Russian 101 (off-topic)

by admin on December 11, 2014

To anyone who wants to learn Russian, I have one small warning: One of the first words you’ll see is also the second-hardest word to pronounce. The word is “Hello,” or in Russian, “Zdravstvooeetye.”

That’s the bad news. The good news is that once you’ve learned that word, all the other words (except one) are easier! Not only that, in most situations you can fake it. First of all, in any informal situation you can say “Privyet,” which is very easy for American tongues. And second, even if forced to say the more formal hello, you can kind of fake it by saying “Zdrassssstye,” using the “s”s to replace all those troublesome consonants.

I can remember one time, though, when I heard every one of those consonants pronounced with utter clarity. I was in Russia in 1980, and I brought some chocolates as a gift for a friend of mine. We met out in the street behind a hotel, and I gave the chocolates to her.

Big mistake.

I grew up in a country where you don’t have to think about where you give chocolates to somebody. In a store? At home? On the street? No problem. But this was the Soviet Union, and I was a foreigner (which was already suspicious). We were near a hotel where foreigners stayed, and one thing that foreigners (especially Westerners) attracted like flies was black-marketeers, looking to buy jeans or trade money at a non-official rate.

So it all looked very suspicious, and within 60 seconds a police officer came up to us and said, very clearly and distinctly, pronouncing every last consonant:


It probably took him fifteen seconds to get through that one word. Long enough, if you’re a Russian, for your life to flash before your eyes. If you’re an American, you’re just wondering, “What is this police officer stopping us for?” Even so, the tone, the exaggerated politeness with malevolence behind it, was unmistakable, like the Wicked Witch of the West inviting you in for tea.

So he checked our passports and asked us to come with him. He left me in the lobby of the hotel, while he took my friend back to the interrogation room. (What, your country doesn’t have interrogation rooms in every hotel? Shame on you!) There they held her for half an hour while they searched the chocolates every possible way. They didn’t have an x-ray machine, or else they probably would have x-rayed them. Finally, seeing no contraband, they gave the chocolates back to her with a stern warning not to associate with foreigners any more.

Meanwhile I was out in the lobby wondering if I was ever going to see my friend again. In the bad old days, that’s how people got sent to Siberia. So it was a huge relief to see her emerge, and of course we got away from that hotel as fast as we could.

For years I told this story as Exhibit A for why I was glad to live in America and not in the former Soviet Union. Imagine living in a country where you could be profiled just for the way that you looked. Imagine living in a country where the people are terrified of their own police officers.

Yeah. Imagine that.

So you can see why I’m a little bit upset about the situation in New York, and before that the situation in Ferguson. It’s not that I personally feel threatened. I didn’t really feel threatened by the policeman in Russia, because if nothing else I had the magic U.S. passport. I have also never in my life felt threatened by the police in America. They’re on my side. I’m not doing anything wrong, I’m just handing out chocolates.

But I can see when my friends feel threatened, and that’s not a good feeling. It’s something that we have to work on and get right. Fortunately we have a democracy and an administration that should be sympathetic. But I think the real solutions will have to be local, and won’t come from Washington. People will have to talk with each other: the police and the people who are afraid of the police. They will have to talk, not yell, not chant slogans, not spray tear gas, not loot buildings.

Anyway, you are probably wondering, what is the hardest word to pronounce in the Russian language?

In my opinion, the hardest word is “Bodrstvooeetye.” Meaning “be awake, be alert, stay vigilant.” Good luck saying this word without spitting.

So, Zdravstvooeetye! And bodrstvooeetye! After that, everything else is a piece of chocolate.


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