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.]


  1. dear blogger,

    we do have novels with happy endings. most russian fairytales end up happy even if someone dies (ususally a baddy). read the tale of tsar saltan, the tale of baba yaga, the red flower, the frog princess, хозяйка медной горы and many many others where the main hero gets the girl and kills the dragon)). the only happy novel i can think of right now with happy ending is Барышня - крестьянка by pushkin (some really sweet comedy by the way, its a play, youll like it)

    MOST soviet films have a happy ending which is something russian do not allways aprove of (cuban cossacs, девчата, moscow doenst believe to tears, служебный роман and many others). these movies were supposed to raise russian spirit after the war and make ppl believe, everything was going to be ok. the war movies however are more black with unhappy endings cause they present you the tragedy of war (а зори здесь тихие, баллада о солдате)

    seriously, watch "служебный роман", the affair at the office. youll love it. then there s кавказская пленница. and dont read to much chehov or ull get depressed.

    ive allways thought, a story must teach you some morals not just present a happy end. if the movie is all too happy it doesnt reflect the realities of life in russia and seems not honest. besides i think true happiness can indeed be achieved by overcoming suffering. and joy is still a very important part of russian life (havent you ever been invited to a russian wedding or corporative party?)

    i think its ok when someone dies in the end or when not all the main good characters end up happy. one should not be afraid of death its a natural thing. id rather prefer realistic russian stories with tough endings over sweet hollywood stories.

    just think about the movie "ballad of a soldier". alyosha dies but he`s country surivives, and so do the values of real love, mutual support and strong spirit. alyosha dies so that people like sasha and others could live. seems perfectly logical to me.

    russia has been through lots of wars, genocide, naturally most stories have got major losses in them. you cant pretend it doesnt happen.

    yet i think we re not that unhappy in general. i hope you ve managed to make some real russian friends over there, and you certainly must have seen that russians can be happy and love to celebrate life and appreciate the little things. i live in europe now and remeber my life in russia as much more happy enjoyable and eventfull then here.

    you said there are poorer countries then russia who are sighnificantly happier. can you name those countires? some of them like latin american countries have got more sunshine, more strong family culture, better climate and may seem happy. but they have such high rates of criminalty and such bad education, i dont think i could live there and be happy.

    in germany and scandinavia inspite of all its wealth, people are often lonely and unhappy while italians or spanish ppl have more economical problems but are more joyfull and funloving. brits inspite of nasty climate are also very cheerfull friendly and can ejoy life.

    so its all different...

    i dont meant to critisize your posts that are very intersting just want to eyplain you certain stuff. now tell me honestly would eugene onegin poem be so good and bitter sweet if it had a classic hollywood happy ending?

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, and for the film suggestions - I will definitely look them up. I was mostly thinking about Latin American countries when I said there were some countries poorer than Russia but happier, but I agree that the Russians I have met here don't appear unhappy, at least no more so than the British. I probably could have made this point more strongly - it's why I don't believe the statistic in the book I read that the difference between the % of people unhappy in Russia and Britain is so great. And of course you are right that there is a lot more emotional power in endings where not everything ends up perfect than in a typical happily-ever-after. I just get so caught up with characters I like that I just really, really want them all to be ok ;)

      Again, thanks for explaining things - a lot of my posts are me trying to work out how to understand/think about the culture here, so I know I'll get stuff wrong. Corrections are appreciated!

    2. Привет. А у Вас случайно нет блога на русском? :) Очень понравилось Вас читать, но, к сожалению, продираюсь сквозь текст на английском с трудом. Если где-нибудь пишете по-русски, киньте ссылку, плиз!


    3. прошу прощения, комент относился к ayearinmoscow

  2. Small comix for You.

    Thanks for Your blog!

    1. This really made me laugh - thanks a lot for sharing the link!

  3. What do you think about Russian (Soviet) comedies?


    1. Maybe this is the problem - I haven't seen many Soviet comedies. Basing views on 19th century literature is undoubtedly very biased. Off the top of my head, I have seen Курьер, Кавказская Пленница and of course Белое Солнце Пустыни (the last one might not be a comedy but it did have some very funny moments). They were all fantastic (although I did think Курьер turned very serious at the end). I'll watch the links you sent - thanks a lot!

    2. if you like fun comedy westerns, I recommend to see "the man from Boulevard des Capucines" (Человек с бульвара капуцинов). and if you like "White Sun of the Desert," then perhaps "Bumbarash" like it too.

  4. Well, I do agree that most Russian novels are sad in the end. But I can give you examples of countries, poorer than Russia, but happier- Myanmar, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia. Well, they might have more sun, but, hey, they ARE happy. Russians are very arrogant as well with a strong imperialistic touch (we used to be the greatest, strongest and most intelligent nation in the world!).