usually’ here in the UK; well the Scottish “Mac” or “Mc” officially serves the same purpose though it may not carry the same ‘weight’ in contemporary society.
An example: if Alexander’s father is Mikhail, then he would be correctly addressed as “Alexander Mikhailovich”. OK: if Alexandria’s father is Mikhail, then she would similarly be addressed as “Alexandria Mikhailovna”. That’s whilst dropping the surname entirely. It will (does) feel strange.
And yes, as with most things Russian, it does get considerably more complicated; with a choice of four possible suffixes for a male’s father and another four for a female’s. Plus, grammar rules on how to (or not to) use the first name plus patronymic combination. All of this with no immediate explanation as to why. Trust me, you just have to roll with it. It’s a method of address that is quite formal, polite and official, so younger people are less adherent to this method of sounding old – though quite where the ‘break-point’ is, I can’t say. Tricky.
A much simpler rule of politeness is to not refer to someone as “he” or “she” when talking about them, if ‘he or she’ happens to be in front of you at the time. Use their name.
I’m trying not to get into actual Russian language here, but even something as simple as “please” and “thank you” becomes a little more involved as we head east. With English speakers it is (usually) pretty simple: say “please” when you are asking, and “thank you” when you receive. In Russia, “please” also means “here, have this” when offering something (such as that small gift you brought with you following an invitation). In response to the “thank you”, the giving party should then say “please” again; this time meaning “don’t mention it”. I’ve also heard the recipient say “please” – as in: “you shouldn’t have”, before saying “thank you”.
So that’s: “Please” (accept this), “Please (you shouldn’t have). “Thank You” (thank you), “Please” (don’t mention it).
Good luck, again: it’s a minefield – and one that I certainly enjoy floundering around in.