Sunday, February 24, 2013

For the hell of it: In Soviet Russia...

Just so you know, I've been taking Russian classes for the last year, and I have every intention to one day visit the rodina and check out just what life is like there. I've been curious for years; my specialty in history has been the economy of the Soviet Union, and the country has become no less fascinating since the fall of communism. I really want to see it, smell it, walk around in the place and talk to the people and get a feel for all the differences and similarities.

Call me a glutton for punishment in that regard, because I hate cold weather and I know perfectly well that much of the country dislikes foreigners and I stand a high risk of getting stabbed. A cottage industry sprang up with the Russian discovery of a semi-functional judicial system; people now walk in front of cars trying to get hit so they can take the driver to court. That's why everyone puts dashcams in their car, and that's why we got so much great footage of that asteroid. they drink more than any people on Earth. They have a conscript army where brutal hazing is perfectly normal. They don't fuck around with false ideals of morality that create unearned trust; friendship, in that place, means that this person will wake up at four AM to give you a ride, or hide you from the government, or invade France, just to help you because you are friends. They are, by all accounts, cynical and fatalist and awesome people. The place is insane, and I don't mean that in a bad way at all. I love everything about it. Every other country is hideously boring to study in comparison.

You internet trolls know about the "in Soviet Russia" meme, which ripped off Yakov Smirnov and his comedy routines from the eighties, but in the language class, we sort of found out where all that really came from. Smirnov wasn't just playing a gimmick; there is one genuine difference in the language that makes Russian particularly apt for such jokes, and it comes from the "accusative case." See, the Russian language has case systems for demarcating sentence structure that English does not have. With accusative case, its most common use is for identifying the direct object. In English:

"John reads the book."

In this sentence, John is the subject, reads is the action verb, and book is the direct object. The sentence relies on word order to tell you what's what. But Russians give a honey badger non-fuck about word order; they use the endings of the word to indicate case and, therefore, to indicate what's related to what. Accusative case is typically indicated by ending a word with a "у", which sounds like an "u" for English speakers. So:

"Джон читает книгу." or John chitayet kniegu means John reads the book. But wait:
"Книгу читает Джон." means the EXACT same thing. If the book were the subject, it would use the nominative case, книга, or kniega. Because it ends with a "u," the accusative case is known and the meaning remains with John as the subject and book as the direct object.

You can see it; translate книгу читает Джон more directly into "The book is read by John" if you like, but you know you want to say it: In Soviet Russia, the book reads John.

A thousand jokes are born, starting with Yakov Smirnov but coming to full fruition at the hands of bored kids on the net today. Putin holding a rifle: in Soviet Russia, president assassinates you! Meteorite comes close to obliterating Chelyabinsk: in Soviet Russia, space explores you! And on and on, no end in sight.

The Russian case system, by the way, is fucking brilliant. It's one of the reasons that Russian authors are so ridiculously badass; Dostoevsky and Gogol and Tolstoy and company have liberty to change word order around in artistic ways that are impossible in most other languages, with their sad reliance on word order. If you know Russian well (sorry, I don't so I won't be embarrassing myself by trying to give examples), then you have tools at your command that can create truly unique power. As you can probably imagine, messing with this can shift emphasis, indicate hidden meanings, and just rhythmically flow in mind-boggling ways.

There are other facets of it, some that tell a cultural story. Some Russian speech can indicate that you are associated with something without actually being in possession of it, which they prefer; if you want to express ownership, you have to use the genitive case, which still usually translates directly into being next to something, and not really possessing it. Hippies, light your bongs; this is your kind of language, and that element of it goes back much, much further than communism. The Russian village, the mir, long ago used a system of land distribution where parcels were divided into long, shallow strips and assigned to individual peasants to work, and the strips were re-divided and re-distributed every season. The villagers considered it fair, even thought the incentive to invest in land improvements simply did not exist when using this method. Those villagers didn't care for uppity, enterprising farmers who became excessively influential through trade, anyway; they called them kulaks, and Stalin "took care" of them back in during the first Five Year Plans.

And that's the thing that's most amazing about Russia; it survived Stalin. It's an invincible country. Lots of things seem backwards, an obvious example being that women do lots of construction work, heavy equipment operating, and basically lots of butch tasks we see as being masculine. It's tradition there, because it had to be that way; during World War 2, so many Russian men died that their labor force would not have functioned afterwards relying on men. This isn't Rosy the Riveter; we're talking peacetime. Basically an entire generation of Russian males was wiped out during that war. America, for those of you not up on your history, did not win World War 2. The USSR won it. That Russian fatalism goes hand in hand with an unbeatable capacity to tolerate anything and keep going in the face of absurd difficulty. Of course the Russians were the first people in space: upon hearing that there was a place completely devoid of conditions that could sustain life, totally inhospitable to survival, where shit going wrong was certain to kill you and the unknowns were impossible to count, the Russian leadership boldly looked at it and said, "that's where we belong." Did they elect that leadership? Of course not; they go through the motions of elections today, but sensible Russians know better. Putin is simply in charge. There's no bullshitting around about the Will of the People, as if it was some tangible, measurable thing. Leadership makes decisions and gets shit done, and it doesn't do so as a service to its people but as a service to itself. When you stop lying about the nature of things, you're less likely to be disappointed, you know.

Russian does not use words like is, am, be/being, or do. Such individualistic terms that indicate existential becoming and identity simply do not get the play there that they get in more Westernized cultural contexts. In this respect, Russian is similar to Chinese and other eastern cultures which makes sense geographically. But really, Russia is its own thing. It's a blend, but it's unlike everywhere else. Their history and culture are incomparable to that of any other nation on Earth. They have dealt with ridiculous power and ridiculous struggle in ways that are difficult to grasp.

And the flights are cheap through Aeroflot, the airline that's like rolling dice with your life. How appropriate! Pass the vodka, товарищ!

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