Photo by Buse Doga Ay

Making Your Acquaintance
My name is Masha. My three-year-old son only knows that name thanks to my namesake, a dog, whom he was introduced to a few months ago and was talking about for two days afterwards. “Masha walked in the woods! Masha had an ouchie leg! I want to play with Masha!”

Masha the dog, in turn, was named after the character from the Masha and the Bear cartoon. One of the few Russian export goods – alongside oil and Kalashnikovs – which are in demand. Since I’ve lived in England, I’ve lost my informal name. Of course, my Russian friends still call me Masha, but to my family here, all work colleagues and local friends, I’m Maria now; Masha is the “short version” of Maria, and only in my native language.

“How can it be short with the same number of letters?” wondered my (then) future husband when we started seeing each other. In English, short versions are literal: Rach from Rachel, Ben from Benjamin, and even Richard is not (necessarily) a Dick anymore. Informal names in the English-speaking world have become pretty official, used by historic figures as the names they go by (e.g. Joe Biden or Kate Middleton).

In Russia, where these “short” versions have existed since Medieval times, representing relationships between the classes and attitudes toward those named, these are still informal only and imply a certain easiness between the people communicating. There was what quickly became a viral scandal when the press secretary to the Russian Prime Minister of the time, Dmitry Medvedev, was shouting at media representatives, demanding they don’t call the Prime Minister Dimon, which is a very frivolous version of the name Dmitry. Besides an official name, there is the archaic (some would say traditional) addition of the patronymic name, which is the name of the father plus respective suffixes for men (-ovich/-evich) and women (-ovna/-evna). Anyone who has ever survived through a classic Russian novel will have stumbled upon a lot of such suffixes.

Working for a big corporate company, you are constantly communicating via email. If the company is based in London, quite often – despite knowing their names – you have no idea who is opening your electronic envelope, a man or a woman. Ambar, Vibha, Alex? One time I was involved in a long email thread that, among others, included my colleague Emmanuel from the finance team. If you lived in the Soviet Union in the 70s–80s, even as a child, you would have known the same name belonged to the French erotic movie that had a very touching main theme tune (together with a lot of other touching). So, receiving those back and forth emails, I was picturing a half-naked Parisienne solving my financial issues, until Emmanuel decided to come over to introduce himself, and appeared to be a large middle-aged man.

Another time I advised a Russian marketing agency, whose representative Nikita was talking to a consultant commissioning their services, Jo. For about two months, until I was invited to witness their correspondence, Nikita was sure consultant Jo was a young Matt LeBlanc, where Jo had in mind the Soviet military lady from Elton John’s video, crossed with Luc Besson’s hot assassin-ess. Of course, in this case, Nikita was a guy and Jo a lady.

I miss my not-so-international informal name and the way I was called by my parents back home. But being named, in your son’s opinion, after a cute dog is not so bad after all.

Learning to Be Polite
In school, they taught us that “How do you do?” is the question English people ask each other not expecting an answer. “Why would you ask a question not expecting an answer?” wondered my Dad when I told him at home what I’d learnt that day. “Why are you doing it right now?” countered my Mum in their usual sarcastic exchange.

Whilst rhetorical questions are the norm in Russia, substituting Hello with one certainly seems unusual. And “How are you?” in English is in effect the question that means nothing more than Hello, whereas in Russia, anyone asking the same should anticipate a flow in response outlining issues in relationships with family and partners, problems at work, and a general dissatisfaction with their everyday life.

Russians are still very sceptical about therapy, but talking to an impartial and barely known person one comes across is considered quite therapeutic. Another reason to not just respond with “Very well, thank you” in Russia is a tradition of superstition. If everything is very well, keep it to yourself; otherwise you might jinx it and whoever hears it might curse you.

Neighbourly affection is sung about in folklore: “It’s bad enough that your cow has just died, but even worse that the neighbour’s one is still alive.”

Due to the vast scale of the country, travelling by train has been a common means of transport for centuries, with the journey from A to B taking many hours, if not days. As ordinary folk couldn’t afford a private compartment, they often shared one with strangers (either with four bunk beds that had a door with a lock, or six bunk beds on each side of the aisle, or taking just a seat instead of a bed – especially if the train ride took several days, as that would be the cheapest, if most uncomfortable, option). They drifted through stations on the way, by chance meeting someone they would never see again in their lives. The so-called road conversations have been glorified in Russian literature, songs, and movies; the travel companions usually weren’t plotting a crime, nor anticipating the relief of reaching their destination, but rather talking about their hard lives, relieving each other’s burdens. This has turned into a collective belief as to the best way to unload one’s problems.

With that, I can’t say that strangers in Europe are in general mean or non-supportive – I have definitely experienced a few times the kindness of a passerby who helped me carry the buggy up the tube station stairs or even lent me their mobile phone. But whichever experience we were sharing, they didn’t expect to listen to the issues in my life. To replace that sort of chat, there is the (in)famous small talk – a most pointless (as I thought for the first few years of living in England) exchange of questions and answers that two people voluntarily agree to participate in. What is the aim of discussing the ever-changing weather when living on a small island, the forecast, and how – once again – that forecast was wrong? British people would rather discuss inconveniences in the mail delivery system than any frustrations in their own relationships, talk about fauna having visited their gardens than raise their serious health issues. I should now admit, when conversing with somebody you barely know, these subjects can help an introvert feel a little bit more comfortable in a social situation without having to confide all your inner secrets. But when that small talk happens between people who have known each other for years, it drives me mad.

Being seen as an angry person is also quite common for a Russian in England. The first reason is that we are generally much more tense. Despite being ready to confide in a stranger, we’re also used to a hostile environment and are prepared for a fight (usually verbal) with others, in whichever public space we inhabit: tube, street, council building, shop, traffic. Making an impression is also a defensive mechanism, most notable with Moscow residents, where status correlates with certain attributes. If you compliment a Russian woman on her dress, she will most probably name the high street fashion brand, or say that she got it from somewhere in Milan or New York, or dramatically roll her eyes to sigh that it had cost her a fortune. If you compliment a British lady, she will immediately point out a flaw with it (“It’s got a hole right here,” “Sales at Primark,” “I’ve had it since I was 12.”)

Our verbal style of communication is another reason for Russians’ “brutal” image. When I started my first job in London, my boss had to read and edit my emails – not in a spy witch hunt (at least, that’s what he told me) but to help avoid the embarrassment of being considered rude. I was quite literally translating communications to my new stakeholders and colleagues the way I would have written things in Russian, i.e. very straightforwardly. He taught me that even when I had a short message to deliver, I needed to apologise for being a bother, double check if my respondent had enjoyed a nice weekend, and wish all the best things in the world would come to them and their families.

I find it interesting that with this culturally embedded verbosity, Brits are surprisingly concise in their celebratory sentiments. Birthdays seem to me like such a great occasion to reconnect with someone you like but don’t have many reasons to talk to otherwise, to wish them something personal for the year ahead, ask what they’ve been up to, and comment on any life status changes. But Brits seem at most to hope the birthday recipient has a good day (only one?), and are otherwise happy to be reminded by social media about the event so that they can just press three keys and accept the predictive text suggestion of Happy Birthday! For Christmas they won’t even stretch that far; people bother to buy dozens of Christmas cards and stick the same number of stamps but only sign their names beneath an already-printed felicitation. As a properly angry Russian, I think that, unless the addressee is under seven, this should be forbidden as a crime against the British love of wordiness.

Staying Sane in Lockdown
I remember how the world feared the year 2000; but it was the year 2020 that has changed the world. Our vocabulary has accepted so many novel word combinations and expressions as the new normal (including new normal). My children, reading Mr. Men books, ask why the characters gather together without wearing masks. I had my 40th birthday celebration on a virtual Zoom call (although the hangover the next morning was pretty real). I love being stuck with my family, but I wish for us to travel, go to live gigs, and hug (some) people beyond our inner circle again.

Having united different nationalities in hysteria and fear, this pandemic has also separated them from each other – quite literally, many countries having closed their borders. Britain, only a year ago split in opinion regarding leaving the European Union, was left in doubt whether it was good or bad not to have followed the quarantine policies of other European nations. In March 2020, shopping lists for post-Brexit (canned food, pasta, rice, long life milk, oats) were thrown away to be replaced by shopping lists for self-isolation (canned food, pasta, rice, long life milk, oats), also complemented by toilet rolls – which caused toilet jokes of varied quality. The country was left with empty shelves, crowds seeking out any by-a-miracle remaining box-of-doesn’t-matter-what, and the public in general shocked at witnessing this.

Well, I wasn’t. I come from a country where, up until I was in my teens, I thought shops could only have empty shelves. Whilst the Soviet Union was very keen on perfectly organising military production, everything that was related to its citizens’ comfort, including food consumption, was secondary. The word deficit was a common attribute for a range of products: from ham and cheese, to rice and toothpaste, to jeans and lingerie. Some companies and factories would allow their employees to put their names in turn on so-called “pre-order” lists at certain grocery stores, and if they were lucky enough to fall under a quota, they would get a box of delicatessen – e.g., tinned fish, chicken, tinned peas, butter, instant coffee, a box of chocolates – to be locked away until a family celebration. I don’t mean to ask for pity. I was born and bred in Moscow, which was the place to live to eat (Trains returning people from all over the country who came to Moscow to buy food to take it home were called “sausage trains,” as, according to legend, they smelt of sausages brought home by the passengers.)

My Mum – as many Soviet women – was an excellent cook. Not the kind of gourmet chef who knows about mixing flavours, but someone who could create something delicious out of nothing. For example, because of Peter the Great (who violently introduced the veg to the peasants), Russians love potatoes – cheap and filling, they allow a whole variety of dishes (mashed, boiled, fried, used in bread, ravioli, salads, pies and pancakes; the irony is that my English children only eat chips.) Up until the very end, my dad would eat everything – even chocolates! – with bread, as all his childhood he knew the feeling of permanent hunger; I was lucky enough to never experience that. But standing in queues that lasted for hours at the grocery store and then seeing empty shelves inside was standard. When the Russian market was opened up to foreign companies selling their products, one of the first Mars commercials looked like this: the family gathering after dinner for tea and sharing a Mars bar between the five of them. Through my school, I was participating in an exchange programme, and my American counterpart who stayed with us in Moscow asked, “Why can’t they have a Mars bar each?” It’s true that they weren’t very expensive, but it was a true reflection of our mentality.

Those living in post-Soviet times are genetically used to crisis – wars, famine, repressions, terrorism, financial defaults, revolutions; we’re among the nations that have learnt to survive despite the circumstances. In the current pandemic, this transmitted-through-generations experience seems to leave the older population in a naive denial. “It will be fine – we survived the war,” or “This is all just a plot fabricated by [insert name of hated community],” or, as my parents’ friend told me when I rang during lockdown to wish her a happy 80th birthday, “My girlfriends came over to have some bubbly – don’t worry, none of them was using public transport!”

I understand that denial sounds familiar – older generations in England can be as oblivious, missing their grandchildren and desperately in need of socialising. Apart from the extremes to which Belarus’ Lukashenko, Brazil’s Bolsonaro or America’s Trump were refusing to admit reality, actions and reactions – both from governments and citizens – have had many more commonalities than any other pan-national issue since the creation of the UN. In the end, how many ways are there to be literally locked down?

Perceptions, however, depend upon the country’s history and national mentality. In England, the Prime Minister, despite being more mocked than loved, is being listened to and the public tries to find reasonable explanations for the measures imposed (low testing levels in the early stages – not enough capacity; another lockdown – a necessity for protection, etc.) In Russia where there is a habit of not trusting the government, the same circumstances are being perceived in a very different way (low levels tested for the virus – they’re lying about the numbers; lockdowns – aimed at limiting everyone’s freedom of movement, etc.) But most importantly, rules are rules in England, whoever in the country’s power elite dares to break them and whichever length they are set for. I’m not saying no one is (inclined towards) breaking them, but, as with the law in general, antisocial behaviour is a minority of cases and not considered cool.

Russians, on the other hand, are so used to unfair laws introduced to bite chunks off regular citizens’ incomes and freedoms that even when they are set for people’s protection, it’s never a dialogue but a forced measure. During lockdown in spring and summer 2020, movement around Moscow was not permitted; one had to apply for a pass to take public transport, and fines were tremendous. When diagnosed with COVID-19, people in Moscow would not just be asked to self-isolate, they would be monitored and fined again if found breaching the rule of not leaving the place where they contracted the virus. (The notoriety of Big Brother – in one story, a young man replied to an official text message confirming his location, but the satellite defined it wrongly as he had sent the message from his balcony rather than inside his apartment, hence the young man received a penalty.)

At the end of 2020, most European countries went back to some form of restrictions, across the spectrum of curfew to wider lockdown measures. But not Russia, where COVID cases were declared to have been under control. Interestingly, the UK was one of three countries that Russia opened air travel with first (naming the other two should be a question for a pub quiz, as no one would ever guess that they were Turkey and Tanzania). The UK has since been removed from that list, and other countries added to make it look like it’s going back to the “old normal.” People wouldn’t necessarily believe the official positivity, but no one would voluntarily choose to go back into lockdown if not being forced, and Muscovites have been enjoying a variety of entertaining activities.

When the last bastion – museums – were reopened to the public at the end of January 2021 (someone had decided they were the most evil source of virus spread), there were queues outside despite the freezing weather – people had been craving what was not available to them. To us, having lived in the English countryside through lockdowns for most of 2020, pictures of New Year’s celebrations, friends’ gatherings, show openings, facial massages, eating out, swimming in – all looked very alien. It is much easier in Russia than in the UK to obtain COVID tests, which show not only a positive/negative result but also the level of antibodies; vaccination has been rolled out on a mass scale, and everyone can sign up for a first and second jab of the protective potion patriotically named Sputnik.

I recently spoke with my friend who happened to be in a packed café in Moscow’s Gorky Park. Having been once to the pub and twice to a café in the past year, I mumbled something about jealousy. With a sarcastic pride, she replied, “Yes we’ve silenced the opposition and Coronavirus!”

About Maria Barleben-Adderley

Maria is a Russian, who's been living in the UK for over a decade. Though it has never been her profession, she adores writing both in Russian and English. Maria resides in the glorious countryside of East Sussex with her husband who makes it easy for her to enjoy every day, and sons who teach her about space, dragons and how beautiful the absurd can be.

Maria is a Russian, who's been living in the UK for over a decade. Though it has never been her profession, she adores writing both in Russian and English. Maria resides in the glorious countryside of East Sussex with her husband who makes it easy for her to enjoy every day, and sons who teach her about space, dragons and how beautiful the absurd can be.

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