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Language and Ideas

Russian is an expressive, concise and beautiful language. When people talk, a lot of little words which would be used in other languages are left out. For example, a telegram which one intellectual sent to another on the news of the triumph of democracy after the attempted coup in August 1991 read: Neuzheli dozhili? - "Is it possible that we have lived to see this day?"

Nouns are masculine, feminine, or neuter, and have cases like Latin or German (nominative, accusative, genitive, etc.). Russian verbs have a twist which adds zing to the language for they enjoy an inscrutable and elusive quality called "aspect", as well as mood and tense.

But whilst their language is capable of precision, it cannot be denied that the Russians themselves are prolix. They "go on" a bit. Opening ceremonies, closing ceremonies, movies and novels, all are four times as long as anyone else's.

Russian television is the only such medium in the world where there are genuinely free discussion programmes with no pre-agreed agenda or questions planted in the audience. Not only that, but the television station will stay on the air as long as the discussion goes on. During the early heady days of glasnost, people in St.Petersburg and Moscow used to stay up all night watching open-ended discussion programmes until employers and ministries begged for a moratorium so that everyone could get some sleep.

Russian is very inventive and responsive, ready for delicious word-games and foreign borrowings, without any of the defensive vapours of other countries' institutions such as the Académic Française. Russian examinations are taken orally, even in mathematics and other subjects that you would think needed a ruler and a bit of paper.

Whole books have been written on the Russian prefix. For instance: spal means slept; po-spal means to take a nap; prospal means overslept; pere-spal means slept with, made love to, and zaspal means to smother a baby in your sleep.

There has been an explosion of English terms into everyday Russian, partly due to the Russian's passionate embrace of new computer technology. The Russians are world leaders in piracy of software: it is estimated that 90% of the software in use in Russia is illegally copied. A hybrid language called "Russlish" has emerged in which English vocabulary is used with Russian case-endings, e.g: downloadirovat.

The Russians love acronyms: gulag, for example is a word made up of parts of words meaning the state prison system. Kolkhoz is made up of part of the word for collective and part of the word for farm, and in the same way sovkhoz is "council farm" (the word soviet is simply the ordinary Russian noun for "council" both in the sense of a piece of advice and a group of people/local administrators). The Russians gave the world sputnik (the Russian for "traveller"), cosmonaut and intelligentsia.

There are various concepts conveyable only in Russian, including: toska - a yearning, sad feeling; poshlost - vulgarity, cheapness - this can be used of ideas as well as people and things; skuchno - very frequently used to mean "we miss you", but also, "fed up" or even "tiresome".

There is a story about an English academic who wrote his doctoral thesis on the subject of the imperative form of the Russian verb. He was flying home, having completed a massively complicated water-tight theory after months of study in Russian libraries, when he noticed that the "No Smoking" sign in Russian was in a form that blew his whole theory out of the water.

Russian lends itself nicely to wicked parody, double meaning and "dead-pan" humour. Centuries of censorship have accustomed readers and audiences to look for a hidden meaning in the words or plot.

Every Russian child learns a tribute at school by Ivan Turgenev: "Ah, mighty, powerful Russian language! How could it be that you were not also given to a great people!"

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