Sample Passages from The Russian Context

Excerpt from Chapter 1, “Russia's History,” pp. 38-39:

Golden Age of the Nobility                                       

Life in Society                                                            

The 18th century is often known as the Golden Age of the Nobility
, since Peter’s reforms eventually led to the creation of a new
class of Europeanized Russians. The ways of life for these nobles changed
greatly, not only in external fashions: low-cut hoop dresses for women, frock
coats and breeches for men, powdered wigs for both; but also in the very pat-
terns of socialization. Peter was the first to establish assemblies  
where men and women were expected to socialize together (previously Russian
noble women had been strictly segregated from male company, spending their
lives in quarters known as the terem ). In the following decades, fashions
and manners became even more Europeanized, with French becoming the stan-
dard language of social occasions. The year was divided into the winter social
season in the cities, and the summer retreat to the country estate (
). Presence in the cities (preferably Moscow or St. Petersburg) for the
winter season’s balls and entertainment was important even for the less affluent
gentry since it provided the best venue for match-making and marriages. Visit-
ing and receiving guests became a significant form of socializing in the second
half of the 18th century, and it came to be considered “good form” for the host
to be hospitable even beyond his means. Having guests necessitated elaborate,
lengthy meals with exotic ingredients served with imported wines. These din-
ners were followed by entertainment — often in the form of a home
theater (the most famous “domestic theater” belonged to the
Sheremet´ev counts, with performances in their Moscow palace at Ostankino
) or orchestra (whose actors, singers, and musicians were trained
serfs), followed by dancing, card games, billiards, walks through exquisite gar-
dens, and so on. Extravagance in entertainment became a way of life, and ex-
penditures for building, furnishing and maintenance of city and country homes
(with all of their related outbuildings ) became highly significant.                

Excerpt from Chapter 2, “Quoting Russian Poetry,” pp. 98-99:

One of the poems that best illustrates just how far Pushkin and his work
have infiltrated the Russian mind and speech is “To Chaadaev”
(1818). Petr Iakovlevich Chaadaev was Pushkin’s free-thinking, Western-
oriented philosopher friend. His unorthodox views led to his being declared

We did not revel in the illusions of love, of hope, and of peaceful fame
for long; the amusements of youth soon vanished like a dream, like
morning mist. But our hearts still burn with yearning; under the yoke
of oppression we await the call of the fatherland. In an anguish of anti-
cipation, we long, like a young lover would long for an agreed-upon
rendezvous, for the moment when sacred freedom will come. While
freedom still inflames us, while our hearts are still devoted, let us, my
friend, dedicate to our fatherland our soul’s noble impulses! Believe,
my friend: the star of enchanting happiness will rise, Russia will rouse
herself from her long sleep, and on the ruins of tyranny the nation will
write our names.
The sincerity and ardor of this poem can bring tears to the eyes of any Russian;
just to say the words “the star of enchanting
happiness” or “the soul’s noble impulses” is to
step into a magic world of happiness and hope. This, however, does not prevent
a Russian from enjoying the sacrilegious use of the same lines to mock the
hypocrisy of the authorities, as in an old pre-perestroika joke:

“Why do you have Pushkin’s portrait on the wall in the KGB office?
Why not Dzerzhinsky’s [founder of the KGB]?”
“Because he was the first to say ‘Strangle the noble impulses!’
[= ‘The soul’s noble impulses’].”

This quotation has to be pronounced with the intonation of an imperative. The
punchline is based on the coincidence between the Genitive of (‘soul’)
and the imperative of the verb (‘strangle, repress’), which is of course
lost in translation. Another joke of the perestroika period shows people’s bewilderment
and mistrust of the entire concept of glasnost:

Comrade, trust me: the era of Gorbachev’s glasnost will pass,
and the KGB will remember our names.

Excerpt from Chapter 5, “Proverbs and Sayings,” p. 301:

Sayings are frequently used in the media, where they usually help create a
catchy headline or caption. They are supposed to impress readers with their
wit, and are often meant to be humorous or ironic. Sometimes, by appealing to
widely accepted traditional wisdom, they are used for persuasion as well. Proverbs
rarely appear in headlines in their full original form. Most often, they are
altered or cut short, with the reader expected to recognize the allusion. They
tend to appear in headings of a less objective and less serious nature, mostly in
contexts equivalent to the American “Sports,” “Living,” or “People” sections.
A 1992 newspaper article on bus tourism in [The           
Independent (Newspaper)], for example, was entitled
; this is a complete proverb as is. A 1995 article in [“Today”]
on basketball, entitled , on the other      
hand, only alludes to a proverb. The original proverb
(cf. B10 of the appendix below) points to the limits of human
capacity. When a caption reading [What is written
by the pen …] appeared under a photo of Clinton and Yeltsin signing an                  
agreement in Yeltsin’s 1996 election campaign album, the intent was to appeal
to the common knowledge of the whole proverb discussed above (cf. A93),
implying both the strength and the folksiness of Yeltsin’s government.

Excerpt from Chapter 11, “Government and Language,” pp. 578-581:

Armed Forces                                                             

The armed forces are the most important and the largest of the power agencies.
In the Russian Federation they are under the direct control of the minister of
defense . The minister is advised by members of the general
staff  , as well as his civilian assistants. The
president of the Russian Federation is the commander-in-chief

All Russian young men must spend one to two years performing either mil-
itary service or alternative service .
Military service is notoriously dangerous and often deadly. Unfortunately, it is
very difficult to get permission for alternative service so that avoiding the draft
becomes a family affair: the family emigrates, or pays a large bribe; thousands
of young men hide from the authorities, becoming deserters .

At sixteen all young men in Russia have to register
. At seventeen, the regional draft board sends a reg-
istration form informing them that they are subject to the
draft and must show up at the local draft board office. They are then subject to
a biannual draft which takes place from 1 April to 30 June and again
from 1 October to 31 December, depending on how many draftees
are needed for full manning of the various branches.
Starting in December 1992, young men and women have had the right to join as
volunteers , but women generally serve only as nurses
, telephone operators , interpreters and
the like.

You can put off service only if you get a deferment , usually for
obtaining a college degree . Those with an
advanced degree are not called up. Some major universities have an obligatory
course for men only on military skills . Completing this
course exempts one from the draft. Young men can also get an exemption from
the draft altogether for family reasons , for example,
if a brother has been killed in service, or if the draftee is judged unfit for
military service after the obligatory medical exam

Recruits serve eighteen months if they are sent to the land-
based units , two years if sent to the navy
, but only one year if drafted after receiving a college degree. If
they like it they may stay on for another hitch

Basic military training for recruits
is led by professional military men , the
officers and noncommissioned officers . Each is generally a
graduate of a military academy . Training takes
place at a training ground  There new conscripts live in barracks
with about 100 soldiers to a building and eat what is jokingly called
chow (potato or grain soup) served up by the kitchen “police”
, and at night sleep on à cot . At around six in the
morning soldiers rise to reveille , stand for roll call , do their
calisthentics , go through ordering quarters to get ready
for inspection (which is different from a military review
). Breakfast and supper offer the same food, usually tea, about one
pound of bread and a bowl of hot cereal with butter. Lunch is the main meal:
soup, 100 grams of meat (about a quarter pound), black bread and potatoes.
Day is not done till evening roll call and taps at
around 10 pm.

The recruit learns how properly to put on a uniform , which consists
of a forage cap , a service blouse , perhaps a jacket
and, if it’s cold, a hat with ear-flaps and a quilted
work coat ; there’s a waist-belt , and, usually, canvas-topped
boots ; sometimes foot-wrappings are worn instead
of socks . Whatever the boots used, they must be spitshined
(literally, till they sparkle). A soldier must know not only how
to march in a formation , he must also take part in field-
training exercises . During down time he can bone up on the
regulations .

He also needs to learn marching commands:


He’ll want to know battle commands, too: Yes, sir! or Aye-aye! ; On
the double! ; Take cover ; Throw grenades!
; Follow me! ; Load weapons! ; On guard!
; Take aim! ; Fire! ; Fix bayonets!
, and the ever-popular “Hands up!” and “Halt! Who goes

The first-year in the life of a private soldier is made miserable by
a vicious form of hazing called where soldiers in the last half of
their service are allowed mercilessly to abuse or “haze” him
. There is little chance of getting much leave . If he can’t stand it
he may want to go AWOL and become a “deserter”
for which he is likely to get punished
. Young men know what is coming, as do their parents, and so many do
anything they can to avoid service. As a result all branches have difficulty filling
units . Upon completion of service, a soldier goes back to being
a civilian.

Humor makes it possible to comment without actually saying something, so
the jokes about one’s superiors are legion:


8 Also the word for an (e.g., artillery) testing range.
9 See Russian’s World, 2/e, 74, for army and navy uniforms.
10 See Russian’s World, 2/e, 77.
11 A fire in the house is announced with or