Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Translation of Poem by IVAN BUNIN, "ПОРТРЕТ," "THE PORTRAIT"



Погост, часовенка над склепом,
Венки, лампадки, образа
И в раме, перевитой крепом, —
Большие ясные глаза.
Сквозь пыль на стеклах, жарким светом
Внутри часовенка горит.
«Зачем я в склепе, в полдень, летом?» —
Незримый кто-то говорит.
Кокетливо-проста прическа
И пелеринка на плечах...
А тут повсюду — капли воска
И банты крепа на свечах,
Венки, лампадки, пахнет тленьем...
И только этот милый взор
Глядит с веселым изумленьем
На этот погребальный вздор.
Март, 1903?
Literal Translation

The Portrait

A graveyard, a small chapel over a crypt,
Wreaths, votive lamps, icons,
And in a frame intertwined with crape—
The large clear eyes.

The interior of the chapel burns with a hot light
Through the dust on its glass.
“Why am I in a crypt, at noon, in summer?”
An invisible someone says.

The hairstyle coquettish and plain,
And a pelerine on the shoulders . . .
And all over there are drops of wax
And crape bows on candles,

The wreaths, votive lamps, the smell of decay . . .
And only that dear gaze
That looks with joyous amazement
On that sepulchral nonsense.
March, 1903 (?)

Literary Translation/Adaptation by U.R. Bowie

The Portrait
A graveyard chapel and a crypt,   
With wreaths and icons, windows glazed,
And from a frame wound round with crape—
The large clear eyes peer out amazed.

The votive candles walls illume,
Through dust on glass the chapel glows.
“In crypt I lie, midsummer, noon?”
A soft voice vents sepulchral woes.

Coiffure coquettish, simple, plain,
Her shoulders draped with mantelet . . .
The spattered wax on walls and pane,
And crape bows on the wax rosette.

The lamps and wreaths, a scent of rot . . .
And nothing more but those dear eyes
That startled, joyful, stare at naught
But dregs and lees steeped in demise.


Translator’s Notes

Generally acknowledged as the best short story Bunin ever wrote is his «Легкое дыхание» (“Light Breathing”), published in 1916. Here is how it begins [my translation in the book, Ivan Bunin, Night of Denial: Stories and Novellas, translated, with notes and critical afterword, by Robert Bowie, Northwestern University Press, 2006, p. 507]:

In the graveyard, above a fresh clay mound, stands a new cross made of oak, sturdy, ponderous, smooth.
                April, gray days. The tombstones here, in this spacious provincial graveyard, can be seen from afar through the bare trees, and a cold wind keeps dangling and rattling the porcelain wreath at the foot of the cross.
                There is a large convex porcelain medallion set into the cross, and the medallion contains a photographic portrait of a schoolgirl with joyous, strikingly living eyes.
                This is Olya Mesherskaya.

In Bunin’s note on the origins of this story [see  Bunin, Sob. soch. 9: 369] he describes how one winter, while strolling around a small cemetery on the Isle of Capri, he came upon a cross containing a photograph of a young girl with uncommonly vivacious, joyful eyes. Back in Russia, in March of 1916, he was asked to contribute a story to the Easter issue of the journal “Russian Word.” He immediately recalled the girl’s photograph from the cemetery in Capri and made this girl into Olya in his imagination; he wrote the story with that ‘exquisite rapidity’ that characterized the happiest moments of his writing life. For more on “Light Breathing” see my notes in the above collection, p. 611-15, and discussion of the story in my afterword, p. 689-98.

The poem translated above, “The Portrait,” written apparently in 1903 and first published in 1906, is something like an early draft for the material that was to become “Light Breathing.”

                                                                  Portraits of Ivan Bunin

Artist: Bukovetsky

Photograph, 1905

Artist: L.S. Bakst, Paris, 1921

Friday, July 17, 2020

Translation of Poem by IVAN BUNIN, "TEMDZHID" "Тэмджид"

Whirling Dervishes at the Walls of Bukhara

                                           Тяжела, темна стезя земная.


Ivan Bunin


Он не спит, не дремлет.

В тихом старом городе Скутари,
Каждый раз, как только надлежит
Быть средине ночи, – раздается
Грустный и задумчивый Тэмджид.
На средине между ранним утром
И вечерним сумраком встают
Дервиши Джелвети и на башне
Древний гимн, святой Тэмджид поют.
Спят сады и спят гробницы в полночь,
Спит Скутари. Все, что спит, молчит.
Но под звездным небом с темной башни
Не для спящих этот гимн звучит:
Есть глаза, чей скорбный взгляд с тревогой,
С тайной мукой в сумрак устремлен,
Есть уста, что страстно и напрасно
Призывают благодатный сон.
Тяжела, темна стезя земная.
Но зачтется в небе каждый вздох:
Спите, спите! Он не спит, не дремлет,
Он вас помнит, милосердый бог.

Literal Translation


He sleeps not, drowses not.
The Koran

In the quiet old city of Skutari,
Each time, as soon as the night
Finds itself in its mid hours, rings out
The sad and pensive Temdzhid.

At the midpoint between early morning
And evening twilight the Halveti dervishes
Get up, and on the tower [minaret]
They sing the ancient hymn, the sacred Temdzhid.

The gardens sleep, the sepulchres sleep at midnight,
Skutari sleeps. All that sleeps is silent.
But beneath the starry sky from the dark tower
That hymn resounds for those not sleeping:

There are eyes whose sorrowing gaze with anxiousness,
With a secret torment is trained upon the murk,
And there are lips that passionately and in vain
Call out for blessed sleep.

Burdensome, dark is the earthly path.
But every sigh is taken account of in heaven:
Sleep, sleep! He does not sleep, does not drowse,
He remembers you, merciful God.


Literary Translation/Adaptation by U.R. Bowie


He sleeps not, drowses not.
The Koran

In the placid ancient city of Skutari,
As evening wends its way into the night,
From minarets that loom o’er Dede Efendi,
Resounds the pensive music of Temdzhid.

At witching time midway twixt gloaming hour
And morning’s dawn the dervishes perform;
They stand and whirl on high Efendi’s tower,
And sing their ageless hymn, revered Temdzhid.

The sepulchres at midnight, the lovely gardens sleep,
Skutari sleeps in silence, its daylight cares dismissed, 
But under starry skies floats down from minaret
That hymn designed for those who turn and twist.

Their anxious eyes are fixed, intent on midnight murk,
They gaze in secret torment as the shadows slowly creep,
Their lips voice desperate cries, but all in vain,
They plead and whisper prayers for blessed sleep.

Dark and filled with pitfalls is this earthly road of life,
But every human sigh below is reckoned up on high,
Sleep on, O mortal, sleep! God sleeps not, drowses not,
He thinks of you, his mercy’s rife, He watches from the sky.


Translator’s Notes

In the original Russian the rhyme scheme is unusual: Bunin rhymes only two lines out of each four-line stanza. I have done the same in the translation.

Skutari is the Italian and English name for Üsküdar, a large and densely populated district of Istanbul, Turkey, located on the Anatolian shore of the Bosphorus. The Halveti-Jerrahi is an Islamic Sufi brotherhood, an order of dervishes. According to a note in Bunin’s Collected Works in Nine Volumes [Sob. soch. v 9-i tomakh, I, 546], in the tower of the Dede Efendi Monastery the Halveti dervishes year round performed the so-called Temdzhid at midnight. In other mosques this song was sung only during Ramadan. The dervishes at Efendi sang the song by way of sending out consolation to insomniacs.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

New Novel by U.R. Bowie: "LOOKING GOOD"

Looking Good takes a long hard, but frequently humorous, look at life in America in the nineties. Its major themes include racism, sexual violence, mothers and sons. It emphasizes the ways people look at, or refuse to look at, themselves, others, and life.

            The action of the novel revolves around a sensational episode that actually occurred: the gang rape (or non-rape) of a white woman by a large number of black professional football players from Cincinnati. The viewpoint of working class white America toward blacks, Native Americans, and other minorities is broadly treated. In a book about racism the very narrative is suffused with racist views; there is, however, no overriding didactic message. Looking Good tries to show how people are: bad and good simultaneously. Neither the white racists nor the black rapists in the story are portrayed as monsters.

            Each chapter is composed of a series of short sub-chapters.  Some of these describe childhood, or future, events in the lives of the football players and the woman they raped (or didn't).  Ancillary stories, meanwhile, develop the novel's main themes. An old homosexual couple journeys to Florida, to swim with the manatees. Work progresses toward completion of the monument to Chief Crazy Horse in South Dakota. Reading his morning paper in Indianapolis, a working class white man ruminates, angrily, on his country’s problems. Periodically, the author of Looking Good, O. Beauvais, takes a break from composing his novel to bemoan the psychic hazards of describing violence in fiction. 

            Looking Good takes a look at sex cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, at manatee homosexual behavior, at radio talk show racism, at the yellow-bellied lizard (scheltopusik), at Lakota Sioux shamanic traditions, at middle class political correctness, at the ways people are kind, or horribly cruel, to one another, at the amazing fact that anything can happen in life. Anything. Even happiness.

Looking Good
Back Cover Copy

“Look at the world, the universe, and in the act of looking you’ll discern your life, your self. There it is! See? The minuscule speck of something, floundering out there in the ether. Yeah, that’s you.”
                                                                         O.G. Zakamora, Philosophical Speculations

Looking Good is a novel about looking, all the ways we look good, and look bad; the ways looking can be bad for us and good for us. A major theme of the novel is the transgressive nature of looking, how looking can sometimes be associated with violence. The novel begins with an oblique description of a gang rape, committed by professional football players in a hotel room, and the repercussions of this incident permeate the whole rest of the story. Does the reader really want to look at something as hideous as this, or is the writer himself guilty of violence—in forcing the reader to look? Such questions are implicit throughout the narrative.                  

The theme of looking also underlies descriptions of the ongoing work on a huge statue—the Crazy Horse Memorial—which amounts to a graven image of Chief Crazy Horse, carved from a stone massif in the Black Hills of South Dakota. This despite such a monument’s being proscribed as sacrilegious by Oglala-Lakota orthodoxy. Crazy Horse never allowed his picture to be taken, assuming that the making of a photograph would enable malfeasants to capture his image and conjure with it. Now, as his image emerges from out of the rock, his spirit rebels at the invasive looking he will face—the threat of the evil eye.

Although set twenty-five years ago, Looking Good touches on issues that are still at the forefront of American life in the year 2020: racism, black violence, the plight of the Native American, and humanity’s perpetual, incorrigible insistence on being inhumane to man and woman.

One more thing: who would dare publish a novel titled Looking Good in the Year of the Great Plague, 2020? Well, uh, I guess I would. How is America looking in 2020, homosapien? Be an optimist, be an American! We’re looking GOOD.

MAX ERNST and The Transgressive Nature of Looking, LOOKING GOOD, novel by U.R.BOWIE

My latest novel, Looking Good, has just been published. The above is what I had envisaged as the cover of the work, but, alas, I could not get permission to use the Max Ernst painting.

U.R. Bowie

The Transgressive Nature of Looking

Max Ernst, “The Blessed Virgin Chastising the Child Jesus Before Three Witnesses: A.B. [André Breton], P.E. [Paul Eluard], and the Artist,” 1926.

I was introduced to this painting by the art critic Leo Steinberg, who, in an article titled “This Is a Test,” commented on the Max Ernst exhibition (1993) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Ernst, writes Steinberg, emphasizes the transgressive, even blasphemous act of looking at this painting. He first establishes that the three witnesses described in the title—although pictured in a square window at the back—are not looking at this disturbing scene at all. We see the profiles of Breton and Eluard, and, standing behind them, Max Ernst, who is staring with a very intense gaze not at Mother and Child, but at the spectator in the gallery, i.e., at you and me who look. Why are two of the “witnesses” not looking out the window at all? We can only surmise. Perhaps they have already looked, and, disgusted with what they saw, have turned away.

Leo Steinberg’s main point is that anyone viewing this painting in a gallery is conniving with forces of evil in an act of blasphemy. “The painting is engineered to embarrass; so long as I look, I am exposed to the artist’s accusing gaze as he watches the churl in me trapped in the act of ogling a sacrilege” (New York Review of Books, May 13, 1993, p. 24).

Later, also in the NYRB (May 26, 2005, p.6), John Updike comments on the painting, then on exhibition again at the Met. He makes reference to the Steinberg article, quoting the passage about blasphemous looking. He also has this to say: “The original exhibition, including Ernst’s assaultive painting . . . was closed by church pressure because of it; at the Met, alone on a large wall and protected by glass against possible Christian vandals, it exerts a sensuous spell . . . 

While this scene cannot be enrolled in Christian iconography—it has no Gospel authority, for one thing—Ernst has created something iconic, which all who take seriously the doctrine of the Incarnation, and all it entails, cannot lightly dismiss.”

But now it appears that Ernst did not himself invent this scene of Mother whipping Child. Still later, in a letter written to NYRB (September 22, 2005, p. 85) Steinberg amplifies his original assertions. In response to his earlier piece, a reader had written him, suggesting that Ernst may have been privy to an Appalachian folk ballad, originating, apparently in Scotland, as early as the fourteenth century. In this song the boy Jesus gets even with three other boys who have refused to play with him:

We are sons of lords and ladies all,
And born in bower and hall,
While you are only a Jew-maid’s child,
Born in an ox’s stall.

He builded a bridge from the beams of the sun
And over the water danced he,
There followed him those rich young men
And drownded they were all three.

Then Mary mild fetched home her child
And laid him across her knee,
She took a switch from the withy tree,
And gave him slashes three.

I have not looked into any other research on the painting, but I suspect that European specialists in art have unearthed other examples of folk legends that may have inspired Ernst. There are more descriptions of the boy Jesus in the non-canonical Gnostic Gospels. The theme of looking as blasphemous is featured in various works of world literature. For example, in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, the rather twisted girl, Liza Khokhlakova takes a voluptuous pleasure in looking at the crucified Christ: “Sometimes I imagine that it was I who crucified him. He hangs there moaning, and I sit down facing him, eating pineapple compote. I like pineapple compote very much. Do you?” 

Much influenced by Dostoevsky, the twentieth-century writer Fyodor Sologub has a similar scene in his novel, The Petty Demon. The voluptuary Ludmila says, “I dream of Him sometimes, you know. He is on the cross and there are little droplets of blood on His body.”


What does any of this have to do with my novel, Looking Good? To answer briefly, a major theme of the novel is the transgressive nature of looking, how looking can sometimes be associated with violence. The major event of the novel is a gang rape, committed by football players in a hotel room. Throughout the novel the act of looking is treated in a variety of ways; at its most violent and aggressive, it verges on rape.

Poem by Carol Ann Duffy

The Virgin Punishing the Infant

He spoke early. Not the goo goo goo of infancy,
but I am God. Joseph kept away, carving himself
a silent Pinocchio out in the workshed. He said
he was a simple man and hadn't dreamed of this.

She grew anxious in that second year, would stare
at stars saying Gabriel, Gabriel. Your guess.
The village gossiped in the sun. The child was solitary,
his wide and solemn eyes could fill your head.

After he walked, our normal children crawled. Our wives
were first resentful, then superior. Mary's child
would bring her sorrow ... better far to have a son
who gurgled nonsense at your breast. Googoo. Googoo.

But I am God. We heard him through the window,
heard the smacks which made us peep. What we saw
was commonplace enough. But afterwards, we wondered
why the infant did not cry, why the Mother did.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Translation of Poem by IVAN BUNIN, "Лес шумит невнятным, ровным шумом..."An even, hazy hum runs through the glade,"


Ivan Bunin

Лес шумит невнятным, ровным шумом...
Лепет листьев клонит в сон и лень...
Петухи в далекой караулке
Распевают про весенний день.

Лес шумит невнятным, тихим шумом...
Хорошо и беззаботно мне
На траве, среди берез зеленых,
В тихой и безвестной стороне!

Literal Translation

The woods sound with an indistinct, even hum . . .
The rustle of leaves inclines one to drowse and be lazy . . .
Roosters in some far-distant sentry post
Sing out loudly about the spring day.

The woods sound with an indistinct, quiet hum . . .
I feel good and free of cares
On the grass amidst the green birches,
In this quiet and unknown land!


Literary Translation/Adaptation by U.R. Bowie

An even, hazy hum runs through the glade,
The rustling leaves to laze and drowse incline . . .
The roosters faraway in sun-specked shade,
Their vernal tidings sing, in crows benign.

A quiet, hazy hum runs through the glade . . .
To succor me and send my soul repose,
I lie midst birch grove green, my worries fade,
In this enchanted realm where stillness flows.

Variant of This Poem, Not Published in Bunin’s Collected Works in Nine Volumes, but Published in a Two-Volume Set of Collected Poetry in 2014 (First Two Stanzas Are Identical)
Лес шумит невнятным, ровным шумом…
Лепет листьев клонит в сон и лень…
Петухи в далёкой караулке
Распевают про весенний день.

Лес шумит невнятным, тихим шумом…
Хорошо и беззаботно мне
На траве, среди берёз зелёных,
В тихой и безвестной стороне!

Так привык я к горю и заботам,
Что мне странен этот ясный день,
Точно должен упрекнуть себя я
И за эту радость, и за лень.

Но укор в улыбке замирает…
Лес шумит, дрожит узор теней…
Убегает светлый лепет листьев,
Тихий лепет светлых детских дней!


Literal Translation
The woods sound with an indistinct, even hum . . .
The rustle of leaves inclines one to drowse and be lazy . . .
Roosters in some far-distant sentry post
Sing out loudly about the spring day.

The woods sound with an indistinct, quiet hum . . .
I feel good and free of cares
On the grass amidst the green birches,
In this quiet and unknown land!

I have grown so used to grief and to troubles
That this clear day is strange to me,
As if I have to rebuke myself
For both this joy and for this laziness.

But the censure in my smile dies away . . .
The woods sound, the tracery of shade quavers . . .
The bright rustle of leaves runs away,
That quiet rustle of bright days of childhood!


Literary Translation/Adaptation by U.R. Bowie

An even, hazy hum runs through the glade,
The rustling leaves to laze and drowse incline . . .
The roosters faraway in sun-specked shade,
Their vernal tidings sing, in crows benign.

A quiet, hazy hum runs through the glade . . .
To succor me and send my soul repose,
I lie midst birch grove green, my worries fade,
In this enchanted realm where stillness flows.

So used I’ve come to live with grief and dole
That this clear lustrous day seems strange to me,
As if I needs must chide my self, my soul
For feeling joyful, light at heart and free.

But censure and rebuke on my smile fades . . .
The woods hum on, the lacy shadows laze,
The leaves’ bright hum dissolves, in flight abrades
The quiet rustle of bright childhood days.

                                                             Bunin Statue in Yefremov

Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Russian Game of Yell

The Russian Game of Yell
(“Russian Mindsets Series”)

Russians love haranguing one another in public. Shop girls, people standing in lines—any place that strangers come together, interact, there will be strife. Of course, there may also be strife in courtrooms, political forums, at family gatherings, etc., but that is not the topic of this piece. This is about how strangers relate to one another on the streets, at the windows of kiosks, or at any other glass-covered windows, where the petitioner has to bend down to the small slot at the bottom, so as to make himself heard by the scowling woman behind that thick glass, who is “serving” him.

The first thing that strikes any American tourist visiting Russia is the spirit of brusqueness and petulance that envelops the country like a dark cloud. Ask a simple question of a person in the “service industry,” and you may get a snarl in reply. Don’t expect service with a smile at the front desk of your hotel (unless it’s a hotel for foreigners); sometimes you will not even be treated with what Americans consider the bare minimum of politeness.

In fact, Russians are completely acculturated to brusque interactions—between shoppers and salespersons, between strangers on the streets, between petitioners and those who wait on them in the halls of the complex bureaucracy, etc. In such situations what Americans see as rudeness is, for Russians, just the norm.

Recently much has been made of the Russian tendency to stroll about the streets with dour faces.[i] On the basis of this one fact sunny-faced American tourists often return from Moscow or St. Petersburg in astonishment: how come everybody over there is so unhappy? They’re uncouth, they treat people gruffly, they never smile, etc. Russians, with some justification, have replied that just because you are not smiling all the time, that does not mean you are unhappy. Russians smile when they have a reason for smiling. True, but they also (1) often look upon smiling foreigners as idiots or fools, and (2) deprecate their own compatriots if they smile overmuch.  

It seems that somebody in the government has picked up on this, because there are propaganda posters in the Moscow metro system of late (2009), inveigling people to smile more. Is this the beginning of a new official policy? Is it aimed, primarily, at encouraging more polite treatment of foreign tourists who visit Russia? If whoever came up with the idea for this “piar” (P.R.) campaign really thinks that these posters will do any good, however, that unknown person has another think coming. Why? Because changing long-standing cultural stances anywhere is a near impossible task.

Can you equate smiling with happiness? By no means. Smiles are used for all kinds of reasons, and a smiling face does not automatically make for a happy person. In the recent Hollywood film “Ghost Town” there is an American woman who sits in a dental chair, blathering on incessantly about her son, smiling broadly—except when the irascible dentist, an Englishman, plugs up her teeth and mouth with dental paraphernalia. Only at the end of the film do we learn that this is her way of expressing (or concealing) her pain, since she has recently lost her husband. The American smile, as well as the American reply, “Just fine,” to the automatic “How you doing?” question, are often used (1) for stifling inner pain (2) for keeping private sorrows private, or (3) for self-encouragement. “Pretend you’re happy when you’re blue” is the American way. Yes, we Americans do like to whine, but we also understand that the default cultural stance, ultimately, is optimism. “You’ll find that life is still worthwhile, if you just smile.”

If you keep on smiling and pretend long enough, you might even pretend your way out of the blues, or (let’s hope) the global economic recession and the pandemic. I once saw a psychological study claiming that not only smiling, but also the very movement of the lips into the position of the smile, help elevate a person’s spirits. Can’t prove this, but it just might make sense.

Is happiness measurable? Hardly. No one can even define the word “happiness,” and different individuals have different measures of personal happiness. Americans over-medicate their unhappiness, their depression and anxiety, and Russians are right to criticize us for this. It is, however, difficult to ignore altogether the annual “Happy Person Index.” The most recent one I saw ranked Russia at #174 out of the 176 countries listed. It is also impossible to ignore the suicide rates for the Russian Federation. Perhaps one reason the government is promoting smiles is that it hopes to promote more happiness and less disgruntlement in these difficult economic times.

Getting Russians to overcome a thousand years of cultural mores, of course, is, perhaps, the biggest problem that the country has. One of these cultural mores is the imperative not to smile too much. Another is the sheer joy that Russians take in disgruntlement.

Is it possible to find gratification in grumpy behavior, or even in pain? Absolutely. While pain is practically against the law in the U.S.A., it is certainly not so thoroughly disparaged in Russia. Severe asceticism and mortification of the flesh are big in the tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church. A passage from the Orthodox prayer book goes as follows: “I thank Thee, O Lord, for the sorrow Thou hast sent me; as something meet and proper I accept it in accord with my deeds. Pray for me in Thy Heavenly Kingdom.”[ii]

In his novel about the tribulations of an émigré Russian professor in the America of the fifties, PNIN, Vladimir Nabokov eviscerates American meliorism and rants against the Freudian love of “psychobabble,” which is still extremely popular in the U.S. fifty years later. At one point Professor Pnin states his opinion that “The history of man is the history of pain!” At another point he propagates the following “un-American” message: “Why not leave their private sorrows to people? Is sorrow not, one asks, the only thing in the world people really possess?”[iii]

Back to the antagonism on the streets, in the queues, in the stores, etc. Russians often play a kind of subconscious game called “You yell at me and then I yell at you.” If you are in Russia, you’ll see this sort of thing going on all the time: people fighting over taxis, arguing with those who butt into lines, etc. Long standoffs often ensue. I once watched (in Moscow) a verbal duel between an old woman and a hippified teenage girl. I was not there to see the beginning of this episode, but when I walked by I noticed the girl (with a group of other young people) and the woman, railing at each other. The old woman’s dog had grabbed ahold of the girl’s coat sleeve with its teeth and held her arm tight. The interchange went (on and on) as follows: the girl cursed and cursed and told the old lady to get the dog off her. Occasionally her friends chimed in, adding some strong opinions in support of the girl with the dog on her arm. The old lady, for her part, repeated, over and over, the words, “Ne rugajtes’ matom!” (“Stop using bad language!”).

Years ago I also once saw a bus conductor try to throw off some “zajtsy”—people who had not bought tickets and were trying to ride for free. Maybe they refused to exit the bus because it was not the conductor’s job to evict them—that was up to a special ticket inspector who would get on the bus periodically and check all riders for tickets. The conductor took it upon himself to stop the bus and demand that the illegal riders get off, and the illegal riders sat tight. The antagonists mouthed back and forth at one another, but both sides remained adamant. The other passengers began grumbling over the stalemate because the bus was not moving. Like the friends of the young lady whose arm was in the dog’s mouth, they (the passengers) created a kind of background chorus for the two main polemical melodies. Yielding, breaking off your song (and maybe this is the most important point) means, of course, that you lose face—and shame yourself in front of the chorus of onlookers.

These arguments are certainly genuine, yet somehow they strike me as simultaneously ritualized play arguments. The game of yell livens up what, for many Russians, is a dreary and lackluster life. If you get in a fight (even if you lose), you’ll feel more alive afterwards—hyped up psychologically. On the other hand, if you prefer not to play the game of yell, your best tack—I use this all the time when I’m in Russia—is to reply to the yeller in a very calm voice. Say, placidly, “Why are you yelling at me? Do you think that’s a civilized way to behave in public? Am I yelling at you?” This usually gets them befuddled and stops the game. They walk away, muttering to themselves, “Stupid foreigner; doesn’t even know how to play the game of yell.”

When putting my website together a couple of years ago, I had a young Russian woman read through my commentary on Russian mentalities. She did so, then sent me an e-mail, in which she commented that she was impressed, while simultaneously entertained, by my opinions. “You seem to know,” she said, “more about us than we know about ourselves.”

This hardly seems possible; it’s most certainly not true. But it is feasible that the viewpoint of a foreigner may have validity, especially one like me, who speaks Russian and has studied the culture of the country for forty years. After all, even if you are a proficient acrobat, you can’t leap outside yourself, then look back and evaluate the soul and psyche you just were a part of. Similarly, Russians are hard put to step out of the national mythology they live by, in order to stand aside and take a fresh look at it, and themselves.

The great émigré scholar George Fedotov once implied, furthermore, that foreigners, being at one remove from Russians in the flesh, may be able to see something of the forest through the birch trees.[iv] Russian views on American idiosyncrasies (from informed observers) should also be much appreciated. They (usually) are not. The reason is simple: nobody wants an outsider rummaging around in his cherished cultural mores.

When I taught one course on Russian literature as a Fulbright Scholar at Novgorod State University a few years ago, were there any professors in the Department of Russian Literature who thought that I, an American and non-native speaker, had any valid points to make about Russian literature? There was a grand total of one—the brilliant young scholar who had been assigned to chaperone me around while I was there, who sat in on my classes—so that none of the others would have to bother with me. At the end of my sojourn in Novgorod I gave two open lectures on Vladimir Nabokov, in Russian, well attended and much appreciated by the students who were there. None of the professors from the department showed up for those lectures either.

Such widespread cultural chauvinism, however, was not characteristic of a certain renowned professor at a famous Russian university (we will name no names, places, or dates). This professor published an article on a nineteenth century Russian writer who is canonical. The bulk of the article was plagiarized from a book written, in English, by an American woman scholar.

My respondent, the young woman who checked my website, disagreed with a few things I said, including, most prominently, my remarks about Russian yelling. She insisted that this is not a game at all: that Russians are genuinely antagonized, and that’s why they’re always going chin to chin. I agree. Am I ambivalent? Well, as the old joke goes, yes and no. By this I mean that when strangers rail at one another in all sorts of public situations they (1) are dead serious and (2) are playing a kind of game and deriving psychological satisfaction from the play. Can a human being be dead serious and playing a game simultaneously? Absolutely. We do this on a daily basis. Of all nationalities, furthermore, Russians may be the most masterful at performing in this psychological theater of the absurd.  

Related to the yelling thing is the importance of pecking orders in Russia. Westerners have no concept of how important it is in Russian society to establish your proper place. Countless times I have walked into a social situation, smiling, affable, joking--in other words, using the American style of social concourse: “I’m okay, you’re okay.” What response do I get from (many, but not all) Russians? I discover that they’re up in my face, pushy, condescending to me, disrespecting me. Whereupon I put on my mean side and get them out of my face. They immediately understand the mistake they have made: “Ah, so you’re higher than me on the pecking order.” Then they proceed to wheedle and kowtow to me. But they feel better anyway. At least they know where they stand.

On the other hand, this issue frequently does not even arise if you are a foreigner from the West (the U.S. or Western Europe). On the unwritten prestige list America is still No. 1, although the longstanding (centuries long) idea of the U.S. as a kind of Cinderella promised land has taken a big hit since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the past thirty years, for the first time in their history, Russians have had the opportunity to visit—or even live in—the U.S., and close contact with the American Dream has made them much more cynical about the American Dream—and about the acumen and even intelligence of the American people.

England is also near the top of that prestige list (despite all the strife between England and Russia in recent times—over BP, over closing down British NGOs, and over political murder). If you are British or American you still get an almost automatic respect in Russia. But try asking Africans, Asians, foreigners from the Third World how they are received in Russia. On the international pecking order list they are way, way down. At the very bottom are “guest workers” from former countries of the Soviet Union, such as Tajikistan.

It is among themselves, of course, that Russians battle most strenuously to prove that they are SOMEBODY. That is why a woman who elbows her way to the front of the taxi line, who successfully outshouts others in the line, feels so good about herself as she rides off in that taxi. “I may not have a job, I may not even have the money to afford to take this taxi home, but I showed those lowdown worms, didn’t I?”

Here is a Russian scene summing up, from a slightly different angle, much of what I have been discussing: interpersonal behavior in public places, pecking orders, smiles—and  laughter: which could be the subject of a different, broad article about Russian culture. It is from Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, a novel composed in the 1830s, and, simultaneously, a novel telling you many important things you need to know about how Russia operates today. Using one of his expanded metaphors, Gogol describes the arrival of a high-level bureaucrat to inspect a government office (Part I, Chapter 8).

At first all the workers put on faces of joy, mingled with apprehension. They want to show the big cheese how happy they are to see him, but they are scared stiff. Then, “after the initial fear has abated,” after it becomes apparent that the cheese has “found a lot of things to be pleased with,” they relax, especially when the important personage treats them to a little joking remark. Gogol describes how that joke ripples out in laughter over the assembled government officials, how they all guffaw obsequiously and uproariously, until, finally, the ripple reaches a gendarme manning the far door, a man “who has never laughed in his whole life, who just a minute earlier had been showing his fist to the rabble outside,” and even he, the dour and strong-armed enforcer, gives vent to something like a smile—although it resembles more exactly “the kind of way somebody somehow screws up his face to sneeze, after snuffling in a strong pinch of snuff.”

I’ve never been present when the redoubtable Vladimir Putin has dropped in some Russian office for a visit, but the odds are good that—on the days Putin’s in a joking mood—he too may make a jocular remark, and if he does, we get the precise scene that Gogol has already described. Furthermore, we realize that this scene is a part of the grand human repertoire, that it has been acted out all over the world from time out of mind. This should remind us that in speaking of Russian mindsets we are often speaking, as well, about HUMAN BEHAVIOR worldwide.

That’s one thing I love about Russians: they are such human beings. They represent the grand extremes of human activity, good and bad. They, the Russians, often show aspects of ourselves to us, all blown up, magnified a hundred times. If we were to assemble people from all over the world, put them on the floor of a gymnasium and tell them to scream, who would be screaming the loudest? The Russians.

To take another example of literary prescience, Fyodor Dostoevsky described with precision the fallacies of socialism and communism—in NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND, in THE DEVILS, and in other works of fiction—years before Lenin seized power and the U.S.S.R. came into being, determined to put socialism into practice. The lesson here is: Read the genius of Gogol, of Dostoevsky; read classical Russian literature, the greatest literature in the world.

Returning, finally, to the issue of the obstreperous “in your face,” attitudes, I do not pretend that I have exhausted the topic in this short piece. The yelling business ties in not only with things I have mentioned, but also with any number of other intricate aspects of the Russian national character: vulnerability, distrust of everyone except close friends and relatives, the inferiority-superiority complex, and so on. These are all subjects for separate articles.

[i] See, e.g., Marina Krakovsky, “Global Psyche, National Poker Face,” Psychology Today, No. 1 (January/February, 2009).
[ii] This prayer, incidentally, did not originate in Russia. It is an ancient prayer of St. John of the Ladder, a revered figure in the early Orthodox Church (sixth century A.D.). Fasting, self-abnegation, acceptance of pain are out of favor in modern-day America, but these practices and attitudes were important in the tradition of early Christianity, to which the highly conservative Russian Orthodox Church adheres to this day.
[iii] Vladimir Nabokov, PNIN (NY: Doubleday), originally published in book form in 1957. This novel is overflowing with creative insights into the American character, presented from the viewpoint of highly intelligent Russians living in the U.S. My citations are from the 1984 paperback edition, p.168 and p.52.
[iv] “Some western writers. . . such as Leroy-Beaulieu in France, had been able to see features of Russian mind and life which had escaped Russian observers who were dulled by nearness and habit.” George P. Fedotov, THE RUSSIAN RELIGIOUS MIND (I): Kievan Christianity—the 10th to the Thirteenth Centuries (Belmont, Mass.: Nordland Publishing Co., 1975), p. xiii.

P.S.: This article was written about ten years ago, but the basic situation is little changed. In my last visit to the Russian Federation, November, 2016, I came upon the usual screaming woman behind the thick glass partition at the train station in Sergiev Posad. It was cold, dark, snowing, I was trying to buy a ticket on the electrichka back to Moscow, and I made the mistake of asking too many questions: where the platform was, how to get to it, etc. Things I needed to know, but which she assumed I should already know.