Monday, December 27, 2010

Five Words For Doing Nothing

Why do people anticipate Winter holidays? Because this is the time to switch off an alarm clock and sleep longer. This is a time for lazy morning coffee and the quiet satisfaction of taking your time. Christmas is a good time for relaxation. Some countries limit winter vacations to a few days, right between Christmas and the New Year, and return to working routine on January 2ndat the latest. In Russia, the New Year holidays officially last from January 1st to January 10th, however, unofficially, many offices go on vacations during the last week of December. Russians are quite serious about holidays.

There are at least five different words in the Russian language for non-working days. The word “праздники” (plural form of “праздник”) is for holidays, for days when people celebrate something significant. The New Year holidays in Russian are “новогодние праздники”. There is another set of holidays called “майские праздники” (May holidays) that starts on May 1st (a Labour Day, a tradition inherited from the Soviet Union) and lasts until Victory Day (the end of World War II).

The word “выходные” (plural form of “выходной”) just means non-working days with no specific reason indicated. This word may be used for holidays as well as for a weekend (Saturdays and Sundays are normally non-working days in Russia).

The word “каникулы” (vacations) was initially used for academic vacations only. However, for last ten years, the usage of this word extended to non-academic areas as well, thus, you may find news headlines like this “ Во что обойдутся казне Рождественские каникулы” (How much Christmas vacations will cost to the state budget). Outside academic life, the word “каникулы” means quite a long period of non-working days.

Besides official holidays and weekends, every employee has a right for a vacation, a period of time that one is to be away from his/her primary job, while maintaining employment. In Russian, the word for (paid or unpaid) time off is “отпуск”. Summer time is often called “время отпусков” (vacation time), because many clerks prefer to schedule their vacations for July and August.

Finally, the last word that also means non-working day is “отгул”. Sometimes, an employee may be rewarded with a day-off for working additional hours. In this case, the employee may take a day-off on any day of the working week. Or, one may need an extra day-off for some personal reasons and, in order to get this day-off, he or she works more hours or perform some additional tasks.

Happy Winter Holidays and Prosperous 2011 Year!

Каток на Дворцовой площади
Photo by Eugene Kotlyarov

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Rules Of Reading In Russian

Once a gentleman who studies Russian asked me, “You pronounce it like paka (пака), but write it as poka (пока), why?”. The short answer is “because the Russian language is not phonetic". What you hear is not what you write. The spelling of the word may differ greatly from the pronunciation.

There are a few simple rules of reading in Russian. They could be helpful for not only mastering proper Russian pronunciation, but also for improving spelling. Here they are.


In Russian, every word has one stressed syllable. In order to speak Russian properly it is necessary to know where to put the stress in the words. In some cases incorrect stress leads to a change in meaning. Stress in Russian is not fixed, it may fall on any syllable and normally it is not indicated with an accent mark. The best way to learn the stress is by listening to a native speaker and repeating what they say.

Vowel Reduction
In Russian, unstressed vowels are not pronounced as distinctly as stressed vowels. The alteration of a vowel in an unstressed position is called reduction. As a result of reduction, some letters denoting vowel sounds are read in a different manner than they are read in the alphabet.

Stressed А is like [ah] in father
Unstressed А is like [ə] in photography

Sressed O is like [oh] in coffee
Unstressed О is like [a] or [uh]

Stressed Е is like [ye] in yellow
Unstressed Е is like [yi]

Stressed Я is like [ya] in yacht
Unstressed Я is like [yi]
Exception: In the endings of nouns, adjectives etc., in unstressed position the letter я should be read as [ya]

И, Ы, У, Ю, Э
— no alteration in unstressed position.

Reading the news

Photo by James Offer


Hard and Soft
All consonant sounds are divided into hard and soft. Most sounds come in pairs "hard vs. soft", i.e. their pronunciation differs only by softness. There are 15 pairs of consonants "hard vs. soft". Both hard and soft sound in each pair represented by the same letter.
The sound is soft if the letter is followed by:
И, Е, Ю, Я, Ё or Ь
Otherwise, a consonant sound is hard.
Note: Ж, Ш are always hard, so turn И, Е, Ю into Ы, Э, У respectively when reading.

Voiced and Voiceless:
Most of Russian consonants come in voiced/voiceless pairs:
Б – П
В – Ф
Ж – Ш
Г – К
Д – Т
З – С

Voiced consonants are pronounced with vibration of the vocal cords, whilst unvoiced consonants are pronounced with little or no vibration of the vocal cords.

Russian letters Б, В, Г, Д, Ж, З turn into the voiceless sounds [П], [Ф], [К], [Т], [Ш], [С] before unvoiced consonants, at the end of the word and before final ь.

Vocalization is an opposite process compared to devoicing. It means that letters П, Ф, С, Т, Ш and К, the basic meanings of which are unvoiced consonants, may designate voiced sounds (hard and soft). Vocalization occurs in cases when these letters are found before letters Б, Г, Д, Ж, З denoting voiced sounds. Note that if П, Ф, С, Т, Ш and К are found before В, vocalization does not occur.

When reading:

  • check the stress,
  • reduce unstressed vowels,
  • soften consonants if they are followed by И, Е, Ю, Я, Ё or Ь,
  • devocalize voiced consonant at the end of the word or before unvoiced consonants,
  • vocalize unvoiced consonants before voiced consonants.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

I Like It, I Need It

When an English-speaking person wants to report his or her likes and dislikes, (s)he normally says, “I like it”. The sentence is pretty simple: “I” is a subject, “like” is a predicate and “it” is an object. The same goes with “I need it”. We now have a person who intentionally and responsibly reports his or her wishes, needs and favors.

In Russian, the regular expression of needs and likes is absolutely different from what we see in English. The most accurate translation for the sentence “I like it” is “Мне нравится это”, literally, “It likes to me”. The subject and the object are interchanged. This is no longer an active person who has a will and taste, but an object, an impersonal “it” who inspires a person for liking or disliking. This is not me, who has a desire to wear a diamond ring, but some unnamed force which has an irresistible impact on me, so I say to my husband “Мне хочется это колечко” (lit. This ring wants to me) instead of “Я хочу это колечко” (I want this ring).

Photo by Owen Thomas

“Мне нравится это” is just one of many similar constructions where “I” in English should be changed to the pronoun in the Dative case “мне” (to me) in Russian. Here are a few more examples:

I want an ice cream — мне хочется мороженого.
I need it — мне нужно это.
I feel cold — мне холодно. (lit. It is cold to me)
I feel sick — мне плохо.
And even “I think” could be translated in some cases like “Мне думается” (It thinks to me).

Some linguists believe that the Russian language just reflects the common Russian approach to active behavior and personal responsibility. Russian culture is rather passive and quiet. The idea of individual success (and individual responsibility) is what Western cultures are about, while Russians are rather fatalists. I think this specifically Russian way of expressing likes and needs was the reason for many jokes like “In Soviet Russia, movies watch you” back in the Cold War times.

Phrasal verbs in English distinguish native speakers from non-native speakers. In Russian, this is the construction “pronoun in Dative + verb/adverb” what allows a speaker sound more proper. Quite often, just changing a simple sentence with an active subject to the construction with the pronoun in Dative makes the phrase sound more Russian.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

How to Enjoy Winter

The weather is like a frantic woman these days. Europe is experiencing heavy snowfall, Moscow is suffering from unusual cold, and in my hometown in Siberia, one day the temperature is -20C (-4F) and another, it is 0C (32F) and raining. Climatologists frankly confess that they do not understand what's going on around nor what to expect in the near future.

Bad weather, short cloudy days without much sunlight, chilly winds and extreme cold can bring about serious physical and psychological stress for human beings. The body wants me to stay at home and sleep, but I can't stop my life and fall asleep like a bear. Adding a bad mood to a bad weather is of no avail, so there should be a way to survive the winter cold and stay active. Some simple steps could help you to cope with winter and perhaps even enjoy it.

1. Stay warm, dress properly and colorfully. You shouldn't layer on sweaters and jackets like an onion. Let it be just one wool sweater, a pair of pants with warm lining, and waterproof and windproof outerwear. You can express your personality and style while protecting yourself from the cold with a colorful wool scarf and pair of gloves. Colourful, cheerful accessories contrast well with the grey winter environment.

2. Stay safe, and choose proper shoes. Sudden snowfall may be very slippery. This winter, two of my good friends broke their bones because of the icy roads. Be careful and choose shoes with thick treads. Some shoe soles become very slippery when it is cold, so ask the salespeople if the soles of the shoes you want to buy are good for low, extremely low temperatures (who knows what kind of surprises this winter has for us?)

3. Eat well, forget about diets at least for some time. When it is getting cold, a body starts demanding for more substantial food, and the body is not wrong. Our energy expenses are greater when it is cold, so treat yourself with something hot and tasty. Enjoying food is also important for your emotional balance. There are few things in the world that can delight us as easily as good, delicious food. I personally prefer to add more spices to in my meal during the wintertime.

4. Sleep as much as you need to. The immense and complex chemical factory called the “body” can produce enough stuff to keep us full of energy and active when there is enough of sunlight, but leaves us feeling sluggish when there is less light. We naturally need more time to sleep during dark periods of the year. Lack of sleep in the wintertime is particularly dangerous and may cause depression.

5. Exercise outdoors, too. Skiing, skating, throwing snowballs, making snowmen — isn't it enough to love winter and the snow? When I was a child, my friends and I celebrated the first frosty days because this meant the end of dirty, rainy weather and the beginning of the winter fun.

6. Ventilating is important. There is a myth that people catch colds more frequently during the winter. The simple reason for that is the following: when it is cold outside, we keep windows closed and let viruses and bacteria to live and multiply. Viruses and germs can not survive in cold, but thrive in warm, stale air.

I hope you'll enjoy the winter and experience its many joyful events during this magical, beautiful season.

Russian winter | Русская зима

Photo by Anatoly Kraynikov

Monday, December 6, 2010

the Letter "Ы"

The letter “Ы” is so special that it deserves a separate journal entry. It looks like two characters, and represents a sound that many languages (English, French, German, Spanish and so on) don't have. It is extremely difficult to explain to non-native speakers how to pronounce “ы”, but anyway, this letter is very important in Russian.

As you may know, all Russian consonants can be categorized into soft (palatalized) and hard (non-palatalized) sounds. The bad news is that both palatalized and non-palatalized sounds are represented by same characters. The only way to guess if the consonant sound is hard or soft is to take a look at the next vowel. If it is а/о/у/э/or ы, then the preceding consonant is hard. If it is я/ё/ю/е/ or и, the consonant is soft. The vowel letter group “softens” the preceding consonants. The vowel “Ы” shows that the preceding consonant sound is hard. Phonologically speaking, the only difference between Ы and И is that И follows a soft consonant, and Ы follows a hard consonant.

Why pay attention to all (of) this stuff with hard and soft sounds? Because there are many words that only differ by one letter ы/и, for example:
бить (to beat) — быть (to be),
вить (to weave) — выть (to howl),
следи (watch, imperative)— следы (footprints),
грози (threaten, imperative)́ — грозы́ (thunderstorms),
клик (a click)— клык (a fang),
мило (nice) — мыло (soap),
сосни́ (suck, imperative) — сосны́ (pine trees)
пил (drunk, past simple) — пыл (heat, passion),
сгори (may you burn) — с горы (from the mountain),
ти́кать (to tick) — ты́кать (to poke)

The most popular cultural reference to the letter “Ы” is from a famous Soviet comedy “Operation Y and Other Shurik's Adventures” by Leonid Gaigai (Операция „Ы“ и другие приключения Шурика). The movie consists of three parts, each of them a story about the adventures of Shurik (alternative spelling — Shourick), the naive and nerdy Soviet student who often gets into ludicrous situations but always finds a clean way out. The third story, titled “Operation Y,” is about three criminals hired to simulate a burglary in order to cover for the overembezzling of a warehouse manager. One of the criminals offered to call the fake burglary “Operation Y” for conspiracy reasons. Watch the entire movie, and you'll be more familiar with modern Russian culture. “Operation Y and Other Shurik's Adventures” is a film with jokes and lines often quoted and referenced even nowadays.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Word of the day: конкретно

Конкретно [kahnkretnah] means exactly, definitely, specifically.

1) Что конкретно ты имеешь в виду? - What exactly do you mean?
2) Он конкретно решил изменить всё. - He definitely/really decided to change everything.
3) Он - христианин, а конкретно - православный. — He is a Christian, more specifically an orthodox one.

Though in most cases the word "конкретно" is stylistically neutral, it could have sort of jargon or colloquial shade.
Ты конкретно не прав — You are with no doubt wrong.
In a jargon speech you may meet a combination of "Чисто-конкретно" with the meaning "no doubt, straight forward, surely". In 1990-s, this was a bandit's slang.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Being Precise

Being precise is not what Russians are very good at. Moreover, Russians do not expect a strict level of accuracy from anyone. Only big numbers matter, only big changes are noteworthy. Nobody cares about slight variances.

In everyday life, Russians are used to being rather generous than being precise. For a person who is too concerned with the accuracy of numbers, there is a special word in Russian “зануда” (sickener). Being too meticulous can be considered as lacking imagination and discourtesy. For example, I (often) like meet with my friends in a cafe. During my whole life I have never seen any of my Russian friends calculating tips. We tip as much as we think is enough, as any precise calculation would be offensive to anyone. Smartphone applications like a “Tip calculator” seem extremely weird to Russians. If anyone ever tried to calculate their share, he would be considered unbelievably stingy and a “зануда”.

Rough approximation is normal practice in business life. As a reporter, I have to arrange interviews with large (and not so large) market players. When I ask about sales growth figures, for example, I often get responses like “well, there is some slight growth, up 30% or 40%”. A range of10% is fine for Russian sources, so there is not a big difference between 30% and 40%. Sometimes, in the booming markets, the response can be “up to two, three times”. The difference between “two times” and “three times” is one hundred percent, but when changes are so significant, the scale is magnified, so such responses sound reasonable to me. My sources are usually in pretty high positions, who have an access to precise numbers, but they do not think they need to bother about statistics within a one-percent precision. Of course, when it comes to official earnings reports for shareholders, the numbers are accurate, at least, as precise as they should be according to international business standards, but in all other cases, some approximation is quite acceptable and even appreciated. Another good example is the recent census in Russia. The Russian press reported that about one or two million (!) people or even more were left out during the 2010 census.

The Russian language reflects this attitude towards numbers and being precise. When one wants to report hard-and-fast numbers, the word order is like this: “Здесь пять килограммов сахара” (There are five kilos of sugar here) or “Дорога длинной восемь километров” (The road is 8 kilometres long). But if the numbers are not so important, the word order should be changed to “Здесь килограммов пять сахара” (meaning that this is only approximately 5 kilos of sugar, actually somewhere in between 4.5 and 5.5) and “Дорога длиной километров восемь” (may be seven, may be nine). By placing the unit of the measurement (kilogram, kilometre, byte, whatever) before the number, you indicate that you are not sure or don't care about the accuracy, and you suggest only approximate numbers / measures to your interlocutor.

In the store, you may often hear “Мне граммов триста сыра, пожалуйста” (about 300 grams of this cheese, please). You may think that the buyer doesn't know how much cheese he or she wants to buy, but this is not true. This is just a polite way to communicate with a seller, a way of not appearing too parsimonious.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Gentlemen of Fortune

Have you noticed that people from different nations have a different sense of humour? This is not only about what people consider as funny, but more about how do people generate jokes. Some cultures prefer jokes that are based mostly on the background that is common for a large group of people. Such jokes are hard to translate, they need to be followed by commentaries and references. And vice versa, some jokes are context-free and can be easily translated into various languages without any additional comments.

Mr. Edward T. Hall, an American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher, developed the concept of "high context culture" and "low context culture" in his book Beyond Culture. He explained that high context cultures leave many things unsaid, because members of the high context society normally share the same experience, knowledge and expectations. There's no need to articulate everything, you may use the “cultural hypertext” instead and you will be understood. In the low context cultures, the communicator needs to be much more explicit. In other words, in a low context culture, you are not supposed to know everything that your interlocutors know. This is why jokes produced in a high context cultures can be rarely heard outside the culture of their origins, while low context humour is more or less translatable.

The Russian culture is defined as a high context one. A true sign of this is the Russian love for quotes and citations. If Russians love a book, a movie or a song, they parse it into quotes; and the more quotes, the more popular the piece of art is. A movie The Gentlemen of Fortune (Russian: Джентльмены удачи, translit. Dzhentlmeny udachi) is one of such sources of citations. The comedy was filmed in 1971, so the generation that was born after the collapse of the Soviet Union has not watched the movie, but youngsters still know and use quotes without even knowing their origins.

The Gentlemen of Fortune is “a story of an amiable kindergarten director named Troshkin who looks exactly like a criminal called Docent (Доцент, literally associate professor) that had stolen Alexander the Great's helmet at an archeological excavation. Docent and his gang are caught by police, but Docent is imprisoned in a different jail than his mates. Since Troshkin looks identical to Docent, the police puts him in prison with the real criminals to get information about the stolen helmet. He must pretend to be the real felon Docent, so in order to be convincing, Troshkin, a well-educated and good-natured man, has to learn slang and manners of criminals.” (cited by Wikipedia) I believe this was the first Soviet movie depicting criminal subculture.

Shortly after the premiere, the movie became very popular. In 1972, the comedy had more than 65 million viewers. Scalpers (ticket touts) were selling tickets for Gentlemen of Fortune up to 15 times the original price. What was the secret of this tremendous success? The movie benefited from a brilliant cast, thrilling story, an inimitable mild humour, as well as its unreserved authenticity. The film was directed by Aleksandr Seryj who had just came out of prison. Georgi Daneliya, the famous director and film producer, assisted him to return to the profession. Seryj used his prison experience to design many situations in the movie, and he also wanted to introduced numerous expressions from Russian criminal slang, however, the authorities suggested to replace the real slang with the pseudo-slang, at least in some cases.

People's love for the movie have remained strong in coming years. The quotes has been incorporated deeply into the Russian discourse, so you may hear them in everyday talks or read them in on newspapers titles. Some modern movies also cite this famous comedy, which is easily and often immediately recognizable to viewers. The music from this movie is familiar to every Russian (some remixes were issues recently).If you live in Russia or plan to live in Russia, The Gentlemen of Fortune is one of the key movies that would bring you closer to understanding a Russian cultural background. You may watch it in Russian at Google Video or at YouTube with English subtitles.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Up until recent times, personal automobiles have been rare in the Soviet Union. The principal mode of suburban transport has been the elektrichka. Elektrichka is an informal word for "electric multiple unit passenger train." Though many people in the Post-Soviet Russia drive personal cars, the electrichka is still very popular today. Designed to carry as many people as possible for relatively short distances, the elektrichka is a train with a modest level of comfort: simple benches, each seating three, in rows abutting the windows. According to Wikipedia, there were 4085 commuter trains a day running in each direction on the Russian Railways network in 2007, most of them being electric trains.


From early April to late November, the elektrichka is occupied with “dachniki”, or dacha owners. They always carry large, heavy bags. In the springtime, dachniki bring along tools and garden supplies with them when moving out to their dachas. In the fall, they bring back their harvest of vegetables and berries from the dachas to their homes. Fishermen are also frequent passengers of the elektrichka. Fishermen carry heavy backpacks, wear rubber boots, and smell like smoke, because when fishing, they light fires in order to boil water and generate warmth when it gets chilly. From September to May, students living in suburban towns use the elektrichka to get back and forth from their schools and universities. Often people from small towns are unable to find a job at the local market and find employment in a larger city nearby. They use elektrichka every day to get to their offices and back. Thus elektrichkas are critically important to social life. A typical fare by elektrichka from my hometown Zarinsk to Barnaul (over 100 km) costs 90 rubles, or 3 dollars.

Unlike any other public transportation, elektrichka has a very particular atmosphere filled with informal, relaxed chitchat. When it takes you two hours to reach your point of destination, the best way to entertain yourself is a talk. Quite often I see fishermen or tourists eating and sharing their camp food with each other while going back to the city. Sometimes, people play cards to make a long trip shorter. I noticed that students and youngsters tend to isolate themselves with iPods and smartphones when traveling, while older people prefer to communicate with each other face-to-face. For linguists, the elektrichka is an inexhaustible source of new ideas about what is going on with the language in a society.

In the 1960s, there was a popular song about a young man who was dating a girl, and missed the last elektrichka, so he had to walk along the railway tracks all the way back home. My father told me that he once followed the railway track on the way home when dating my mother. This song was very popular at the time, and my dad sang it the whole way home, feeling as if the song was composed just for him.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Lucky Ticket

Using public transportation is one of the most important things that a visitor must know upon arriving to a new city. In many Russian cities, you enter the bus, trolley or tram (street car), take a seat and then buy a ticket from a guard or conductor. Normally, this is a lady with a bag in her shoulders, obstinately moving up and down the aisle. Prices may vary, but normally a fare will cost you from 8 to 30 rubles, depending on city and mode of transport.


In my hometown, although tickets do not look as fancy as say, Mississauga Transit tickets, the fare in Barnaul, Siberia is only 10 rubles (approximately, $0.3) compared to $3 for Toronto or Mississauga. In Siberia, tickets are a one-time fare, and it's necessary to buy another ticket when transferring to another vehicle, no matter how long the journey is.

In Russia, bus, tram and trolley tickets all have six numbers. Russians believe in lucky tickets. If the sum of the first three digits on your ticket equals the sum of the last three, your ticket is lucky and then you are supposed to eat it. Some believe in half lucky ticket, which means that if the sum of the first three numbers is, say 5, and the last three numbers equals 14, your ticket is still lucky, because one plus four equals 5.

While writing this post, I found a great design idea: lucky ticket cookies! They are definitely more tasty than the ones made of paper.

lucky cookies
Photo from

Saturday, October 23, 2010

10 Weird Facts About the Russian Language

1. The Russian alphabet is weird itself. Some characters are exactly like in the Latin alphabet, while others look the same, but sound different, and the two characters "ъ" and "ь" represent no sound, who needs them?

2. One character E may represent two different sounds [ye] and [yo].Actually, there is a special character for "yo" in Russian. It is Ё, but in order to make handwriting faster, people omit the two dots on top the Ё, so Ё turns into E. This is confusing.

3. Since "tovarisch" is no longer in use in Russia, there are no special words to address another person or many people. You may hear "дамы и господа" (ladies and gentlemen), but this is considered somewhat unnatural. People may use "мужчина"/"женщина" (man/woman), but that sounds a bit rude. Over the last two decades, Russians have not been able to decide what words would be best for addressing and select the ones each time according to the exact circumstances.

4. No "am/are/is". In Russian, the verb "to be" should be omitted in the present tense, however, in the past and future it should be used.

5. Russian word order is flexible, but it doesn't mean that you may put words in any order you like. The meaning of the sentence may change cardinally because of the word order. I.e. "Я иду домой" means "I'm going home", while "Я домой иду" means "It is home where I'm going to (not anywhere else)", and "Домой иду я" means "It is I, who is going home" (not you, not anyone else. The others are staying at the office and working!) So the word order in Russian depends on what exactly you want to say to others.

6. To change a sentence into a general question, one doesn't have to change anything, but intonation, i.e. "Ты дома." (you are at home) vs "Ты дома?" (Are you at home?)

7. The numbers 1 and 2 have genders while the rest numbers don't, i.e. "один мальчик" (one boy), "одна девочка" (one girl), but "три мальчика/девочки" (three boys/girls).

8. The number 1 (один) have a plural ("одни" = soli)

9. Verbs in the past tense have genders, while verbs in present and future tenses don't, i.e. "он играл" (he played), but "она играла" (she played), and "он играет" (he plays), "она играет" (she plays).

10. Russian nouns have animacy, that means that animate nouns are considered more alive than inanimate ones. So in Russian, a dead man (мертвец) is more alive than a corpse (труп), because a dead man (мертвец) is animate and a corpse is not.

What do you find most weird in the Russian language?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Time speaks, different accents

Eternal clock
Eternal clock by Robbert van der Steeg

Have you noticed that people from different countries manage time differently? Germans are known for their accuracy with time and for their desire to schedule everything in. My friend from Germany told me that in any business, Germans try to foresee everything in order to avoid errors and accidents. Perhaps this is why German highways are so good. People from North America (I didn't see any difference between Americans and Canadians while I was there) are into time management too. “Getting things done” is one of their most popular mantras. Another friend in Canada explained to me that 'this culture prefers to pretend that (almost) everything can be controlled or manipulated. We like to think that we are in charge, not the weather or circumstances. It helps people feel more secure, even though it's an illusion.' The Russian attitude to time management is the opposite: Russians value spontaneous decisions over scheduling and prefer staying flexible and open to the ever-changing circumstances rather then standing firm in our plans.

When preparing market reports, I often ask various companies for the outlook for the next six months or the next year. My sources sometimes fail to provide me with such information because the visibility of the Russian market and Russian society on the whole is very low. During the last few decades, life in Russia has been extremely volatile, so nobody is crazy enough to make any kind of forecasts. Our experience teaches us that any plans can be smashed by uncontrollable forces – political intrigues, economic disasters, sudden bankruptcies, and so on.

When my husband and I were in Canada, we went crazy because of the ubiquitous scheduling. Once, our friends invited us to a BBQ party about one month in advance. Another of our friends asked us if we could meet them for dinner on May 22, when it was only April 28... It seemed so weird for us. We just arrived in the country and had no idea what would happen to us for the next three days. How could we plan for one month down the line? We are used to living spontaneous lives and do not build long-term plans. Moreover, we felt this rather annoying when people around expected us to have long-term plans and long-term schedules. Well, Mr. Edward T. Hall stated that culture roots deeply in unconsciousness, and irrational irritation is the true signal of the culture clash.

If you are doing business in Russia, it could be useful to bear in mind the Russian attitude to time management. In business, Russians do not consider deadlines sacred and normally do not expect colleagues to meet deadlines. Well, not really. Of course, like everywhere in the world, we have plans and schedules, but when it comes to a teamwork, every team leader knows that meeting deadlines is almost impossible to achieve. When I lead a project, I prefer to shift the deadline for 2-3 days ahead. I know that some team members will fail to meet the deadline and need these 2-3 days badly in order to complete their work. I'm not the only one who uses this trick to hack the Russian habit of not meeting deadlines.

In Russia, arriving late 5-15 minutes for a business meeting is completely acceptable. A person who is late 5 minutes may skip pardoning altogether. Some tops of the tops may be late for one hour, and the others would excuse this.

Russians tend to split business and personal life. In personal life, time management is considered as lacking emotion and unnatural behavior. This is pretty normal to give a call to a friend and ask to meet them or spontaneously visit a friend. We are expected to place a higher priority for family and friends, so parents may feel abused if a grown-up kid says “Sorry, I'm busy today and tomorrow, let's meet next week at 6 PM.”

How does your culture manage time? Do you prefer planning or acting spontaneously? Is being on time important in your culture? I appreciate your comments!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Grammatical Gender, Part II

Though most nouns in the Russian language have only one of the three possible genders (masculine, feminine or neutral), some words are not so simple. Sometimes, nouns can be both masculine and feminine:

сирота – an orphan
умница – a smart person.
зануда – a sickener, a PITA, a very boring and annoying person.
ханжа – a hypocrite
ябеда – a sneak
подлиза – a flunkey, suck-up

All words mentioned above and many more like them are masculine, when applied to a man, and feminine, when applied to a woman. So if you want to add an adjective before one of these nouns, consider the gender is the person you are talking about and choose your adjective ending accordingly:

Мой друг – бедный сирота. (My friend is a poor orphan)
Моя подруга – бедная сирота. (My girlfriend is a poor orphan).

Sometimes, a noun's gender is the opposite of a person's sex. In particular, this applies to occupations and professions, which are normally masculine and ignore the sex of individuals. You may say Он – хороший программист/ Она – хороший программист. (He/She is a good programmer). In both cases the word "программист" is masculine. For some occupations, there are variants for male and female, but even then masculine is preferable and stylistically neutral, while feminine sounds more informal and sometimes rude.

Учитель/ учительница (a teacher, male/female),
программист/ программистка (programmer, male/female),
переводчик/ переводчица (translator male/female)

These words are stylistically neutral, can be used in both formal and informal speech. You wouldn't offend anyone choosing the masculine even if you are talking about a woman, but feminine nouns would sound Ok also.

Врач (a doctor, masculine, may refer to both male and female doctor) is neutral, but врачиха (feminine, female doctor) is very informal and may be offensive.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Russian Handwriting

Are you wondering how Russian handwriting looks like? Here you go.

Russian Handwriting

Dear readers,
I'm glad to welcome you on my website.
Here you will find information about the culture of Russia and about the Russian language.
Good luck with learning Russian!

With best regards,
Eugenia Vlasova

P.S.: Uff, I'm much better in typing than in handwriting!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Grammatical Gender, Part I

Each noun in the Russian language has a gender – masculine, feminine or neuter. Grammatical genders have nothing to do with sex. The word стол ( a table) is of masculine gender, the word лампа (a lamp) is of feminine gender, but a table and a lamp have no masculine or feminine features at all.

Scientists suppose that in ancient times, people believed that any thing was alive and had an anima, sort of soul or conciseness, and that anima could be either feminine or masculine. Things that had no anima were neutral. Of course, today nobody would tell you that a table has something that makes it masculine or a lamp has specific feminine features. A grammatical gender is nothing more than what remains ancient beliefs.

How to determine what gender a noun is? The only way is to check a dictionary. A noun has no obvious indications of its gender. For example, мама (mom) is feminine, while папа (dad) is masculine. Both words look alike and have the same endings in all cases. Another example: моль (moth) is feminine, but рояль (piano) is masculine. So just check your dictionary and try to memorize the gender by writing and talking as much as possible.

The good news is that usually, Russian masculine nouns end with a consonant (компьютер, телефон, дом, банк). Russian feminine nouns often end with a vowel -а (клавиатура, машина, квартира, купюра). Many neuter nouns end with -о or -е (поле, море, окно, мыло). This is not a rule, but just a trend that is true for the majority of nouns, but not for all.

Why care about the gender? Because the gender of a noun determines the ending of the following adjective, and the ending of verbs in the past tense. Also you should know the gender of the noun in order to choose the right pronoun – you should always use он (he) for masculine nouns and она (she) for feminine, despite the fact that it is actually “it”. Here are some examples:
M.: Большой, красивый дом. Он мой. (This is a large, beautiful house. It is mine)
F.: Большая, красивая машина. Она моя. (This is a large, beautiful car. It is mine)
N.: Большое, красивое окно. Оно моё. (This is a large beautiful window. It is mine)

Sometimes, Russians argue about a gender furiously. There are some words in Russian that came from other languages and gained a gender by “it looks like”. One of such words is the word кофе (coffee). It looks like a neuter noun (ends with -e), but its gender is masculine, and only poorly educated people say “черное кофе” (black coffee) instead of “черный кофе”.

Which part of Russian grammar do you find the most difficult to learn and understand?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Language And Social Values

Many words in the language, besides the meanings, have some connotations – stylistic or moral. If there are two different words for one and the same object, most likely, these words either belong to different styles of speech or reflect different moral judgments and approaches to a subject. An attentive observer can use the language to uncover moral values that the society shares and track changes in public opinion by monitoring the speech. Thus, the Russian language provides us with the unbiased and accurate reflection of the changes of commonly shared values in the Russian society. Here are some examples.

In the Soviet Union, “We” always dominated “I”. By the way, in Russian language, the word “I” (я) is a lowercase letter. Altruism and selflessness was considered the main virtues. The word “self-denying” (самоотверженный) was the highest praise. The labor of people, though often not very efficient, was “self-denying”, and it was considered very good. It was right to deny yourself for the welfare of others. There were some words with strong negative connotations for persons who value their own profit more than the abstract common welfare – зазнайка (“swank”, literally, a person who thinks about himself too much), якало (informal I-talker, the one who talks about himself too frequently). “I” was denied in many levels, including the level of spoken language.

Since Perestroika, the moral values started changing, and the idea of the personal success started to penetrate into the social morality. The linguist Irina Levontina wrote an interesting article about the changes of connotations of some words. She said, that nowadays, the word self-denied is rarely applied to one’s social activity and more often to personal life (e.g., a “self-denied” mother). The words “successful” (успешный), “efficient” (эффективный) previously was attributed to actions, not to a person. In the Soviet Unions mass media told us about successful negotiations and efficient production, but now we are reading about successful and efficient managers. With the idea of personal achievements, we’ve got the idea of individual failure as well. The word “loser” (неудачник) had no negative connotation in the Soviet time. A loser was the one who was out of luck – that’s it. Now this word is used to name the one who is worthy nothing. Many words like “individualist” (индивидуалист), “careerist” (карьерист) and “career” (карьера) itself, “egoist” (эгоист) lost their negative moral connotations and now are considered positive personal characteristics. The word персона (a person) was used only in ironical context, while now it is a neutral word.

All these linguistic changes point out that changes of values of the society are changing. During the last two decades, the idea of a personal promotion and self-actualization gained social liking. The claims that individuals are morally obliged to benefit others are not so strong anymore. The success of each distinct member of society is recognized, it is not disgraceful any more to gain a success by your own. Did we lose altruism? My answer is yes, we did. The good news is that along with the individualistic values we have to get the idea of personal responsibility. It’s you, no one else, who is responsible for your success or failures. Well, maybe in another ten years, we will see the penetration of this idea into the language.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Russian Spelling

“What I hear is what I write” is a very nice and easy to learn spelling principle but unfortunately not so many languages use it. Spelling in the Russian language, as well as in English and German, considers not only sounds, but the underlying structure of the word. This means that morphemes – parts of the word – should be spelled similarly in every word, it doesn’t matter what sounds you hear. In addition to that, the spelling of some words in Russian is based on tradition, so you have to remember them all by heart or have a good dictionary near you.

When exactly do sounds and letters do not correspond each other in Russian? For vowels А [a] and О [o], Е [e] and И [i] this is when a vowel sound is not stressed. Normally, when О is not stressed in the word, it sounds more like [a]. Say, you hear Da svidania, but the spelling of this phrase is “До свидания” (formal way to say goodbye), with O after D. When Е is not stressed, it sounds similar to [I]. For example, the word птенец (baby bird) is pronounced [ptin`ets]; both vowel letters are Е, but the first, not stressed, is pronounced like [I].

In the Russian language, consonant sounds are divided into voiced and voiceless and often form pairs: Б [b] – П[p], В[v]– Ф[f], С[c] – З[z], К[k] – Г[g] and so on. А voiced consonant at the end of the word or before another consonant sounds different. Example: the word глаз, an eye, has a voiced [z] in the end, but it is pronounced [glas], however, the plural for this word is глаза, glaza, the sound [z] is heard here very well.

Russian spelling is a big problem for kids. Actually, we learn spelling rules during the entire time we are in school and not everyone succeeds at that. I would suggest that people who learn Russian as their second (third, etc) language get the idea that the way you hear the word is not the way it is spelled. When you find the spelling of a word amusing, unnatural or funny do a little research and try to find out from which words your word is derived and which words are close relatives to it. At least, you’ll have some fun, and most likely, you’ll find a good explanation of the spelling.

Photo by Jasmic

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Business Lunch? No, Thanks

To many Russians who work with American companies, the business lunch is one of the most annoying things in American culture. Probably, American businessmen like the idea of saving time by having lunch and a business meeting at once, but each time I attend such business lunches I feel great discomfort. I discussed this with my Russian friends who have had similar experiences and they confess that they also get annoyed with the need to chew and talk at the same time.

Photo by Shawn Liu

I think one of the reasons why Russians feel discomfort when eating while being involved in the meeting is that since early childhood we were taught not to talk when chewing. We even have a saying for kids, “When I am eating, I am deaf-and-dumb”. In Russia, it is considered very bad manners to eat and talk.

Another reason is that Russians believe that you show great disrespect to a speaker when you eat during his presentation. You find the presentation so boring that you stop listening and start chewing instead. And you let everyone see that. An average Russian speaker also would find it insulting if the audience was chewing during his speech. More disgusting and disrespectful than that is only to stand up and leave the meeting room in the middle of the presentation.

I was very angry and nervous when I was invited to a business launch with one of the top managers of the company I work with. I was really hungry and all I wanted was to focus on the food. But I was listening to the manager while my hot, juicy, tasty steak got warm and then cold. I couldn’t force myself to eat while he was talking because I was afraid to show disrespect. I couldn’t take a piece of food from my plate because I had to participate in our discussion and I didn’t want everybody see partly chewed meat on my teeth. And also I couldn’t answer to his questions properly because I couldn’t think about the business. “Could you give me some privacy to finish with my lunch” I thought, but continued keeping a smiley face. Definitely, lunch should be about food, not about business.

However, it would be wrong to say that Russians do not mix business and food. In Russia, significant events and important contracts are celebrated with a lavish dinner. Traditional vodka, plenty of tasty dishes – Russian hosts do their best to amuse their guests with food, alcohol and entertainment. And when the guests are in the very good mood, maybe even experiencing sort of euphoria, Russian businessmen get back to contracts and business issues. As you may guess, it is much easier to get a positive answer from a full and happy person than from a hungry one.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Siberian Spacing And Mentality

Siberia has a lot of space. According to Wikipedia, the population density of Siberia is 3.9 inhabitants per sq.m. Living in a remote and unpopulated area has some effects on people’s mentality. Being a native Siberian, I didn’t notice them until my husband and I moved to the Russia’s enclave on the Baltic sea and then came back to Siberia after 5 years of living in the Kaliningrad region.

What do I mean by these effects? First, it is a very loose spacing. Roads in Siberia are, on average, wider than those in Europe (though the quality of Siberian roads leaves much to be desired). People keep more distance when talking or passing by. During my first month in Kaliningrad, I felt great discomfort in supermarkets because all the people there seemed to stay toо close to me. We Siberians think of space on a very large scale. I.e. Novosibirsk is 270 km to North from my hometown Barnaul. We used to think that Novosibirsk is very close to Barnaul. When I was a teenager, I often went to see my grandma who lived 380 km away from me – and it was quite an ordinary thing. European countries are much more compact, and traveling 380 km would most likely mean crossing the border of another country.

Another side effect of living remotely from the rest of the world is the feeling that history is happening somewhere else. Any political movements, social changes, even natural disasters are far away from here. In Europe, history is material – it is in every stone. In Siberia, history is intangible. We saw sad signs of World War II in the Kaliningrad region and only there, in Kaliningrad, we realized that the war was real. Until then the War was something from the realm of media – movie, propaganda advertising etc. When people here read news about swine flue, global warming, and earthquakes the first thing that comes in their minds is “we won’t be affected, it is too far from here”. There is a very popular local myth, rooted, I believe, in Nicholas Roerich’s philosophy, that the whole world will be swept away by global flooding soon, and the Altai region is the only place that will survive. This reflects perfectly the mentality of people here.

Red Claw

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Working Globally: Conference Call vs Email

Doing business globally means having a need to contact people who live on the opposite side of the globe many times while working on the project. Modern technologies allow us to have a group meeting with nearly zero expenses: no need to spend time and money on traveling when you can just do a conference call. Conference call is a cheap and convenient way to have a real time discussion with many people. It’s like having a real meeting, but in the virtual world. All you have to do is just select a telecommunication service provider or use your VoIP software. The only question you have to answer before to start organizing a conference call is: is a conference call the BEST way to interact with people in my case? In other words, do you really need a live talk or would old-fashioned emails fit the situation better?

A conference call is not a good solution if:

  • Your interlocutors are not very good in the language you’re going to speak with them. You may speak too fast or with an accent that your partners are not accustomed to. You may use words they do not know. Consider the quality of the line and … send them emails. Your partners will not miss a single word from your message and may look up the words they do not know in their dictionaries. Email means no information losses.
  • Time difference is significant. If you have an early morning and your interlocutors have a late night, it’s not a good idea to talk to them. You are fresh and just have had your morning coffee – and they have had a hard working day behind them. Psychologically speaking, you would hardly find a common mental wave to discuss your topic efficiently. You’d better send them email and let them read it when they have time.
  • You expect your partners to give you an answer on a serious question. Live talk is good for a fast exchange of ideas and minor details. But if you are about to have a serious talk – send an email. Your partners may need to have a think think about your questions.
  • You and your interlocutors may want to get back to things you were discussing during a call. Of course, you may record your call and replay it later to refresh your memory. But wouldn’t an email be better for this? You can easily find a piece of text you need in your email instead of listening the call from the beginning in order to listen to an exact moment.

Technologies should serve your needs, not you should serve to technologies. Choose tools that fit your needs best.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Spring Holidays in Russia

Every country has some holidays that boost sales and result in consumer orgies. A good example is Christmas sales in North America and Europe and New Year sales in Russia. “These days are the most important ones during the whole year, because about 25% of our annual revenue is made during the last two weeks of December,” a large retailer told me once. Being familiar with the calendar of every single country is the key to success for manufacturers and retailers who works globally.

In Russia, besides the New Year’s one, the most important sales time is the period from the last week of February to the first week of March. We jokingly call this time “Spring gender holidays”. On February 23rd, Russia celebrates the Defender of the Fatherland Day. In other words, this is a Men’s day, when men of all ages get some gifts from women – mothers, wives, girlfriends and colleagues. The holiday marks the date in 1918 when the first mass draft into the Red Army occurred in Russia. In the Soviet Union, the holiday was known as the Red Army Day, and initially expected to celebrate people who are serving or were serving the Soviet Military Forces. However, in practice, it comes to include the celebration of men as a whole. As a counterpart, the Women’s day is celebrated in March 8th. Though some may still remember the event that happened in New York in 1908, in Russia, the political or feminist flavor of the holiday is completely lost. March 8th is a day when men buy flowers for their women, say words of love to wives and girlfriends and make them some presents.

Photo by pizzodisevo

Russian retailers know how important it is to prepare inventories for the February 23rd and March 8th. Not meeting the surge in demand during these days would mean the serious loss in revenue. Though small gifts are more common for February 23rd and March 8th, some serious purchases are not rare at all. Besides trivial flowers, wines, chocolate and perfume, there is a surge in demand for handsets and smart phones, white goods, notebooks and other electronics during these two weeks. For manufacturers, this is definitely the best time to launch sales of any new products in Russia.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk

Why is history so important? Because it helps us to understand better our present, realize the deep reasons of recent events and make more accurate forecasts regarding consequences they may have. Why do we learn nothing from history? Well, perhaps because we keep ourselves too alienated, too distant from the events that happened in the past and forget that history is nothing but a sum of decisions and actions made by individuals.

by Peter Hopkirk is one of those rare books that turn boring academic, historical reading into a breathtaking, thrilling, and eye-opening experience. Peter Hopkirk shows a century of confrontation between Great Britain and Russia in Asian regions through the lives and fates of people involved into the Great Game. There is no abstract “Britain” or “Russia” or “Persia” in the book, but there are people of flesh and blood, with their motives, wills and ambitions. The book is written like a very good thriller. You see the grandiose chess game developing in the map of Asia and suddenly understand that it is not all over yet. The geographical names mentioned in the book are the same as those you might read in the morning news. Places of the strongest political tension in the modern world are the same that were in the 19th century. Kabul, just to mention one. “I wish our politicians would have read it before we went into Afghanistan and Iraq” one reader wrote in his review, and this is the thought you can’t get rid of throughout the book.

In early 19th century, Asia was not explored by Europeans well enough. The maps of Afghanistan, Tibet and surroundings were very approximate with many white spots on them. Europeans also lacked information about multiple tribes and nationalities that lived in the rocky and deserted area. Any pieces of information about landscapes, aboriginal people and their attitudes toward strangers were priceless those days. Great Britain needed to know everything about the lands that laid between India and Russia, Britain’s major competitor in this area. Young (many players of the Great Game were just 20 or a bit older) men volunteered for research expeditions to Asian countries and gained valuable information, sometimes at price of their health and lives.

Along with the heroism of Asian pioneers, Peter Hopkirk draws the meanness and unscrupulousness of politicians – both Russian and British. Though the author does not give moral appraisals, providing readers with the facts, it is impossible to stay calm and objective when reading about the decisions that were motivated with the greediness and/or stupidity and/or ignorance and cost a thousand innocent lives. What a miserable fate to be a pawn in the Great Game of superpowers!

It is particularly interesting to read about cross-cultural conflicts that developed in Asia, where British, Asian and Russian ways of thinking and ways of acting clashed. Although The Great Game covers the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, it it has a message for contemporary audiences. We think that the world is changing so fast, but in fact many things have not been changed for ages. Any modern problems the world faces today are rooted in the Great Game. At least, it is useful to know the rules…

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

How to Survive the Cold

While politicians are deep into discussion on global warming, many countries are facing unusually cold weather. My friends from Asia, Europe and America have complained about chilling wind, cold and snow. Here in Siberia, this winter is cold too. During the first decade of the January, we had temperatures below -30C/-22F. This is quite normal for Western Siberia, but this winter, the cold period has lasted unusually long. However, people here have developed efficient survival strategies to cope with cold. Most Siberians stay active and live their normal lives when the temperatures are abnormally low. The rules on how to dress up are simple, but they work pretty well. Here you go:

More doesn’t always mean better. You do not have to dress up in onion-like manner to keep warm, but you have to select your cold weather clothes carefully. Speaking physics-wise, your clothes should help you to keep an air layer between you and the outside, and absorb sweat. Air does not conduct heat, while liquid (sweat) does. First, select natural fabric only – cotton and wool are the best. Synthetic fibers do not keep the warmth of your body and got stunning cold when contact with the outer air. Select natural fabrics for your underwear too. Nylon/Lycra pantyhose looks great, but girls are at high risk of exposure to their legs while wearing it when the temperature is below zero (btw, scientists say that the risk of cellulite increases when legs are permanently being over-cooled). Your hands would thank you if you buy wool gloves/mittens for them. Do not forget to protect the throat with the scarf and/or high fur collar.

The slogan “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” doesn’t work in -40C. Nothing will protect your better from cold than long fur coat. Well, the second option is a parka. The longer your coat is the better. A fur hat is perfect for cold and windy weather. You may use a knitted wool hat too, but you should select a thick one. Fur boots keep warm very good, but genuine Russian winter footwear is valenki (in Siberia, we call them “pee´myh”). Nowadays, People in cities do not wear valenki, because this is a “peasant fashion”, however, I wore valenki throughout my childhood and was very happy.

Do not wear tight clothes or shoes. Blood should circulate loosely, otherwise, you will get cold very quickly. Winter shoes should be one size bigger than your regular shoes.

Merino wool is known and popular all across the world. In Siberia, however, dog wool is number one choice because it is warmer and softer than merino. Please, don’t think that there are thousands of shaved dogs in Siberia. We comb dog hair to get the thinnest underfur. It is widely believed that dog wool may heal rheumatism, arthritis and many other diseases.

A regular Siberian winter suit is: polo-neck sweater, jacket and skirt/trousers made of felt/wool, wool pantyhose for ladies and long underwear made of cotton for men, warm but thin socks, high boots, long fur coat/parka, fur hat, scarf, mittens. This is enough to feel fine even when it is so cold that your breathing turns into ice dust at the moment you breath out.

Carl Dressed for Minus 15 Degrees Celsius
Photo by carlfbagge

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Russian Winter Holidays, 2 New Years Included

Winter holidays in Russia officially last 10 days, from December 31st to January 10th. In the Soviet Union, it was an exclusive privilege of children to have a 10 day long winter break. In the early 1990s, Orthodox Christmas (January 7th) became an official holiday in Russia (the Russian Church uses the traditional Julian Calendar, under which December 25th falls on January 7th as measured by the standard Gregorian Calendar). This caused some inconveniences: people celebrated New Year’s eve on December 31st, had some break (normally, two days), got back to work on January 3rd and then had another break from January 6th to January 7th. Add Saturdays and Sundays that may fall on the first 7 days of the year, and you’ll see how few working days are left. So for the last few years, Russians have enjoyed uninterrupted holidays that end when children get back to their classes.

In fact, the festive mood spreads around offices and enterprises about one week before the New Year. When the West celebrates Christmas, Russian companies organize New Year’s parties, so you can hardly catch managers at the office and in the right mood to discuss your business during the last week of the year. I try to have all my projects completed, phone calls done and problems solved before December 24th.

The last informal holiday in the New Year’s set of feasts is the Old New Year on January 14th. Russians have two New Years within two weeks for the same reason the Orthodox Christmas lags behind for 14 days.The Gregorian calendar (the one you most likely use) was adopted in Russia quite late, in 1918. For a long time, many important dates and holidays had two notices – “old style” and “new style”. So the Old New Year is just a start of the year by the Julian calendar.

The Old New Year is a working day, but many people in Russia have kind of a New Year’s eve on January 14th. This is a less formal and more private event and the Old New Year’s parties are more relaxing. As Wikipedia notes, “for many this is a nostalgic family holiday ending the New Year holiday cycle with traditional large meals, singing and celebratory drinking”. TV channels often repeat their New Year programming this day, so people may watch their favorite shows and movies one more time.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

New Year’s Holiday in Russia

New Year is one of the most important holidays in Russia. I bet every family in Russia stays awake at least until 1 am at night on New Year’s Eve, watching TV, eating delicious things and drinking champagne (and/or something else, but champagne is a must).

New Year vs Christmas

The Soviet Union was officially an atheistic country, where religious holidays were prohibited. In many families the tradition of celebrating Christmas was lost after the Revolution of 1917. However, the need for bright, magical winter holiday remained, and soon Christmas was replaced by New Year. Most Christmas attributes were transferred to the New Year holiday, like the decorated coniferous tree, gifts, heavy dinner, lights, garlands, and firecrackers. Until now the New Year’s holiday is more popular and widely celebrated than Christmas in Russia.

The New Year Tree

Families with kids normally decorate a New Year’s tree. Artificial trees are still not so popular in Russia (well, at least, in Siberia) because, first, many fir farms in Russia plant trees specially for the New Year, and second, artificial trees have no scent. The smell of fir for me is a symbol of the holiday since my early childhood, and without this magical scent the New Year is sort of defective. The most popular tree trimming decorations are baubles of various colors, tinsel, electric light garlands and a star on the top. When I was a kid, little toy bears, birds, glass icicles and snow-men toys were also widely used, but during last ten years, I cannot find such toys in supermarkets and stores. Maybe, this is because Russian industry stopped producing native glass New Year toys, and most toys are imported ones. By the way, we do not use ribbons in Russia for decoration.

New Year Tree Many cities and towns manage to decorate an open-air New Year’s Tree. In places like Siberia, where winters are cold enough, the entire snow towns rise at the main squares with the New Year’s tree in the center. Places that are not so lucky, put large inflatable dolls of Ded Moroz, Snegurochka and snowmen.

New Year’s Characters

The central character of the New Year holiday is Ded Moroz. His name could be literally translated as Grandfather Frost. He plays a role similar to that of Santa, i.e. brings presents to children, but he does it in person, during the new year’s parties for kids that are organized in every day-care center and school. However, these presents (mostly sweets) are not so important. A child finds his or her main present laying under the New Year’s tree early in the morning on January 1st. Ded Moroz wears a heel-long fur coat and a semi-round fur hat. Unlike Santa Claus, he walks with a long magical staff, does not say “Ho, ho, ho,” and drives troika. or just walks. Snegurochka or ‘Snow Maiden,’ is a granddaughter of Ded Moroz. She is kind and beautiful, with long blond hair. Often the New Year’s fairy-tales and shows have a plot developed around the same situation: naive Snegurochka has got into troubles and a protagonist rescue her with the help of spectators.

The Dinner

There are no traditional New Year dishes in modern Russia, however, since the Soviet times, the Russian salad is somewhat mandatory. In Russia and the CIS it is called Olivier in honor of Lucien Olivie, a chef who invented the recipe. However, the modern Olivier has nothing in common with the dish that was so popular in Moscow of the 1860s. Butterbrots with caviar, salmon fish, sausages are very common, I believe, for all Russia’s provinces. The main dish can be fried chicken (the whole chicken or parts), pork, beef – actually, everything. In the Soviet Unions the smell of tangerines was one of the things associated with New Year. The reason is that there were standard New Year gifts for kids that included chocolate (natural dark chocolate only, no substitutes), candies, one big apple and tangerines and/or oranges. Those gifts smelled like heaven and the dominant note was, of course, the tangerine.

As I said above, champagne is a special New Year’s beverage. That doesn’t mean that this is the only popular alcohol for the New Year party. Actually, people drink everything during the party, but right at midnight, families and friends gather around the table, stand up and clink glasses of champagne wishing each other a healthy, happy and prosperous new year.

Happy New Year!