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?)


  1. It sounds like what I’ve always wished I had for Chinese or, as far as that goes, French. The stuff that everyone in France knows but French majors don’t. The concept isn’t that hard.

  2. rootlesscosmo says

    I’ve seen a guide to early 19th century English life, giving explanations of currency (half-crowns, guineas), titles of nobility, types of horse-drawn carriage and so on; this was presented as a useful accompaniment to reading Jane Austen. I don’t think its scope was anywhere near as ambitious as Gerhart’s book, though.

  3. We had half-crowns in normal circulation and guineas at auctions and in luxury-goods shops until about 1970, Rootless.
    I guess Karl & Peter are common pre-revolutionary names, but does Russian usually employ its own versions of European names like Louis, Ludwig, Lewis?

  4. Victor Sonkin says

    To Arthur: Usually not. Given a significant German diaspora since Peter the Great’s times, some German names (like Ludwig) were not uncommon, but Louis or Lewis would have sounded very strange in a Russian context.
    Having said that, today’s fashion seems to be for the exceedingly exotic and foreign names for girls (Christina, Alina, Angela) and down-to-earth peasant names for boys (Danila, Makar). Both would have sounded ridiculous in my generation.
    Hat: an excellent idea, which I’ve been harboring myself for quite a while. Pity it’s been done 🙂
    Does she have a section on quotes? Like, every Russian knows Nekrasov’s “Однажды в студеную зимнюю пору” and probably nothing else?

  5. Thank you very much for this post! I think this is the book I read through once, many years ago, and that I have been trying to find again ever since. But I only vaguely remembered the title, so I hadn’t been able to find it before.

  6. The very slim volume,’Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain’, 1942. (Issued by the US War Department) came to mind. I have only seen excerpts but those offer a poingnant insight into war-time Britain and of cultural differences. Unintentionally it is now both funny and tragic.
    Contains such valubale advice as:
    “The British do not know how to make a good cup of coffee. You don’t know how to make a good cup of tea. It’s an even swap.”
    “A British woman officer or NCO can – and often does – give orders to a man private. The men obey smartly and know it is no shame.”
    “Soap [is now] so scarce that girls working in the factories often cannot get the grease off their hands or out of their hair.”
    “Don’t be misled by the British tendency to be soft-spoken and polite”
    It goes on to say the Brits aren’t “panty waists”?
    “panty waists”?
    These quotes are from a “Daily Telegraph” piece.

  7. michael farris says

    I remember stumbling across this in a university library in the early 80’s and finding it completely fascinating. It seemed especially exotic since Eastern Europe was so hard for westerners to visit when the book was written (and still so when I found it).
    I would imagine similar books for other countries/languages would be hugely useful, if not especially commercially successful.

  8. If there are books like this for France, Sweden or the Netherlands I never came across them, and I did my share of looking.
    You get snippets mixed in with modern language manuals (usually 30 years out of date) and the Xenophobes guides are usually better than the other ex-pat briefing manuals, but that’s (AFAIK) about it.

  9. Does she have a section on quotes?
    No, but there are lots of books on крылатые фразы и выражения. This is stuff it’s not easy to find anywhere else.

  10. Bill Walderman says

    I agree–The Russian’s World is essential. The latest edition is published by Slavica, which, if you’re not familiar with it, has lots of good things to offer.
    There’s apparently another book by a team that includes the author of The Russian’s World:
    According to one of the Amazon reviews, “whereas The Russian’s World focused on things like how a samovar works or what Russians call the different playing cards, this new book focuses on the knowledge of history and culture that a typical educated Russian would likely have.” I haven’t seen this book, but I’m tempted to order it.

  11. Mr. von Bladet could write the Dutch book for us in the course of time, though the editor should be alert for extraneous allusions to Scandinavian princesses.

  12. Totally unexpected by me, there is princess news. I am taking over some of Herr von Bladet’s duties while he’s preoccupied with encumbrances.

  13. Don’t miss a rare chance to hear a proper old-fashioned Zwedish accent, as the new prins shows off how good his Engleesh has become with eight(8) years’ solid coaching at the Zwedish taxpayer’s expense.
    (Ordinary educated Zwedes are more likely to have an untraceable mid-Atlantic accent, more’s the pity.)
    Oh, and I should put in a plug for Simon Kuper’s Retourtjes Nederland, in which the FT’s inestimable soccer correspondent, for it is he, shares his view of the Netherlands from the perspective of a Jewish South African (also he) who emigrated there in his teens and left (permanently) to study in England, and who now lives in Paris. Sadly it does not seem to have been picked up for translation.

  14. WW: I haven’t seen this book, but I’m tempted to order it.
    What’s stopping you, Walders? Then you can tell the rest of us which one to buy.

  15. Here‘s the direct link to The Russian Context: The Culture Behind the Language by Eloise M. Boyle and Genevra Gerhart; it looks wonderful, but it’s even more expensive than the later edition of the Gerhart book, so I’ll have to wait till my ship comes in.

  16. From a reader review: “One of the best chapters in the book is devoted to proverbs and frequent sayings. Not only does it translate them, but it also explains where the saying comes from and when it is likely to be used. The chapter on films not only describes the movie, but also lists famous lines that Russians are likely to quote.” So there you go, Victor. But why does Slavica charge so damn much for a paperback??

  17. Yes, it’s a wonderful book. I’ve had mine since college. I was especially grateful for the info on how you “say” mathematical equations and pronunciation of acronyms. You just can’t find that anywhere else.

  18. Fred Van Doren says

    I loved this book as a student and I wonder how well it has been updated. The taboos on mat are probably much looser now, and I get the sense that imja and otchestvo are becoming increasingly restricted. It is a miracle of a book.

  19. dearieme says

    Oi, Hat, why don’t you write an equivalent for the USA? I’m keen to know whom one may address as “You earwig’s asshole, you”.

  20. Anyone except an officer of the court. But don’t make the common mistake of omitting the “asshole”; curiously, “You earwig” is far more offensive and can lead to altercations.

  21. I just said “You earwig” to my daughter, and she told me to shut up.

  22. There you go.

  23. Does she ever not tell you to shut up?
    We have to establish the independent variable.

  24. Victor Sonkin says

    Aha, I see. I once co-wrote an article on typical Russian movie quotes, a 101 field guide for foreigners. It was fun (to write, I mean).

  25. Victor Sonkin says

    From the Amazon review:
    We all know that educated Russians can recite Pushkin by heart, but did you know that if you drop by a Russian’s house for a very short visit, the Russian will probably say “Ну, ты как мимолетное виденье!” (quoting Pushkin’s famous poem “Я помню чудное мгновенье”)?
    She probably won’t. But I understand that the pitfall of subjectivity and personal experience is absolutely inevitable in research of this kind (unless we assume a strictly statistical approach, not always practicable).

  26. rootlesscosmo says

    We had half-crowns in normal circulation and guineas at auctions and in luxury-goods shops until about 1970, Rootless.
    Indeed. But there are readers for whom those terms need explanation no less than “barouche-landau.”

  27. PK: “panty-waists” = “sissies”, not necessary of the homosexual variety.

  28. Does she ever not tell you to shut up?
    Good point.
    Even searching on bookfinder, The Russian Context: The Culture Behind the Language is $47.

  29. I agree with her on mat. I haven’t lived in Russia for almost 20 years and this might be different now, but in the Russia of my youth the use of mat was an unambiguous marker of (low) social class. There was really no way you could pick up others’ estimates of your and your family’s intelligence and social standing from the floor once you had used those words. I don’t think I’ve ever used any of them. There are probably millions like me.
    If in the last couple of decades the Russian attitude to mat has moved closer to the American attitude to four-letter words, it would sadden me quite a bit.

  30. Anyone except an officer of the court. But don’t make the common mistake of omitting the “asshole”; curiously, “You earwig” is far more offensive and can lead to altercations.
    I’m reminded of the episode in which a Berkeley defendant called the lady judge, “you cunt,” to which she replied without a pause, “that’s Judge cunt, to you.”

  31. Tried to order from Amazon. System rejected my UK home address with some specious explanation about special arrangements for delivering to prisons… most frustrating!

  32. My understanding is that Hail Mary is not used by Orthdox Christians. Why, therefore, would be it in such a book??

  33. It is very much used by Orthdox Christians, and in fact normally concludes the service. Here you can hear a nice choral rendition.

  34. It sounds like what I’ve always wished I had for Chinese or, as far as that goes, French. The stuff that everyone in France knows but French majors don’t. The concept isn’t that hard.
    This is what I have always looked for and couldn’t find, too… Of course, such books don’t exist for all languages and times, so one has to come up with one’s own ways of catching up with what the language courses don’t tell you. For example, I have once asked my French colleagues to come up with a list films that they refer to and quote from implicitly in ordinary conversations – not good films for any definition of “good”, but the ones that are a part of the language in some sense. Somehow, “Les tontons flingueurs” came up on top, and the resulting argument was delightful. Of course, the result was not representative, but this still tells me something about their world that I otherwise wouldn’t have known.
    As for “The Russian’s World”, I am going to add it to my – unwritten – “to read” list, because I can doubly enjoy it: as a native speaker of Russian and as someone interested in the world of Americans that this book is bound to be a reflection of…

  35. If you do that, please let me know about any mistakes you find!

  36. If you do that, please let me know about any mistakes you find!
    I definitely will, but I am long past the phase where one thinks that being a native, or a native speaker, makes one an authority. I certainly could attest to having never heard something. But it is very rare that I can point to a mistake, unless it’s on “all Russians drink vodka every day” level.

  37. They don’t? Damn.

  38. Of course they do. It was just a joke.

  39. Urban Garlic says

    Along similar lines, but more restrictive in scope, I have a book called “Culture Shock: France”, by S.A. Taylor. It’s an etiquette guide, which necessarily has a great deal of cultural info, though not a list of which movies are known and quoted, alas.
    It would be interesting to explore such a thing for various Anglo-American subcultures, too. People of my cohort know their way around 1970s and 80s science fiction and 1970s cartoons, which occasionally befuddles some of our colleagues.

  40. “They don’t? Damn. – Of course they do. It was just a joke.”
    I was asking for it (drops a tear in his cup of tea).

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