Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Russian happiness?

Happy endings are not popular here, as a cursory acquaintance with Russian literature will tell you. Seriously, try it - any Russian novel. No one yet has been able to name me a single book with a happy ending in the "normal" style - boy marries girl/kills dragon/makes fortune/saves world, with the important proviso that no main goody ends up dead. If you are ever kidnapped and forced at gunpoint to predict the plot of Russian films you might want to use the following plot-prediction method: What is the ultimate nightmarish scenario for these people? Is there a couple? - one of them will end up married to someone else and the other one will die. Is there anyone around who could possibly commit suicide? - they will.

Maybe that was a slight exaggeration (but only a slight one). But seriously, I don't think the term "happy ending" exists here. In conversation Russians seem to use the English phrase (and in a slightly scornful tone). As you can imagine, this causes havoc in Disney films. In Beauty and the Beast, for example, instead of the boy-who-used-to-be-a-tea-cup asking if Belle and the Beast will live "happily ever after", he asks if they will live "happily for a long time", which isn't at all the same thing. Since he appears to be about three, a "long time" could be six months before they are both guillotined in the revolution.

Do different countries have different ideas about what constitutes happiness, or any other emotion? Possibly because I am more frightened of death than anyone I have ever met, the mere mention of anyone I like dying ruins a story for me. Thus the traditional Russian fairytale ending, "they lived long and happily together and died on the same day" is a total write-off, because all I can envisage is the fear and misery of the ninety-year-old Prince Charming and Princess Pea-pod as they succumb to heart-attacks or cancer. Or, to take another example, do comedies have to be happy? Or even funny? The first play I ever saw in Moscow was The Seagull (Чайка - Chaika). Being a heathen, I didn't know the plot, but the play bill assured me it was a "comedy in four acts". So I was a bit surprised when Konstantin shot himself and Nina appeared to have gone insane after being abandoned by Trigorin and the death of her child. Hilarious. And lest anyone think it was just Chekhov who had a few strange ideas about happiness (and even some Russians have thought this a bit - Chekhov was furious about the first production of Three Sisters, because he thought it was happy and everyone else thought it was a tragedy), there were other writers who had similar ideas. Griboedov's "comedy" Woe from Wit (Горе от ума - Gore ot uma), for example, involves almost no comedic situations, and all of the characters end up miserable. Perhaps the difference is in the UK "comedy" mostly also implies "happy", but in Russia they are more into black comedy, i.e. the situation is just so appalling you have to laugh or you'll cry.

So what does this tell you about happiness? I think of happiness as bright and sparkling, but when I try to define it, I can't seem to get the words right. But I am pretty sure that whatever my definition would be, it is different from the prevailing view here. I am currently reading a book that tries to explain the Russian "soul" to foreigners (Какие мы русские? - А.В. Сергеева). The books talks about the connection between happiness and unhappiness (which appears to at least partly come from Orthodox Christianity). Happiness, in this reading, is more about peace than joy, and is a reward for having undergone suffering, which purifies your character. Joy is something ephemeral and not particularly important - the important thing is that life goes on regardless (unless you throw yourself under a train, of course). And maybe this is why Russians are scornful of "happy endings", because to them they are not only trite, but have also missed a deeper philosophical point about what happiness means. Thankfully, I am not a philosopher (because this is the quickest route to insanity), but I think this is a bit harsh - children's happiness is uncomplicated, but is considered by lots of people to be especially pure.

Anyway, this kind of thinking may itself cause a predilection towards unhappiness. According to the book, almost 50% of Russians consider themselves unhappy, compared with only 1% of English people (although I find this latter number very hard to believe). Life is obviously materially tougher in Russia than in England, but there are countries poorer than Russia which are significantly happier.

[In all seriousness, though, if you can think of any happy Russian novels, let me know. I lack all sophisticated artistic feeling, so I much prefer happy things, but I am beginning to think I have read most happy great works of literature in the world.]

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Fools and roads

Russia, Gogol may have said, has two misfortunes: fools and roads. If Gogol didn't say it, Pushkin did, or possibly Karamzin (a 19th century historian) - the point is, somehow or other this has come to be a famous saying. The fools issue is a given in all countries. I don't know if you've met any people, but if you have you will know that most people think most other people are morons. This has been a constant in society for a long time - read Pliny or Marcus Aurelius or Cicero (but only the last one if you are prepared to have your idealistic vision of the man smashed to pieces and trampled into the dust). I am sure there must have been an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph for "idiot". You could probably work out what it was by seeing which hieroglyph is the most common.

The roads thing is more interesting. It's not clear from the saying whether the problem is that the roads exist, that their condition isn't good, or that they don't exist at all. Google would suggest the latter two - search for "Russian roads" and you'll see all sorts of horror pictures of cars trapped in window-height mud after a rain storm. However, judging by some of the comments alongside them, at least some of these pictures are either not of where they say they are of, or were taken a long time ago and the situation has improved since them.

Maybe I am being incredibly naive, but I just don't believe this can be a regular occurrence. Locals would be too smart to get themselves into this situation, and if the roads were normally this bad people would just drive off-road like in Mongolia. Photo from
When I was travelling the Trans-siberian last summer there were long stretches of the railtrack that went alongside what looked to me like a perfectly fine road - tarmac/gravel and everything. I also met an English guy in Ulan-Ude who had driven there from London - not in one of those transformer-like monsters with giant wheels, but in a normal car - and he said the roads had been fine. The only time I personally ended up driving on an appalling/non-existent road was between Irkutsk and the shores of Lake Baikal to get a boat to Olkhon Island. In some places there was a mud track, but it was very uneven and often disappeared altogether. The whole journey took five hours to go 250km, and along the way we passed overturned trucks and cars that had misjudged the steepness of the camber (it was very steep at times) or the depth of a pothole. But on the way back from Olkhon island a week later the same mashrutka went along a normal gravelled road! So either the Russians are super road-builders extraordinaire or the first mashrutka driver was on crack and took us a needlessly bad way. Maybe he just hated his suspension and wanted it to suffer. It's possible that further north, or in more remote locations the roads are very bad, but I haven't been there so I can't say.

I'll admit that around Moscow some of the road surfaces could do with replacing. There are some alarming pot holes on roads along which people drive pretty fast. There is also a problem with the capacity of the roads - the main route between Moscow and St Petersburg is currently a single lane in each direction for most of the way, which is clearly ridiculous (although there is a new toll road being built currently, the first parts of which will open next year), and in Moscow the traffic jams are worse than I can possibly describe. Although Russia spends a larger percentage of its GDP on roads than the US does, as pointed out by President Obama in his 2011 State of the Union address, it's a much bigger country and it is starting out from a much less roady position. Russia has a paved road network less than 10% of the size of the US's, and only 5% of its total road network is considered to be "good quality". Investment spending collapsed after the fall of the Soviet Union and only recovered to the world average in 2007, and since then the financial crisis has caused infrastructure spending plans to be chucked out the window. Plus, when the government does spend, they get very few miles of road for their money - this article from the Telegraph estimated road building is six times more expensive in Russia than in the US or the EU.

Another problem is that too many people act like fools on the roads. Partly this is because you can buy a driving license here without having to do any kind of training or test (illegally, obviously). What happens next depends on what kind of a lunatic you are. If you are a misanthropic lunatic, you will drive around in your car and possibly kill someone. If you are just an idiotic lunatic you will be too concerned about killing someone to do this, so you will not drive, and will instead just have wasted the money you spent on bribing everyone to get the license in the first place. 

I have also seen some pretty spectacularly bad driving on the roads - either collectively or individually. In St Petersburg I saw a car reverse at high speed straight down a main road, although for various reasons I think he may have been trying to get away from the police, in which case he was successful so...well done. In Moscow cars frequently drive up the tram tracks to try and bypass the traffic, which at times has the lovely side effect of preventing the trams from moving, which creates gridlock at intersections when aided by the Manhattan-like compulsion of all drivers to enter a box junction even if the exit is blocked (and unlike Manhattan, this is technically forbidden because in Russia, as in the UK, all junctions are box junctions). I spent half an hour on a tram once whilst it tried to turn left from a main road to a minor one. Drivers were so desperate to get across the intersection that all rules - including sticking to your own side of the road - were abandoned as people tried to weave their way through the traffic.

Finally, there is a big problem in Moscow regarding the use of sirens. These are given out to help people bypass traffic jams, officially only to members of the Duma etc, and officially only for use in emergencies (like trying to get to a vote), but in practice there are people who don't need them who have them, and some of the people who do need them use them whenever they feel like going shopping rather than only for official government business. Cars displaying sirens have been involved in fatal accidents because to get to their important business they drive up the wrong side of the road and speed like crazy. Naturally they are not prosecuted for these accidents, which has tended to annoy normal people. So nowadays when everyone has to stop to let one of these VIPs through you can hear people beeping their horns and remarking sarcastically about the "servants of the people" who are zooming by. It must be super-annoying for Muscovites, but I love these types of comments, because it sounds so much like something people would say in Britain about our MPs, and I like to think that British people and Russian people have an awful lot in common.