At a multi-national meet-up near Pushkin Square the other night, I fell into conversation with an earnest, friendly Russian who was, like so many older people in this country, still living in the cultural afterglow of socialism. He illustrated an aspect of that in the sense that he was keen to analyse nations in terms of stereotypes. I said I thought it self-evidently silly to think in categories of that sort. “Just look around the room here and see how different all the Russians are,” I said.
In true Soviet style he ignored me and carried on. But, as was also the case from time to time with Soviet-era people, he had something unusual to say. It started because he wanted to know why I did not speak “like a Scottishman”.
“How do you think Scotsmen talk?” I asked.
“Scottish men very like Russian men.”
“And what are Russian men like?”
“He is brutal, loudly, noisy and he like parties. Everybody think British man is gentleman, reserved, strict, old manners, чопорный, we say. In our society I can see practically nobody who can be described as чопорниый. I do not know English word for this.”
“Maybe ‘posh’?” I suggested.
“Who is ‘posh’?”
“I don’t know, Prince Charles, perhaps; David Cameron?”
Then I added, just for devilment, “Jeremy Clarkson?”
“No,” snapped the smart девушка behind the bar who had been following our conversation with rapt attention. “That’s Porsche.”
My Soviet friend was not put off his stride by the laughter that erupted around us. He went on to tell the growing crowd that Germans were “punctual”, Swedes were too free in the matter of sex and the French were “selfish”, which I thought an interesting observation.
“And Americans?” I asked.
“Aggressive, and they want to rule the world,” a loud voice said from the fringe of the circle. He was, of course, American himself. High five!
That seemed to silence my Soviet friend, so I asked him, “You say you do not see any чопорный Russian men around. What about Mr Putin? He’s reserved, strict, et cetera, is he not?”
“He is not чопорный; he’s пафосный.”
Pafosny is a word normally translated as “pathetic”, in a sense related to “pathos”, rather than in the more commonly used sense implying feebleness or uselessness. I did not see the Prime Minister as being pathetic in either sense, so I asked my friend how he defined the word.
“You are not cool, but you think you’re cool,” he said. “You show you are rich and smart and beautiful, but you’re not, at least not smart. That’s пафосный.”
“So he probably owns a Porsche?”
“Many of them. Like your Jeremy Clarkson.”
“Jeremy Clarkson may be rich and smart,” I said, “but he’s hardly beautiful.”
“That doesn’t matter,” the девушка said, “if he have so many Porsches.”
I print this little exchange since it occurs to me that it was a perfect illustration of several aspects of the pafosny/non-pafosny conversational dilemma.