Foreword. Demystifying the Russian Soul

In its opening article, The Russianist ponders about the enigmatic “Russian soul” and looks for its origins in the intricacies of the Russian language.


“The human soul—what are its atoms?
Just close your eyes and look inside.
What do you see? Shapes? Figures? Patterns?
Me, I see words. And in my mind

A universe unfolds before me
In clean-cut letter silhouettes.
Enspelled, the soul recites its story;
From words emerged, words it begets.”

—V. Zakharov, “Words”

“In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

—G. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

 

Welcome to The Russianist. As you could guess from the wordy epigraph, we will be talking about words; Russian words.

But not mere words.

Words are never mere

Words generate cultures.

Words underlie civilizations.

Words shape the minds that bear them.

Tree House

Consider the English language: flexible, expandable, rebuildable. It can embrace hudreds of new words every year, redefining and rearranging them with a juggler’s dexterity. It is like one of those young-engineer construction sets that come with a manual that no curious kid adheres to, because it’s so much more fun putting things out of place and still having them in place.

That’s what the “English soul” is like: open-minded, free-spirited, inquisitive; challenging orders and authorities to make them even more orderly and authoritative; and continuously and tirelessly improving itself and the world around it in a quest for more effective and efficient ways of living and being.

And now there’s the Russian language, a direct opposite: rigid, stubborn—even xenophobic, if you will. In Russian, if you are to introduce a neologism, you’ll have to wait for a couple decades before people decide that it might be something they could utter without their tongues rebelling against them. Speaking Russian is like building a tree house atop a centuries-old oak. You don’t choose the materials to suit your ideas, you change the ideas (or ideals) to fit the material at hand.

In a way, this is no lesser fun than playing around with neatly designed prefabricated pieces. Finally finding a crooked branch that mysteriously fits a misshapen tree limb—or a word that matches its surrounding phrase—invokes a feeling of such pure joy that it makes you forget about the discomfort of this makeshift shelter, and even become endeared to it.

It is the joy of creativity that comes not from liberty but from necessity. It is the joy of a different sort of freedom—the bare freedom that does not rely on the crutches of physical unrestrainedness. It is the joy of being connected to something bigger, and being a part of it.

Defined by the language that engenders it, the Russian soul is just like that: unbending, adamant, arrogant—but at the same time resourceful, inventive, intensive. And—oh yes—full of philosophy; not the razor-sharp philosophy of Aristotle and Wittgenstein, but the innate, ineffable philosophy of the ancient limbs piercing their way through the starlit sky . . .

 

Maria Skorodumova. The House Tree (2014)

Maria Skorodumova. The House Tree (2014)

Demystifying the Russian soul

The essence of the Russian soul is hard to capture. The above metaphor is one of many that can be (and have been) given to catch its reflected light, but it could hardly uncover the gamut of images and impressions that come to mind when someone—at least someone Russian—thinks about “the Russian soul.”

Maybe it’s a myth altogether? Maybe there’s no more to the “Russian” soul than there is to any other? There may very well be not. One can hardly doubt that the “souls” of all nations and ethnicities have their own peculiar and noteworthy properties. But somehow it is the Russian one that keeps circulating across minds and centuries, and even has its own Wikipedia page. Why?

Perhaps, there is a simple explanation for this: It is the self-reflective—or even self-ruminative—quality of the “Russian soul” itself that sends it into an infinite loop of intraversion: “I think, therefore I am thinking about why I am thinking about what I am thinking about.” But this is only half the answer, for we can still ask: Why?

And here we come back to the original assertion: The language shapes the mind of its bearer. I argue that it is the Russian language’s extraordinary subliminal density that determines the “Russian” mindset’s ability to introspect. Reft of the nimbleness in adapting itself to the outer reality, the Russian language more than makes up for it with the finesse in describing the reality within.

What are the exact “ingredients” of this ability? These are many, but to name a few:

  • The abundance of suffixes denoting every kind of attitude to a thing described: Slovoslovechko, slovtso, slovishche all mean “a word,” but feel much more (or much less—or something completely different) than just “a word.”
  • The flexible word order, where, for instance, each of the six possible permutations of the phrase “I love you” has its own tint and shade. (Which in turn depend on rest of the verbal concoction.)
  • The omnipresent particles, which give the utterance an additional, implicit message. With just one tiny word, you can change the tone from apologetic (“ne obizhaysya uzh na menya“—”please don’t take offense at me”) to agonistic (“ne obizhaysya-ka na menya“—”don’t you dare take offense at me”) and beyond.

All these spawn innumerable ways of saying (or thinking) the same thing while actually saying (or thinking) something completely different.

There are also more outwardly subtle “mechanisms,” such as the choice of words used to express certain notions. Here’s a couple of random examples:

  • The same word for both “light” and “world” (svet);
  • Almost identical words for “to do/make” and “to share” (delat’/delit’);
  • The same word for “the essence” and (a somewhat archaic variant of) “[they] are” (sut’);

These similarities are hardly visible to the naked eye and go undiscovered in everyday life. But they have a direct effect on the way we perceive things. When two words sound alike, they engage, at least partially, related parts of the brain, thus “linking” the perceptions of the two notions in our minds.

The Russianist

This connection between the language we use and the ideas we have might seem far-fetched, if not esoteric. But it is something that I’ve learned during my fifteen years as a professional translator. When you handle, process, and digest thousands of words every day—hundreds of thousands a year—you start noticing things. These things, minor or even negligible severally, jointly shed light on the “philosophical core” of the language. Inexpressible in any single combination of words, the soul of the language reveals itself in their entirety.

It is this entire, holistic comprehension that I want to enkindle in the readers of this journal. We will be exploring, probing, eyeballing, poking the Russian language—trying to make it speak. Speak about itself. Speak about the idiosyncratic, the mysterious, the mystifying “Russian soul” that emerges from it. Speak about the people enshrining this soul inside. Speak about the culture these people have been giving birth to.

Is this journal just for those who are interested in the Russian language, people, or culture? I don’t think so. Even if you don’t know Russian at all, I believe that taking a look at it will let you see familiar things from unfamiliar angles. Russian and English are like yin and yang: They complement each other and form a synergic whole when considered—and embraced—together.

Mind you, not all posts in this journal will be as verbose and allegorical as this one. Most of them will be more of entries in a figurative “dictionary of the Russian soul.” Others will be collections of trivia with SEO-esque titles like “5 Russian Diminutives Not to Be Confused.” While yet others will seem to have no relation to language at all.

But words will always be there, looming large as life—or hiding in plain sight.

Granted, these will be just words.

But words are never just words.

To me, this is clear as day.

Will I convince you?

Let us find out.