Russia: Challenging Questions
September 26, 2011
“Is there anything ugly in Russia?”
“How did you learn to read the Russian alphabet?”
“What are your roots?”
My Travel Letters from Russia generated these three challenging questions.
The surprising question came from my loyal friend Dodie Edwards in Texas. Dodie asked, “Is there anything ugly in Russia?” Dodie was responding to my predilection to photograph only colorful, historical structures, or dramatic scenery, and the occasional attractive gal or guy.
Dodie knows of course that Russia is still a poor country (I believe the politically correct nomenclature is “low income country”). During the Stalinist era and its aftermath, “beauty” was not on any politician’s priority list.
I must admit that there were several moments when I could have honestly answered “yes” to Dodie’s question. For example, when I arrived in Moscow in the pre-dawn hours and a taxicab whisked me away from the railway station through the damp, deserted streets, electric signs blinking forlornly in the gloom, ordinary apartment buildings and uninspiring office towers glowering in the darkness, I thought, “This Moscow is an ugly place.”
I had the same reaction when I arrived by train in Nizhny Novgorod. The railway station is in (to be kind) a shabby section of the city and the traffic was snarled. It took forever for my driver to get through the mess and I thought once again, “This is an awful place.”
Finally, the most ugly-shocking moment came on my flight from Kazan back to Moscow. As the airplane descended towards the Moscow airport I could see dozens and dozens and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of groups of high-rise apartment blocks spread out and crammed unceremoniously from horizon to horizon. The architects of these concrete conglomerates of cold-hearted towers did their best to make them somewhat appealing, but in my opinion, they surely failed.
I have had the privilege of visiting several former Soviet Bloc countries and capital cities. In the outskirts of the cities, the mass concentration of ranks of apartment blocks betrays the artistic underachievement of the Russian masters. And yet, and yet….
The inner cores of Bratislava and Bucharest are charming and inviting. Sofia is colorful and vibrant. Prague is known as the Paris of Central Europe. Exquisite Budapest sits astride the Danube.
And so it is with Nizhny. Nizhny and its towering Kremlin. Nizhny on the sparkling Volga. And so it is with Moscow. Moscow and its architectural gems. Moscow on the proud Moscow. The inner beauty trumps all. And I must admit that even a small 20th Century apartment in a high rise tower is preferable to a 19th Century tenement or an 18th Century mud walled hut with a dirt floor.
The second question came from my good friend Sandy Metviner in New York. Sandy asked, “How did you learn to read the Russian alphabet?” The short answer is, “I didn’t.” Certainly not all the letters. But many, if not most of the sounds of letters of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet can be deduced from our common experience.
Let’s start with the lettering on the uniforms of the Russian athletic teams from years ago. At that time they wore CCCP. Since the country was known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, we can surmise that C = S in the Roman alphabet, and P = R. And if an automobile with a peculiar color has a sign on its door that says такси, how hard is it to determine that и = i.
This brings me to my university days when many of us belonged to a fraternity or sorority with names using Greek letters. Some of the Greek letters are similar if not identical to Cyrillic letters. In the previous case P is the r sound in Rho in Greek. A, K, M have the same sounds in Greek, and English and Russian. This brings me from Greek to mathematics.
Since my friend Sandy graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, she surely would remember the Greek letter and the math symbols for Gamma - г- and Pi - п. These letters are also used in Russian and are the G and P sounds.
Some letters you just have to learn. For example, B is pronounced as V, and д is D as in вода (Voda – Water) and водка. H is N as in нет (nyet-no) and На здоровье.
As with most languages in the world, Russian incorporates words from other languages. French is a favorite in Russia. The problem of course is that even if you know the word in the other language, you still have to read the Russian alphabet. So for example, when I was trying to determine to which railroad car I was assigned, I scanned my ticket and found the word вагон . Ah ha! Wagon – a lovely French word.
Here’s an important foreign word required for everyday usage: туалет
Can you read these Russian business signs that use foreign words? банк, пицца, ресторан, телефон, факс.
In a pharmacy in Kazan, I accidently found a prominent display of little blue and white boxes. Can you decipher the name printed on the box? Are you are developing a firm grasp of Russian? Виагра
Just three more observations of Russian culture: two of the traditional mode; one of the modern temper.
-Despite the disasters of the Soviet era, church buildings that survived have been restored and Religion seems to be flourishing in Russia. What I really mean to say is that much of Russian society appears to be deeply religious. Day and night, weekdays and weekends, wherever I went, churches were crowded with the faithful – lighting candles, praying to their favorite saint, or performing the liturgical music that is written only for the human voice.
-Until the advent of catering halls and hotel ballrooms, it is surely safe to assume that weddings were large outdoor events. I reckon that almost everywhere in the world, even now, weddings are celebrated outdoors.
Even if there is an indoor wedding in the large Russian cities, the newlyweds and their family and friends maintain this tradition of a public display. Wherever I traveled, brides and grooms and their entourage were sharing their delight. And those flowing white gowns? Outrageous!
-Even more outrageous is the modern female footwear. The tall and the taller and the tallest of the tall feel the need to be even taller. In all my life I have never seen such a display of high heel shoes and boots! Colorful, creative, seemingly quite comfortable. Yet, with a hint of a threat. Those elongated spikes-stilettos could impale even the most aggressive of Russian bears.
Finally, when my classmate Barbara Nadler read my comments about all the “familiar faces” I saw in Russia, she responded:
My family on my father's side lived in Kiev and then moved to Moscow after the Russian Revolution. My family on my mother's side was from the Ukraine. So if you saw a lot of familiar faces, it was not surprising.
My oldest friend Allen Milman (well over six feet tall - 2m) reminded me that his mother and father (even taller) were born in Russia.
Barbara asked, “What are your roots, Jan?”
Here goes: My mother and her younger siblings were born in Fargo, North Dakota (that’s a whole other story.) Her parents emigrated to the USA from the eastern European city of Grodno. But in the very early 1900’s, where was Grodno? In Poland? Or in Russia?
A few years ago, on a tour of the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, I learned that Grodno was once part of the Greater Lithuanian Jewish community. (My grandfather read the Jewish Daily newspaper Foreword.) Today Grodno, or Hrodna, is a city in western Belarus near the borders of Lithuania and Poland.
On my father’s side, my roots are clear. My father was born in Nuremburg, Germany but his parents were immigrants from Bohemia, Czechoslovakia. They had a successful retail shoe business in Nuremburg. I am named for my maternal great grandfather Jan Taussig. Polatschek is the German equivalent of the Czech name Poláček.
When I travel in Europe or even in Asia, I am proud to acknowledge my roots. If I am asked my name I don’t pronounce it the “American” way. I try to remember to say “Yaahn Po-LA-check.” To a European ear, this name is quite comprehensible. It is also certain that I am a “Mister” since as every European knows (well maybe not the Brits), Jan is the European equivalent of John.
The equivalent of Jan-John in Russian is Ivan!
All the best from Mother Russia,
ЯН РОбЕРТ ПОЛАТШЕК