To celebrate the season of good cheer, it is worth remembering that that sort of cheer is not something that Russians are famous for. Although perfectly normal people in private, most Russians appear to like affecting a public expression which is either po-faced or clownish—and the latter usually just on Pervy Kanal (the kanal for pervs, presumably).
I have been told more than once when making a joke in public, or a silly gesture, or even singing quietly to myself, to stop because otherwise people will think I am drunk. As it happened on some of those occasions, they would have been semi-right(-ish). But what about the others? What is wrong with trying to bring a bit of good cheer into all those shades of grey that is life in Moscow?
It is the same with ordinary politeness, which many people think Russians place less emphasis upon than other people. I notice that a restaurant in Nice, France, has introduced differential pricing for polite customers. The BBC reports that: “A blackboard outside the cafe advertises ‘Un café’ for seven euros - but ‘Bonjour, un cafe, s’il vous plait’ costs just 1.40 euros.” That seems to me the way to do it. Introduce an incentive for good behaviour. Most people would be cheerful if they knew they were getting coffee at a fifth of the price the average Russian would have to pay.
In his latest book, The World According to Clarkson, every motorists’ friend, Jeremy Clarkson, has an article about Russian conversational manners. He visited the country in February this year, and wrote about it rather amusingly in his Sunday Times column. It is the last piece in the book.
Clarkson’s point was that Russians are very curt—in the seven euro category. Hotel receptionists, for example, speak in monosyllables rather than with the hand-wringing politeness of the servile British. That may be true in that case, but he should not generalise. He clearly hasn’t read the prose of Professor Zorkin, Chairman of Russia’s Constitutional Court (see post 5 December “The Rule of Language”), much less the collected works of Vladimir Lenin, the revolutionary activist whose statue stands in so many of Russia’s less prosperous cities. But then, Clarkson does not strike me as a great reader.
The interesting thing is that, though most of what Clarkson says about Russia is wrong (sample: “Queuing is much easier in Russia—because no one bothers”), the overall impression he gives is not so far off the mark.
However, he is on much firmer ground when talking about his own private fantasies. So here is my quote for the festive season (this is from a piece entitled “Forget about the cat and the pension, wrinklies, a gap year beckons” – 27 January 2013):
“At sixty-five you’re show-room fresh. You can play tennis and ski and scuba-dive. So why don’t you just bugger off and spend twelve months doing what you can while it’s all still possible?”
Merry Christmas to all readers of this blog, and a happy New Year too when it comes. Remember to sing in public so people think you are drunk and assume therefore that you are cheerful. Russia demands no less.