Monday, 23 April 2012

Tricking your brain into learning vocabulary

I like grammar. This may put me in the minority, but I think there's something fascinating about understanding how sentences work, and the ways you can twist and play with words and word order to emphasise different things. I love learning a new grammatical construct and then feeling that there is now a whole new group of thoughts I can express.

What I don't love is learning vocabulary - mainly because it can never, ever end. There are always more words to know, and as soon as you learn them, you will forget the old ones. I used to try and learn vocabulary in lists, but this is no good at all, because my brain outsmarts me and remembers the words in sequence rather than each one separately connected with a meaning. Thus I can tell you the Russian word for "prophetic", but only if you've just asked me to translate "to whine", because these words happened to come up in the same lesson at school. Clearly a non-starter.

Possibly the rest of the world has known this for years, but I came across a programme that temporarily gave me the lead in the arms race between me and my brain, by randomly asking me words from a list I have inputted. It then remembers which ones you got wrong and asks you them more frequently in the future compared with the words you got right. It also automatically assumes you will forget words after some time, so it repeats everything every month or so. In case anyone else would find it useful, it is called ProVoc, and you can download it for free here.

Of course, in the medium term my brain found a way of getting round this. It now appears to operate on a group basis instead of sequentially. So it now knows the word for "prophetic" only if we have been previously discussing words from the Chekov story Дама с собачкой (Dama s Sabachkoi - Woman with small dog).

Sunday, 22 April 2012

I have a spare cold war bunker to sell you...

What do you buy when your country starts selling off everything it owns, and it owns everything? This was a decision that various now-oligarchs had to make in the 1990s, and it turns out the correct answer was oil, metal or media companies. Everyone with the correct answer - pass go and collect a billion pounds (also the eternal hatred of most of your compatriots, but don't worry - you can always move to London).

Some people, however, made more...unusual, perhaps imaginative choices. For instance, at least one person decided that what they had always wanted was a bunker or two designed to withstand a nuclear attack. Preferably in a good location...ooh, and wouldn't it be nice if it had some fake marble pillars? "Fear not", said the government, "we have just the thing". A short while later, probably after slamming his head repeatedly into a wall for not going with aluminium smelting firms, said owner had to decide what to do with his 50-year-old metal tunnels under the ground. And the answer was....wait for it...a bar.

The best place for a party...a nuclear bunker with the shiniest red sofas money can buy
Unfortunately, that left him with another 7000 square metres of bunker to use. Having almost certainly bankrupted himself on red sofas, the cheapest thing was to leave the rest exactly as it was and then charge tourists for seeing it in the "original" state...and so the "Milestones of the Soviet Era" tour was born.

Actually, I'm both being unfair and conflating two separate bunkers, so I will now stop. The tour I went on spent five hours exploring two sets of bunkers - one built in the 1930s as a place for Stalin to escape to if the Germans entered Moscow, and one built in the 1950s to ensure continuity of government and telecommunications in the event of an American nuclear attack. Since they were both in Moscow, I couldn't help thinking that the former was fairly useless - if the Germans entered Moscow, surely the obvious thing would be to leave Moscow completely and retreat eastwards, not just across town.

According to the tour guide, whose had a bit of a thing for Stalin's "leadership", the whole of the Moscow metro was built as a cover for the construction of a series of underground command points, bomb shelters and storage facilities that began in 1933 when Hitler came to power. [Part of the preparations was a factory that could go from making pasta to making gunpowder in fifteen minutes, which I think is utterly brilliant]. A plan to build a massive 120,000-seater stadium and sports complex near Измайловский (Izmailovsky), a former imperial hunting lodge, was used to distract from the immense amount of work needed to build a back-up central command post there. Ultimately the bunker was finished, but work on the stadium was abandoned in 1939 and never restarted. It is now one of those bizarre places filled with small kebab shops that make everyone wonder who on earth would come all this way for a kebab. [Answer based on what I saw: no one] Underneath the stadium is a series of tunnels and rooms, including parking spaces and fuel for 150 tanks. What they actually let you see is the main conference room (the first room you come into) and the two rooms on either side of it - Stalin's study and his dining room, and then a couple of rooms now used for conferences/ as a cafe.

Unfinished stadium used as cover for the building of the bunker. Complete with guns on the field to shoot the losers.

Main conference room in the bunker with fake marble pillars (actually I think these are rather good - I still want to learn Venetian plastering).

The conference room has a special dome over the circular table so that Stalin's voice, which was naturally very quiet, would be amplified without him needing to strain himself. Facing away from the entrance, to the left was Stalin's study, which contained a desk, couch, map of the front, strange multi-player chess-like gaming-table and pictures of Lenin, Marx and Engels (the latter two look almost identical).

Stalin's desk in his office. There is a map of the front behind him, and Lenin's picture keeping an eye on him to his right.

It looks like something Gandalf would play, but it was actually it was one of Stalin's favourite games.

To the right was the dining room, which Stalin had decorated to look like a Georgian tavern, because he liked those. He also apparently liked artistic representations of himself, because pictures and sculptures of him were everywhere. I like busts on pillars, but personally I would have chosen my favourite Roman emperor (Julian II). However, there's no accounting for taste, especially Stalin's, who appears not to not have had any at all, judging from the monstrosity of a statue in one of the adjoining rooms. If you can look at the picture and not think, "what the hell is that?", there is something wrong with you. I may be being too harsh though - the heads may have been added later by the guide, who, as I said, was a fan.

Stalin: A man fond of Georgian taverns...and his own head

Irrefutable proof that having near-unlimited dictatorial power does not bring you taste

The bunker was linked to the Kremlin in Moscow by a 10 mile underground road. The plan was that Stalin would come here from the centre of town, and then either stay and work here (this is what actually happened in December 1941 when the Germans were bearing down on Moscow), or, if this was too dangerous, he had one of three options. Plan A was to fly out from the airfield next door. Plan B, in the case of bad weather, was to leave on the secret underground railway to the East. Plan C, in case of bad weather and the train breaking down, was to fight the Germans to the death using his 150 tanks. Not a bad set of plans.

The other set of bunkers, which is located near Таганская metro station (Taganskaya) was built in the 1950s when the possibility of the US launching a nuclear strike on Moscow seemed like a real threat. From an unassuming entrance off a quiet street, you then pass through a 50cm thick, 6-ton door before descending 60m (18 storeys) to the tunnel system. The depth of the bunker hit everyone at the same time, around the -10 storey mark on the staircase we were walking down, as the group suddenly realised that we would have to WALK UP the same way to get out. There was grim silence from that point on.

The tunnels and rooms are mostly empty, because in the 1980s the government decided to repair and update all the technology in them, and this was still going on when the funding dried up in 1990. At this point the whole project was mothballed until they sold off the bunkers, but there are a couple of rooms that have been reconstructed - including one with a reproduction nuclear-missile-launching interface, where you can go through the motions of pushing the red button and then watch an American city being blown into smithereens on a large screen above you. I'm not sure whether this is meant to be fun or not. As I am really pretty fond of America, I found it moderately disturbing.

The most depressing working environment ever

Work on repairing and updating the tunnels was called off in 1990 half-way through the process
This is where they ran into the seven dwarves coming from the opposite direction
Pretending to launch nuclear missiles against the US...what larks!

Now you see why the place needed updating

Desk of telecommunications operator. The machine on the right is for morse code, complete with little tapping thing.

We eventually emerged from more tunnels into the bar, where we were served a traditional meal of beef, buckwheat, tea and vodka. It was pretty good, but getting back to ground level was even better. Being in a bunker, even for a few hours, makes me realise how much I like grass and trees and the sound of birds, and how quickly I would go insane if I were trapped underground. And not just because I have seen The Descent.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Update: Why Putin is a crab

So I am now in a position to be able to tell you why Putin is a crab. He gave a press conference a while back during which he stated that he had been working "как раб" (like a slave), but several journalists, either accidentally or otherwise, misheard him. They thought he said he had been working "как краб" (like a crab), and reported his words as such. Cue internet proliferation of pictures with Putin's head superimposed on the body of a crab.

Diction is very important for politicians.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Google and what people want to know

If the futility of life is starting to get you down, and you feel yourself sympathising with Pechorin more than is strictly healthy, I suggest you look to Google to restore your affection for the human race. I like to type in "why" to Google, because it then suggests the most popular continuations of this question. These questions form the current preoccupations of humanity (or those parts of humanity with access to a computer). And then I like to do this in different languages to see if it makes a difference:
Why am I…?
…is the sky blue?
…so tired?
…is the sky blue?
…always tired?
…is the sky blue?
…an idiot?
…is a blonde standing at Hamburg port?
…so happy?
…a Christian?/ sad?
…is Picnik closing?
…a vegetarian?
…is the sky blue?
…pay more?
…so tired?

These are the most popular questions. Spain gets two answers because of the two verbs "to be" (assuming my limited memory of Spanish is correct). Picnik is a photo-sharing website, and I think the German question about a blonde is part of a joke.

I'm sure you could do this for hours, but I don't know any more languages. I tried doing this with Google translate for some countries, but you never know with Google translate. Either their translation is off or the Greeks are googling why Greece was given the opportunity to rise up against their government and attain the 5th dimension, whatever that means. Although I suppose rising up against the government possibly IS what the Greeks are googling.

The reason for the sky being blue appears to interest a lot of people - this question was at No. 1 in US, UK, Russia and France, No. 2 in Spain and Australia, and No. 3 in Germany and Italy. It was the only question all countries had in common, although variations of "why am I so tired?" were also quite common, appearing at Nos 1 and 4 in the US, 1 and 2 in the UK, No. 2 in Spain and Italy, and No. 4 in Germany. The French and the Russians apparently get enough sleep. 

Anyway, the point of all this is that you see how much you have in common with the rest of the human race, i.e. most of them are exhausted as well. The Spanish are depressed - "why am I so sad" appeared at numbers 1 and 3, and the French are lonely - "why am I single" appeared at number 1 and "why am I alone" at number 2. And the Russians are all voting for Putin...well, maybe. "Why am I voting for Putin" was actually higher than "why am I an idiot", but I ruled this out because, judging by the results, I think it is a statement rather than a question, i.e. it should be read as "why I am voting for Putin". The second most popular question beginning with "why?" in Russian was literally "Why is Putin a crab?" but since this doesn't make any sense, there must be something I am missing. It's not zodiac signs, but it must be something.

Oleg Menshikov (Олег Меньшиков)

Last Tuesday I went to the theatre to see my favourite Russian actor, Олег Меньшиков (Oleg Menshikov). It wasn't a play, more of a monologue of him talking about what music has meant to him throughout his life, accompanied by a band playing his favourite pieces. I didn't understand a single word he said, because his usual talking speed seems to be about fifty times that of a normal person, but the music was nice, and it was interesting to see him in person rather than on TV.

I can't think of who the equivalent of Oleg Menshikov is in the UK or US, possibly because I am appalling bad at anything to do with modern life. When I moved back to the UK in 2009 I kept seeing all these headlines about someone called Cheryl Cole, a person I had never previously heard of, and after a month I was so annoyed that I actually had to google her. But it's also possible that no equivalent to Oleg Menshikov exists, and this is because (trying not to sound like a teenage fan here), he is really, really talented. He speaks French and English as well as Russian, he dances, he sings and he plays the guitar and the piano and God knows what else. And when I say he plays the piano, he doesn't just play it a bit, he REALLY plays the piano. I think he must have a clause in every film contract he signs that he gets to play the piano, just to show off how good he is.

One of my favourite of his films is called Восток Запад (East West), in which he stars with another actor called Sergei Bodrov Jr (now sadly deceased). Sergei Bodrov Jr had a PhD in Art History. He wrote his thesis on "Architecture in the Venetian Renaissance Painting". So there are several (well, at least two) super-intelligent and cultured Russian actors. It's people like this that make you feel like a failure as a human being.

Back to the theatre. The female spectators outnumbered the men by about 30:1, and at the end of the performance so many people went up to the front to give him flowers, that he couldn't carry them all, and had to go and put them down and come back on stage and carry on collecting bouquets. He had to do this three times. Three times! That is what you call popularity. But what does he do with all the flowers?

Sunday, 15 April 2012

On the edges of the midnight Easter service

Happy Russian/Orthodox Easter! Orthodox communities, unlike Catholics and Protestants, use the old Julian calendar to calculate moveable feast dates such as Easter, in order to comply with Canon Seven of the Holy Apostles and various other decrees that state Easter should never coincide with Jewish Passover, which it does sometimes in the Gregorian calendar used in the West. This means that Orthodox Easter is anything from 1-5 weeks after Catholic/Protestant Easter. [Somewhat confusingly, fixed feast days are calculated according to either the new (Gregorian) or old (Julian) calendar, depending on the country - hence Christmas in Greece is on the 25th of December (Gregorian), whereas in Russia it is on the 7th of January (Julian), despite the fact that both are Orthodox countries. Still, it is simpler than pre-1918, when the whole of Russia was permanently thirteen days behind the rest of the world for everything.]

Easter is the most important festival in the Russian Orthodox church, so I decided to go to the midnight service at the church next to my общежитие, to see what happened. I was warned beforehand to try and stay close the door so that I could escape if I wanted to, because although no one seemed to know exactly how long the service might last for, the general view was that it could go on all night. In the end I stayed for 2.5 hours and then left, because the whole thing seemed to be going in circles, both literally and figuratively (the same music and chants kept coming up again and again, and the priests and associated people kept rushing round and round the edges of the church carrying staffs and incense whilst crying "Христос воскресе" - Kristos voskrese - Christ is risen). This is not meant to be offensive - I am sure it all had a theological purpose, but since I didn't know what that was, it seemed to me a bit repetitive. Plus the whole thing was in Old Slavonic and not Russian, so I couldn't understand anything. Nevertheless, the service was beautiful, and I been humming the chants from it all day. [And just so you know, it wasn't rude to leave early - Orthodox services are more informal than in the Catholic or Protestant churches, with people entering and leaving as they like throughout the whole service. I checked this both with locals and with books about Orthodox Christianity, and both sets of sources said it was fine to leave early.]

My impressions of the service are naturally going to be very shallow, because I don't really know anything about Christian rites. To start off with, at the gates to the church compound were a collection of people asking to alms, and most people gave them money before fighting their way into the church to buy candles, and then fighting their way out again and trying to find someone with a lighter. Inside the church there was some sort of ceremony going on, complete with chanting, and then at midnight the church bells all rang and the priest, deacons and other related people came down from the altar carrying icons, staffs and such-like, and everyone piled out of the church after them. We all then processed around the church, during which time the priest chanted something, and people periodically joined in, presumably in a call-and-response thing. The procession was very beautiful in the dark, what with everyone carrying candles, and a lot of people had lined up on the fire escapes of the next-door общежитие to take pictures. When we got back to the church, the service continued, but to be honest, it was impossible to see what was happening, there were so many people. Outside the church a small boy kept yelling out "Христос воскресе" (Christ is risen), to which everyone else shouted back "Воистину воскресе" (Truly, He is risen), but I don't think this was part of the service, since the boy in question had a rather bored tone, and in between these declarations spent his time swinging round a metal pole in the courtyard.

There are three main dangers inherent in this kind of service - being crushed, fainting, and being set on fire. The first happens because the service was incredibly popular, and the church wasn't that big. There were probably 500-600 people trying to get into a space really only big enough for 200 or so. A lot of people stood outside in the courtyard in front of the church, but enough people were trying to get into, or out of the church, that at times I could hardly breathe for being squashed between the wall and the crowd. I don't know how popular services are normally, but judging by how happy the priests looked last night, the attendance on non-feast days may be lower.

Related to this crowding is the second problem of fainting. Since there are no seats in Orthodox churches, everyone has to stand, and when the churches are very crowded, the place can get uncomfortably hot and airless. This would be less of a problem if the services were short, but unfortunately Russian services are notoriously lengthy. When Paul of Aleppo arrived in Russian in the 17th century, he wrote in his diary, "And now we are entered on our travail and anguish...God help us for the length of their prayers and chants and Masses". And bear in mind he was still Orthodox, just from Syria. How well people cope with these conditions is a matter of opinion. According to a book I read, one of the amazing things about Orthodox services is that old women and children manage to stand for hours on end without any sign of fatigue, but I think this is a bit optimistic - three people fainted during the Christmas service my room mate went to in January, and last night there was an ambulance waiting outside the church I attended.

To be fair, the ambulance could also have been there in case of the third danger - being set on fire. Candles are a big part of Orthodox services, and 90% of the people at the service were carrying some sort of naked flame - mostly small taper candles stuck through pieces of paper to catch the drips, but occasionally oil lamps, and in the case of one old woman, who was clearly not going to be outdone by anyone, a torch. And no, we're no talking the electric kind, but the Indiana Jones kind. So you have a lot of people carrying naked flames within a small area, and periodically bowing to the can see how this could end badly, even though people were generally very careful about shielding their candles. Perhaps unavoidably, the fur hood of the girl standing next to me was set on fire, but it got swatted out pretty quickly, and only the smell of burnt hair was left to mingle with the incense from the thuribles (although the girl was very unimpressed with the man responsible for the offending candle). The moral of this story is that you shouldn't wear anything flammable to church - concentrating on the service is that much harder when you're trying to remember what medical insurance you have, and debating whether you could get your headscarf off quickly enough to avoid serious burns if it went up in flames.

Obviously on a much grander scale, and it jumps around a lot in time, but here is some video of the service in Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, attended by Putin and Medvedev. The thing they're all shouting at around 3mins is "Воистину воскресе" - truly He is risen, at 5mins 30secs the Patriarch is giving Medvedev and Putin Easter eggs (but not chocolate ones, which don't exist here), and at 8mins 15secs the XB on the red decoration stands for Христос воскресе - Christ is risen. I didn't take my camera to the service I went to because I thought it would be disrespectful, but I actually think it was more beautiful there, possibly because it was for ordinary people rather than VIPs and TV cameras.

Monday, 9 April 2012

The best Russian western

I don't think many people truly dislike westerns. There's something incredibly appealing about the independence of the people in them, and who hasn't dreamed of (literally) riding off into the sunset? I even took horse riding lessons so that if I ever get the chance to do so, I will be able to take it (although I'm not actually very good, so if the horse starts galloping I will probably be too worried about hanging on for dear life to notice that I am fulfilling a life-long dream). Of course, there aren't many (any?) British westerns, and you might think that there wouldn't be any Russian ones either, but this would be WRONG.

What many people think of as the best Russian western (sometimes called an eastern, ho ho ho) was made way back in 1969, and is called Белое Солнце Пустыни (Bieloe Solntze Pusteeni - White Sun of the Desert). It tells the story of a Red Army soldier Comrade Sukhov who, having been discharged from fighting the Whites in the civil war, is making his way home from the deserts of Central Asia to the green fields of Russia. Or trying to, at least, because he keeps having to stop to dig up people who have been buried to their necks in the sand and left to die. He befriends the fourth person he digs up, Sayeed, and together they get roped into helping out a Red Army cavalry unit...

The film is considered a classic of Soviet cinema, and is often watched by cosmonauts before they blast into space, which isn't something you can say about most films. I really liked it, especially the character of the customs officer, who was played by a famous Ukrainian-Russian-Armenian actor called Pavel Luspekayev, in his final role before he died of peripheral vascular disease. Apparently he's everyone's favourite character in the movie, so at least I'm in good company (although technically, I suppose, also bad company). A lot of the best lines, however, go to Sukhov, and some of these have become so famous they have entered everyday speech, including what to say when you don't want to hear any objections ("Вопросы есть? Вопросов нет!" - are there any questions? No there aren't), a pathetic catch-all excuse ("Да гранаты у него не той системы" - his grenades are the wrong type - although Sukhov doesn't say this himself - pathetic excuses are not his style), and what to say when you are given the choice between death and torture ("лучше, конечно, помучиться" - torture is better, of course). You never know when such phrases will come in handy.

Obviously being set in a different culture at a different time means there are some major differences between US westerns and this film. For a start, whereas in westerns you often get the girl who from the outset is condemned to die because she once dated the main baddie, here you get the harem of the main baddie, all of whom wear burqas (actually apparently yashmaks, but it's still a full-body cloak), which does put a slightly different spin on things.

This link is to the entire film, complete with English subtitles for non-Russian speakers. Or if you can't be bothered with all that, here is a "trailer" that covers the whole plot without using any words.

The Moscow Metro

The Moscow metro is the most beautiful underground system I have ever seen (which actually isn't saying much, but just pretend it is). You can tell how impressive people find it because many of the videos about it on YouTube are set to soaring, dramatic music (think 2001 Space Odyssey type stuff). I don't know if YouTube music is generally an accurate guide to reality, but in this case it definitely is.

Every station is unique, and they encompass a wide range of different artistic styles. That's the most pretentious I'm going to sound, because I know precisely nothing about art. But the point is that there really is art in the stations - a couple of years ago when the BBC made a programme about the history of Russian art, the presenter lay down on the floor of the Moscow metro to look at the mosaics in the ceiling. In general, to my untrained eyes, they have a lot of differently shaped light fittings, and a lot of mosaics and stained glass. For some reason they remind me of ancient Rome, possibly because I can't separate mosaics from Rome in my head, and possibly because Rome was another place where people lived in very cramped and none-too-nice apartments, but had some incredible public spaces.

So here, without further ado, is the a video of some of the stations. Whoever made it missed out most of the stations in the interests of time (both your time watching it, and, I imagine, his/her time traipsing round all the stations at the crack of dawn to get pictures when hardly anyone is there), but it gives you an idea:

I know what you're thinking - how do they keep the floors so shiny? The answer is, unsurprisingly, lots of polishing - very often you will see people sweeping or polishing the floors with those little machines that look like lawnmowers you sit on. And if you don't see them they will run you over, so it's best to keep a look out.

This isn't everything. Not content with beating the rest of the world in the beauty stakes, the Russians have also beaten everyone else in the how-frequently-trains-arrive stakes, and the price stakes. You know those displays on the Underground in London that tell you how long until the next train arrives (the ones that seem to think one minute lasts for five)? Well they don't need them here because you never have to wait that long for a train. The longest I have ever waited was three minutes. And the cost for my unlimited monthly pass? Around £7.50 (less than $12). Compare that with £78.40 for a student monthly Oyster pass. Considering Moscow is supposed to be one of the most expensive cities in the world (and the price of food here really is extortionate), I have no idea how they manage it.

[A lot of people seem to think this is still too much to pay. If you don't feel like paying, you can walk through the ticket gates, which will play a short tune that is also used by ice-cream vans in the UK, and then shut themselves. However, since the barrier is only knee high, you can jump over it no problem. If you are unlucky, the lady whose job it is to stop people doing this will blow a whistle, but movement is absolutely out of the question.] 

The only problem with the metro is getting down to it. For this, you need to open two sets of doors. You can see how the design process went - it's cold here and the stations are heated: we need doors. Ninety-nine percent of people are incapable of shutting doors: the doors must shut automatically. Every second the doors stay open we lose warmth and have to pay more for heating: the doors must shut as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, they tried to reduce t, the time the doors stay open, to zero, and to do this used some very heavy doors on some very tightly-wound springs. The result is a death trap. People here nearly always hold open the door for the next person, because if they don't it will smack the poor guy in the face as it accelerates backwards. You could knock someone out like this. If you are behind a very rude person who doesn't hold the door open, on no account try to catch the door - your arm may be wrenched out of its socket. Instead you need to treat it like obstacle course. Wait for it to swing back, run through afterwards. By now the rude person will have gone through the next set of doors. Wait for these to swing back too, and run through. If the door is shut and you need to open it, it is best to take a couple of steps back and ram it with your shoulder, as though you are trying to break down a door in a film. Standing next to it and pushing will just make you look like a fool. So, perhaps not ideal, but since the designers were right about people never shutting doors, it's difficult to see what else they could have done.

The authorities are still expanding the Metro - recently they announced five new stations to be opened by 2015, which would bring the total to 190. It is the world's second most-heavily-used rapid transit system after the Tokyo subway, carrying an average of 6.6 million people a day (2009 figure), versus around 2.9 million a day for the London Underground (2009) and 4.4 million in New York (2010). Plus it has a 99.96% timetable fulfillment, which is really throwing down the gauntlet, considering that in 2006 the average Metropolitan line commuter wasted 3 days, 10 hours and 25 minutes due to delays. Furthermore, if you are going to be delayed, wouldn't you rather be delayed in somewhere that looks like a palace?

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Etiquette and harrassment

It's tough being a Russian woman - especially if you work. Sexual harassment is more common here than it is in the UK (to put it mildly - in a 2008 survey, 100% of female professionals in Russia said they had been harassed by their bosses). Out of a group of eight or so women I discussed this with, all of them either had personally experienced it or had a close friend have to deal with it. And before anyone starts thinking that they are being unduly sensitive, we're not talking about some offhand comment that was taken the wrong way. One example: a woman went on a business trip and found out that her boss had booked the two of them into a double room together. Or another example: a woman's boss when drunk can't keep his hands to himself and makes obscene comments, even in front of his own wife. And unlike in the UK, suing is not an option. Well, technically it is an option, but only two women in the entire history of the country have won sexual harassment cases (not an exaggeration. Literally two - one in 1993 and one in 1997).

It's very strange, because in some ways, men here are more stereotypically gentlemanly than guys in either the UK or the US (the two places I have the most experience of). Men routinely stand up to offer their seats to women on the tram or the metro (which I have seen in London, but not as frequently), help old ladies carry their bags up stairs, and guys have frequently offered me their hand to help me get out of cars/trains. On the other hand, several men on the Transsiberian this past summer were extremely aggressive in, shall we say, pressing their suit, and on one occasion, a guy tried to illustrate the worthiness of him and his mates by informing me that they "don't even hit" their girlfriends. I mean, what can you say to that? Er, well done?

Although those men may well have been drunk and/or mad, overall gender roles are very traditional here. I have no idea if this has anything to do with the higher incidences of sexual harassment and domestic violence, but it is interesting. Men are expected to pay the bill in restaurants, bring a girl frequent presents, and give her a ride home after a date. One guy told me that if you don't like a girl you just give her the money for a taxi home - but I just can't imagine how this could possibly work in practice. Perhaps most bizarrely, some men here (mostly older ones) still bow and kiss a woman's hand, which I have never seen in my entire life in the UK. My understanding of how it works there is that the guy is supposed to OFFER to pay the bill, and then the girl says oh no, I couldn't possibly let you, and then the guy insists, and then they have a contest of politeness until one of them backs down, but in principle, either one of them is allowed to back down depending on how broke they feel. And as regards transport, you're on your own.

There isn't really a conclusion to any of this, it's just one of those interesting things about living in another country.

Source for statistics:

Monday, 2 April 2012

Russian Winnie the Pooh

I have never actually seen or read the US/UK version of Winnie the Pooh (Винни Пух), because, in general, I like neither stuffed animals nor idiots, and Winnie the Pooh seemed to be a nightmarish combination of the two, a primitive version of Jar Jar Binks. However, we watched the Russian version in class, and I may have been totally wrong about the whole thing, because I think this version is fantastic. It is VERY famous in Russia - everyone has seen it and people can quote from it at length (I tested this on several people and it is true).

The interesting thing is that Pooh looks totally different from the way he does in the Disney film - he looks a lot more like a real bear, complete with claws - maybe because here, they have real bears, so they know what they look like. He is still supposed to be a toy though, and is stuffed with sawdust, which would make for one very hard toy. I wouldn't want some child to playfully hit me round the head with what is, essentially, a block of wood. There are a few other differences: Piglet is called Pitachok, because his head looks like an old 5-kopek piece, and Eeyore is called Eea, because this is the sound donkeys make in Russian [a comparison of animal noises in different languages is very interesting, and I keep meaning to try and compile a list. I spent a whole lunchtime comparing animal noises with a Pole, a Japanese girl and an Italian, and they appear to be different in every language, sometimes to the point where you have no idea what kind of animal someone is impersonating].

For this, you don't even need to sign up for the fabulous В Контакте, because it is all on You Tube. There are three episodes, but the third one is by far the best. Here is a version with English subtitles (the Russian is pretty fast at times).

Part 1:
Part 2:

Of course, it's not perfect. They do the stupid thing where they all laugh together at the end, something I have always found intensely irritating (Thundercats was a particularly egregious offender, I seem to recall). Almost as annoying as jolly peasants (another one of my pet hates).