Steppes Away: A Lawrentian’s Siberia

Adam Berey

Most of what we hear about other countries tells of the amusing, charming or revolting differences that distinguish those cultures from our own. But when traveling, it’s sometimes the similarities that surprise you and stick in your memory.
One thing that Russians have in common with Americans is not knowing how to interact with foreigners.
It’s a rare American or Russian that will accommodate by speaking slowly, clearly, and using simpler vocabulary, or even understand that a visitor from another country doesn’t understand the local ways of doing things.
A few weeks ago I met two guys from Liverpool, who I was amazed to learn had made it this far by train all the way from Helsinki on about five words of Russian.
Considering that I haven’t had much luck getting around, even having studied the language, I couldn’t understand how it was possible for them to still be alive, let alone happy, secure and unmugged.
Russia is not like the rest of Europe, where English is an essential common language. My Belgian classmates here speak immaculate English and can quote “Pulp Fiction” and recall favorite episodes of “Full House” and “Third Rock from the Sun.”
In most of Russia, English or any foreign language is a rarity. One hardly even sees our Roman alphabet, save for an ad here and there. Few Russians can actually read it, and so they rewrite Western words with their own alphabet.
This actually makes sense. Both countries were at the center of their own worlds for the better part of the 20th century. English and Russian were opposing languages, splitting the world’s political, scientific and entertainment communities. Tourists to either country usually came from the same sphere of influence and knew enough of the language to make out all right.
Russia also shares America’s wide variety of ethnic minorities, although where that developed in the U.S. through immigration, in Russia it’s from the enormous confederation of peoples under the Soviet Union.
Even so, in both countries the official language is a second one for a significant part of the population, and thus more important to learn than anything with a more global reach.
And so it is that people in a third of Asia and half of Europe grew up learning Russian. It’s nice having a common language to use to visit all those places, but it’s the only common language.
Never needing foreign languages also kills the confidence to use them. Many Russians know foreign languages pretty well, but, like Americans, are too shy to try it out when there’s a native speaker around.
So even though it’s clear that I’m foreign, and even American, the moment I say something in Russian I give up any chance of using English. It’s more comfortable for them to listen to my mistakes than to make their own.
But for my English-only Liverpudlian friends, it was clear to anyone that it was going to be English or nothing. And nothing was mostly what they got. Frantic waving and pointing ensued.
Irkutsk makes it even tougher. Being so far away from any major Asian or European city, there isn’t much need for translation.
Then there’s the Siberian accent, which isn’t so much about pronunciation as it is about speed – very, very high speed. Siberians don’t enunciate so well either, hardly taking the time to get their mouths around the words before snapping them out.
They say it’s because of the cold – everyone’s in a hurry to get the conversation over with and get inside.
Asking someone to repeat something isn’t terribly popular, either. Even people close to me, my hostess included, get pretty impatient by the third time.
“This isn’t Norway,” she told me once when I paled in shock at her immense change in mood from having to say the word for “protein” too many times.
No, it isn’t Norway; it’s a lot, lot colder.