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From: Robert Bowie (bowierobert@bellsouth.net)
Subject: The Russian Game of Yell
Date: Mon, 30 Mar 2009

The Russian Game of Yell
(Russian Mindsets Series, No. 1)

Russians love haranguing one another in public. Shop girls, people standing in linesany 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. Dont expect service with a smile at the front desk of your hotel (unless its a special luxury 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? Theyre 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, 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 youre happy when youre blue is the American way. Yes, we Americans do like to whine, but we also understand that the default cultural stance, ultimately, is optimism. Youll 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 (lets hope) the global economic recession. 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 persons spirits. Cant 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 overmedicate 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.[ii] 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.[iii]

In his novel about the tribulations of an migr 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?[iv]

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, youll 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 womans dog had grabbed ahold of the girls 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 conductors job to evict themthat 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 dogs 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), youll feel more alive afterwardshyped 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 Im in Russia) is to reply to the yeller in a very calm voice. Say, placidly, Why are you yelling at me? Do you think thats 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; doesnt even know how to play the game of yell.

Some of the above information is on my website. When putting that site together a couple of years ago, I had a young Russian woman read through all the 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; its most certainly not true. But it is feasible that the viewpoint of a foreigner may have validityespecially of one like me, who speaks good Russian, who has spent lots of time in the country, who has a Ph.D. in Russian literature and culture, who has a Russian wife, who has studied many aspects of Russianness for forty years.

After all, even if you are a proficient acrobat, you cant 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 migr 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.[v] 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 onethe brilliant young scholar who had been assigned to chaperone me around while I was there, who sat in on my classesso 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 thats why theyre 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: Im okay, youre okay. What response do I get from (many, but not all) Russians? I discover that theyre 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 youre 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 (despite increased hostility toward Americans since the collapse of the Soviet Union). England is also near the top of that 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, didnt 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 Gogols 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 some 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 smilealthough it resembles more exactly the kind of way somebody somehow screws up his face to sneeze, after snuffling in a strong pinch of snuff.

No yelling here, but it could begin as soon as the visitor departs. Ive 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 Putins 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.

Thats 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). This article was recently run on JRL.

[ii] For more on the complex issue of smiling, see my website, under Russian Mentalities (subheading, Facts about Russia and Russians).

[iii] 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.

[iv] 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.

[v] 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 Christianitythe 10th to the Thirteenth Centuries (Belmont, Mass.: Nordland Publishing Co., 1975), p. xiii.