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16 April 2012

Etiquette issues #5: boasting — in connection with the Titanic

Chernyaev (left) with James Cameron.
The articles describes Chernyaev as “very much the picture
 of a distinguished 'hero of Russia': a man with stony features,
upright posture, gray streaks in his mustache, and with a
large Russian flag emblazoned on his jacket sleeve.”

A feature in today’s email circulation of Russia Beyond the Headlines (RBTH) is headlined: “A Russian who discovered the Titanic”. Sounds interesting! I had no idea a Russian was involved. I always thought it was that Ballard bloke, so I’ll read on….
     Perhaps predictably, I discover after a couple of paragraphs that the story does not justify the headline. Instead it concerns the Russian commander of the undersea vessel which took a Canadian IMAX crew down to the seabed to revisit the wreck while filming a documentary called “Titanica”. The Canadians chose the Russian-operated (but Finnish built) vessel from the many others capable of descending to the same depth because it had more interior space and a larger porthole, both of which facilitated filming. That was the extent of the “discovery” announced in the headline.
     A reader who read only the opening paragraph would hardly have guessed that:
“For 100 years, the rusty wreckage of the fabled luxury ship has been lying on the bottom of the sea. Now, thanks to Russian technology, we know what it looks like down there.”
     This is such a gross misrepresentation, not only of the facts, but of the contents of the rest of the article, that it calls for comment. The Soviet press used to have a very off-putting habit of relentless boasting about Soviet achievements, some of which were not even real, and of endlessly denigrating the achievements of other peoples. Since friendship involves the courteous assumption of a certain equality, the Soviet approach precluded friendship. You cannot be friends with someone who is perpetually telling you he is better than you and, in case you did not get it the first time, that you are worse than him. No wonder the country was isolated.
     Today Russia seeks to end the isolation and make friends internationally. This is the purpose of RBTH. It is an advertising supplement for Russia which is inserted in many of the world's major newspapers, like the Daily Telegraph in London, the Washington Post and New York Times, and others from Paris to New Delhi. It is financed by the Russian government and published by Rossiskaya Gazeta. Its aim is to win friends and influence people by improving the image of Russia. This is a perfectly reasonable task, especially given the prejudice that still lingers in many quarters due to the nastiness of the Soviet Union and the way in which official Russian still contrives to give the impression that it doesn’t really disapprove of Soviet methods, whether they involve murdering people in central London hotels, shooting them in east London streets or making it clear to иностранцы in Moscow that they are tolerated rather than welcomed.
     RBTH has an uphill task due to Soviet and post-Soviet official attitudes. One wonders why it chooses to make that hill steeper than it need be by resorting to the sort of charmless boasting which convinces nobody and alienates many. The fact is that the rest of the article is both interesting and balanced. Despite the headline, it notes that the wreck of the Titanic was actually discovered in 1986 by the American, Robert Ballard, as I vaguely remembered. Then it focuses, quite legitimately, on the Russian interest in the longer story in the shape of Evgeny Chernyaev, the captain of the submersible which, in 1991, helped the Canadians and, five year later, James Cameron when it came to filming the underwater shots for the block-buster feature film Titanic.
     Despite the silly description of Chernyaev from the second paragraph of the article which I quote in the caption to the photo above, he comes across as a highly competent but also modest and friendly individual, with whom the American film director was able to co-operate easily and successfully. He seems to be exactly the sort of person that non-Russians like to meet. It is therefore a great pity that RBTH chose to “Sovietise” its contribution to yesterday’s 100th anniversary of the sinking of the great liner. It is never very attractive when countries use occasions of tragedy to indulge in half-empty self-promotion of this sort. It does a great disservice to an obviously decent Russian sailor and is, it need hardly be said, not the best way to go about winning friends and influencing people internationally.


  1. “Russians first in everything” propaganda is the subject of old Soviet time joke.
    Here the “anekdot”, quite dirty in Russian, hopefully printable.

    Setting - an international gathering on history of inventions.
    American delegate begins talking about Wright brothers. Immediately Soviet delegate jumps in: excuse me but Mozhaykiy flew before Wright brothers, we have numerous documents etc. American is flustered, sits down.

    British delegate mentioned James Watt and again Soviet one interrupts: excuse me but we have data that Cherepanov built the steam engine before Watt.

    And so it goes with few more delegates. Finally French delegate gets up and with the air of superiority says: I hope nobody will dispute that oral sex was invented in France?
    The Soviet guy is immediately on his feet: One moment please. Here is the copy of the letter from Peter the Great to counsel of boyars. It begins “Boyars, fuck your mouth (ебать вас в рот), I clearly see thru you, you scoundrels…” Clearly he was first in oral sex. And listen here Germans – don’t even mention Roentgen

    Pardon Russian English not cured by 20 years of living in New York

    1. I wonder if Russians invented boasting, as well?

    2. I forgot to say also: see post 21 Feb: Common Mistakes 2 - "home made"