Months ago, I was following a Google path I no longer remember and Google Books showed me a book that had the “Hail Mary” in Russian. Not a Russian religious book, mind you, but a sort of textbook in English that (as a quick look revealed) had all sorts of odd things in Russian: games, arithmetic, mushrooms… It was The Russian’s World: Life and Language, by Genevra Gerhart. The Amazon page included snippets of professional reviews like “…irreplaceable resource for the non-native scholar … invitation into the culture … author deserves the title ‘Hero(ine) of Scholastic Labor’…” (American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages) and “a treasure trove … what all Russians know just by being Russian, and what all students of Russian should know…” (Slavic and East European Journal), and reader reviews like “It cannot be easy to describe an entire country, its People, its culture and its customs, in 400-odd pages. Nonetheless, that is exactly what Ms. Gerhart has done here. She covers not only the basics, the ‘everything you want to know about Russia’ — she delights her readers by covering several things they may not have realized they wanted to know,” “It’s simply awesome! It gives a unique insight into the customs of Russian people as related to their history, their land, and their language,” and “Having lived in Russia for the last two years, and dealt with Russians and Russian life daily, I believe the author has accurately summarized everything you should know prior to arriving or doing business here” (all five-star reviews). Needless to say, I wanted a copy. There was a more recent edition, but it cost more than I felt like paying, and I figured the second edition, from 1994 (after the fall of the USSR), would be up-to-date enough for my purposes, so I ordered it, and I’ve been working my way through it since then.
Having finally finished it—even the appendices on Peter the Great’s Table of Ranks, how to read chemical formulas, Morse code, Braille, and common Russian birds—I’m here to tell you that it’s every bit as good as those reviews made it sound. If it had been around back when I was a Russian major, I might have continued in Russian rather than switching to linguistics; I’ve never seen a book that so effectively immersed you in a culture and showed you what it was like to live in it. Opening the book at random, the Names section has six pages of a Table of Names, giving full name, patronymic form, regular diminutive, and “endearing forms”; then it describes how different forms are used as one grows up:
Small children hear their endearing name form (from the table’s third column) so often that they might think it their official name.[...] The boy will hear Юрочка throughout his life, first from his mother and later, though less frequently, from his wife (who will usually call him Юра). When he is old enough to socialize, his mother will introduce him to new friends as Юра (from the second column). He will address those other children in like manner until he considers them good friends, at which point he and they will often switch to the usually derogatory name: To his friends and siblings he will be Юрка. The derogatory -ка endings are actually used in several ways: they can be used among children to say “You’re my pal”; among adult friends who might be saying something like, “You’re crazy, but I like you anyway”; and by adults toward particularly offensive children. The neighborhood brat would probably be so referred to by almost everyone. [...] In class, Yuri’s teacher will often refer to him by his last name alone, or sometimes as Юрий or Юра. The younger he is, the more familiar the teacher will be. Out of class the teacher might call him Юрий, Юра, or Юрочка depending on the situation — Юрий or Юра if emotion is not involved, and Юрочка if he has been hurt, for instance. He will always address his teacher and adults who are not in his family by their full name and patronymic.
At puberty many things change, not the least the boy’s name. Now his friends call him Юра or Юрий most of the time; Юрочка and Юрка remain for special rather than normal use. He comes into his own when he starts work; then he will normally be addressed by his full name and patronymic: Юрий Иванович. Only his relatives and good friends have the privilege of using the diminutive forms of his name.
There follows a section on names before the Revolution (distinguishing educated from peasant names) and after (“In the 1920s it was not uncommon to name one’s child after revolutionary events, leaders, and ideals”). And this is just one section; the book goes into similar detail on clothing (contemporary and folk), housing (apartments both self-contained and communal, peasant houses from various parts of Russia, all with illustrations), food, transportation, education, nature… pretty much any aspect of being Russian is described and analyzed, including mat (Russian cursing), about which Ms. Gerhart is squeamish (“Never, ever use these words. They are not cute or funny, nor will you be if you say them”) but of which she gives a good account, including the occasional pungent saying (Хоть сци в глаза, всё Божья роса, “Pee in their eyes and they still say it’s God’s dew”). She tells you how to talk to animals, she tells you which fish are especially valued, she has illustrations of horse collars and street signs, she explains the rules of gorodki and why bottles of vodka were traditionally drunk by three people (“one could buy half a liter for 2.60 rubles, with 40 kopecks left for a little food to go with it—three people with a ruble each could get together and have a party”). You get the picture. If you’re interested in Russian life and have a minimum acquaintance with the language, I really don’t know how you can do without this book. (I wonder if similar books are available for other languages and cultures?)