I just discovered this 2007 post at the never-to-be-sufficiently-praised Poemas del río Wang and had to share it; it’s a paean to the hidden international society of lovers of the Russian language:

In Persia one can more or less get by with English. With Persian one can settle more difficult cases as well. But hearts can be really opened only with Russian.
From Tehran through Isfahan to Shiraz we were asked in the most unexpected sites: Po-russki govoritye? (And you speak in Russian too?) Each time they asked it like a child who reveals a secret treasure, a rare and precious stamp, desirous to see the other appreciating it. The positive answer was greeted with a shining smile, and then a long, warm conversation followed in Russian. The people who asked it of us were Armenians and Azeris who are just as numerous in Iran as in the former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan….

It is always a peculiar experience to speak in Russian with non-Russians. When speaking in English, German, Italian, Spanish or any other idiom, it always remains clear that this is not my own language. It is a neutral intermediary language that is perhaps a pleasure for the other to hear, and perhaps I too can convincingly use it, but it always remains something extraneous to me. Russian, however, creates fellowship, recalls childhood remembrances, revives the memory of the films, books and jokes widely known in all the bygone empire, evokes the experience of that once common world. It creates such a closeness between a Hungarian and an Armenian in Iran which would not be possible either in English or in Persian. And not only in Iran. I had the same experience when speaking with a Bulgarian professor in Mallorca, a Polish cyclist in San Marino, a Georgian diamond dealer on the Madrid-Brussel flight, or an Uzbek innkeeper in Vienna.

It ends with a moving account of how his father encouraged him to learn Russian (in Hungary) because it “was not only the language of the Soviet army, but that of Tolstoy and Dostoevski as well. … And thanks to this, I have since then discovered that Russian is not only the language of these great authors, but that of small people as well, and not only of Russians but, in an odd way, of many different people from Bulgaria to Beijing and from Poland to Iran, organized into a kind of a community by virtue of this intermediary language. And in this way it is also mine.”


  1. John Emerson says

    The Kyrgyz HS boy I tutored loved Pushkin. The Somali friend I had in college (educated in Italian) loved Dante.

  2. I’m not a reader, so the authorial voice confused me. Who is “we”, and who is “I”? A Hungarian, clearly, but then why is the site titled in Spanish?
    In any case, the same can be said of any language that is what Ethnologue calls “a language of wider communication”, at least if it is not solely confined to market-talk.

  3. The confusion is not intentional, but in any case a pleasant by-product of the original concept of the blog, as it invites to further reading in the hope of clarifying the context.
    More or less the same could be said of a number of other languages of wider communication indeed. But this is the only one to which I have this relationship and on which I can give such a personal account.
    Thank you, Language.

  4. Charles Perry says

    On the other hand, in Uzbekistan I got to know a college kid who hated Russian — thought it a fussy, wordy language, unlike Uzbek or English. Of course that had a lot to do with the fact that in the Soviet era all education above the elementary level was in Russian so you had to learn it willy-nilly.

  5. Of course that had a lot to do with the fact that in the Soviet era all education above the elementary level was in Russian so you had to learn it willy-nilly.
    Yes, that’s why it’s completely unsurprising to find subject peoples who hated the language. What’s surprising is the number who love it.

  6. I think I read on the same río Wang blog a story of a Russian journalist finding a woman from the 20 years old story. It was about a Meskhi mother with a baby on a death march of refugees from Karabakh ro Azerbaijan. Throughout the ordeal, they communicated in Russian, then got separated. 20 years later, the journalist found her again in Azeri hinterland, but the woman no longer spoke any Russian.

  7. “Yes, that’s why it’s completely unsurprising to find subject peoples who hated the language. What’s surprising is the number who love it.”
    Attitudes are contagious and a lot of Russians really, really love their language the way other nationalities love their music or cuisine. That would rub off on some students, regardless of the circumstances of thier studying the language.

  8. Poemas del rio Wang, I agree, is a wonderful blog. One of the startling stories I enjoyed reading recently was a comparison of German and Soviet anti-Polish propaganda in cinema in 1939-1941, the period when Germany and Russia were de-facto allies.

  9. On the other hand, it is interesting how quickly German appears to have been erased from Central Europe. Even in former Hapsburg domains like Southern Poland, Slovenia, Bohemia and, maybe most tellingly, Slovakia and Hungary, it seems rare to find anyone who can speak fluent German. Only a few generations ago almost every educated Hungarian could speak German at a very high level. Yes, there are obvious historic reason why there are far fewer German speakers in these regions than there were in 1939. Still, I think Jim’s point about attitudes may be telling about why there has been no apparent resurgence of interest in German in countries like Hungary or the Czech Republic with centuries of close ties to German culture and literature. Germans do tend to be fairly unenthusiastic about their own culture and language.

  10. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    For all you Russophiles here, can anyone tell me why the invaders of Ukraine mark their tanks, etc., with Z. When I learned Russian a lifetime ago Z was not in the alphabet, and as far as I can tell from Russian links at Wikipedia it still isn’t.

  11. More at Wikipedia: Z (military symbol).

  12. David Marjanović says

    It’s just an easily recognizable shape that is easy to paint. Z is for regular Russian forces, V (not a Cyrillic letter either) for “elite Kadyrovites”, O (present in Cyrillic) was for the two or three Belarussians who entered Ukraine before they all mutinied. I predict X would have been next (say, if Toqayev hadn’t simply said “no” when he was asked to join the war back in February).

    The Z symbol was quickly outlawed in places like Germany.

  13. @Athel, just something angular and threatening and associated with zombie movies (and not in the alphabet, yes). I did not try hard to figure out where it came from. First I noticed it in names of pro-war telegram channels (telegram is THE MAIN source of information for young Russians now).

    Given its symbolic meaning (as I said, angular, threateing and Nazi-style) it is quite surpsing.

  14. Here’s my guess as to the origin of symbol Z. In some textbook for mid-level military commanders there is a recommendation to paint a distinctive and distinguishing mark on your equipment, for example Z. And of course, everyone just have chosen it. Like if your password system said “8 characters minimum, at least one upper case letter, at least one lowercase letter, at least one number and at least one special character, for example, W3z%f4@T” half of the passwords would be W3z%f4@T.

  15. On the other hand, in Uzbekistan I got to know a college kid who hated Russian — thought it a fussy, wordy language, unlike Uzbek or English. Of course that had a lot to do with the fact that in the Soviet era all education above the elementary level was in Russian so you had to learn it willy-nilly.

    Er. One random excerpt from Google books:

    Почти во всех обследованных нами кишлаках имеются начальные школы. Преподавание до недавнего времени велось на таджикском языке. С 1962 г. постепенно стали вводить обучение на узбекском языке. Делается это с согласия родителей, которые относятся к обучению детей на узбекском языке в высшей степени одобрительно, так как это открывает более широкие возможности для получения дальнейшего образования в пределах Узбекистана.

    (GT: Almost all the villages we surveyed have primary schools. Until recently, teaching was conducted in the Tajik language. Since 1962, education in the Uzbek language has been gradually introduced. This is done with the consent of the parents, who are highly approving of teaching children in the Uzbek language, as this opens up more opportunities for further education within Uzbekistan.)

  16. Lars Mathiesen says

    I was once manning the Unix account registration desk at the CS Department, for just one afternoon, and our standard advice was not to chose something they wouldn’t want to be their professional email address later–it would be best to avoid names like jordhule ~ “hole in the ground”. Of course some freshman had to go and pick it so we had to print new handouts. (8 characters, had to be unique).

    But with a little inventiveness you can make passwords that are easy to break no matter how draconian the rules: “Must be at least 14 characters, contain all of uppercase, lowercase, digits, specials, no more than 4 of any class in a row”. My reaction: AD_er_dum_2021 = “Active Directory is stupid 2021”. Easy to type, easy to remember. I didn’t have to change it for 2022, so I don’t know if the obvious new one would have been rejected for low Hamming distance.

    Don’t worry, the account is closed now. It was the 14 character thing that made me rebel, I’m happy to learn a random 8-character one and I use those everywhere else.

  17. “For all you Russophiles here…” I’m rather a Russophobe so have no reliable answer but I’m thinking along the same lines as David Marjanović (“It’s just an easily recognizable shape that is easy to paint”) and D.O. (“In some textbook for mid-level military commanders there is a recommendation to paint a distinctive and distinguishing mark on your equipment, for example Z”). Perhaps Z is for Запад (West) and V for Восток? The Cyrillic initials З and В could get mixed up easily, and З mistaken for the number.

  18. A natural question is why they mark equipment at all?

    It is understadable and not unprecedented (avoiding friendly fire etc). But in most modern wars they do not do it this way. Was it exactly an order, or a fashion that spread across regiments (supported by news coverage)?

    In both cases the question of what does it mean can be exactly as meaningful as “why did you name your daughter ‘……’?”.

    Recognizability is, of course, a factor, and Zapad/Vostok are meaningful readings. If it was inherited from Zapad 2021, then it is more than a factor.

  19. And to avoid confusion:
    Angular/threatening/zombie are just my associations with the shape (in, say, January). Not the reason fpr choosing it. The question was addressed to Russophiles and mentioned Russian alphabet, so I listed what I feel about the letter as a Russian. “Threatening” is an association in military contexts (perhaps because of Nazi insignia).
    (Names like Zipfer or Lorentz and Leibniz is another association, not in military context)
    Angular is an objective property, and zombies… A few years ago there were several movies and video games that used the letter as a symbol for zombies:)

    Meanwhile, V does read as “victory” (and R is for Rocket but only in books titles:))

    Zapad and Vostok are good readings, it is just they would never occur to me.

  20. John Cowan says

    rejected for low Hamming distance

    Unfortunately (or not, as you may think) that’s impossible unless the passwords are stored en clair instead of as a hash[*], and most systems are finally sophisticated enough to do so. I routinely play such games with incrementing a digit or two when required to change a password too often, especially when no money is at stake.

    One of my previous employers gave me the job of improving password security, basically to satisfy customers’ checklists; they were stored as hashes but there were no checks on them or mechanisms to force changing them. Well, my proposal was to implement NIST’s current advice (clear explanation, bureaucratic bafflegab): in a nutshell, don’t force frequent changes, encourage long passwords, don’t worry about their content. That was accepted, but with a few amendments: I downloaded a few “most commonly used passwords” lists and merged them, I kept a permanent hashed-password history in the database so a user can’t ever use the same password twice. But in the end I had to implement the stupid “upper, lower, digit, special” rules, because too many prospective customers had it in their checklists.

    [*] For non-geeks: A hash is a fairly small value computed from an arbitrarily large text such as a password. Small changes to the text will make large changes to the hash, and it’s hard to determine, given a text and its hash, another text with the same hash. But above all, there is not enough information in the hash to reconstruct the text.

  21. The Tajik example is quite illustrative by the way.

    It is usual dynamics in education here: grade N of education (and also certain opportunities scuh as moving to a large city or professional life of qualified specialists) is available in language A. Then grade N-1 must be also in langauge A. Then grade N-2 also must be in A.

    When ЕГЭ (the unified state exam) was introduced it immediately became an argument in the context of Tatar-language education, because ЕГЭ is in Russian.

  22. What is missed in discussions of langauge shift in USSR is massive urbanization.

  23. I routinely play such games with incrementing a digit or two when required to change a password too often, especially when no money is at stake.
    That wouldn’t work at many sites I have to leave a password, especially work-related; the new password would be rejected because it’s too similar to the old one.

  24. January First-of-May says

    I don’t think I’ve ever had a new passport rejected because it was too similar to the old one; I also agree with John Cowan that this would probably not be implementable at all unless the passwords were stored very insecurely in the first place (in which case it’s implementable but most likely not worth it).
    In fact I vaguely recall that at some website (forgot which) I got away with an A to B to A password switch (where A and B were very similar in the first place).

    At several places recently, disturbed by the “upper-lower-digit-special” rules, I ended up making passwords to the effect of “Password100%”, with the “Password” bit replaced by another word and (I think) 100 sometimes replaced by another number.
    But to be honest I don’t really worry about being hacked all that much – partly because for most hacking strategies it doesn’t really matter how strong my password is in the first place, and/or a “strong” but unmemorable password makes it easier to hack; and partly just because AFAIK there’s not all that much to hack in my data anyway (and most of what is worth hacking either doesn’t have passwords at all, has passwords that were chosen without my input, or has passwords restricted to 4 numeric digits).

  25. It is possible, of course, to calculate all hashes with a single digit substitution to a given password and store them to prevent this sort of variation. For a length-10 password should be around 1000 values.

  26. it is also possible to ask a user to enter both passwords.

  27. Lars Mathiesen says

    unless the passwords are stored en clair: This is Active Directory we’re talking about. I wouldn’t take any bets.Too much legacy compatibility for comfort in that thing.

    But Drasvi nails it: Only the password change service needs to see both passwords to check the Hamming distance, and it doesn’t need to persist the plain text anywhere. That explains why it is “not too similar to previous, and not identical to any of the 30 latest” where the latter part is implemented with hashes. So you make a few sufficiently different but memorable bases to use in rotation, adding the last digit of the year to each, and there’s your eternal password plan.

    Me, I just use LastPass that lets me have a long phrase as the master password, and helpfully generates a new password for each site with enough crud to satisfy any misguided guidelines. Beats thinking any day of the week.

  28. Beats thinking any day of the week.
    It’s not thinking of new passwords that’s the issue for me, it’s remembering the damn things (and which one I used where).

  29. John Cowan says

    I find that sexually suggestive passwords are the easiest for me to remember. At one point I was using doggystyle (appropriately decorated with digits and punctuation, of course).

  30. Lars Mathiesen says

    I have come to like the fire and forget nature of letting the password keeper generate my passwords. Most of them I have only seen once, when I created the account, and never typed. I can truthfully say that I don’t know them.

  31. Same here.

  32. John Cowan says

    I don’t always log in to computer X from a single computer Y. For example, when I go to the copy shop, I log into my email from one of their computers and search for emails I wish to print. This only works if I know my email password.

  33. Lars Mathiesen says

    Most of the password keeper services have a web frontend now — which I open in a private browser window that I can close at once, or if the environment looks insecure, I can type it in from my phone where the password keeper has an app.

    There is a bootstrap problem there: Sensibly, the password keeper will not allow me to log in from a new computer and IP without a mail confirmation, and the mail password is in the password keeper… So I must have one recovery email that I know the password too, and make sure it doesn’t do the same trick so I can get in if I lose my phone, my PC and access to my home network at the same time, but it doesn’t need to be the same as my main mail where other password changes get confirmed. (There is a fallback option that lets my friend request access to my passwords with a 2 week cool down period. If there’s a fire, I probably won’t care about my mail for 2 weeks anyway…)

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