I found another Russian thing that is terrible for everyone: Russian children’s books

So, the other week, Mr. B and I were trolling around in the local Russian bookstore. It’s actually very cute because it’s called “Knizhnik,” which loosely translates to “Booker,”  from the word for book, knizhka. It’s named after the owner, whose last name IS actually Knizhnik.  With a last name like that, I can only imagine you’re destined either for book store ownership or tax evasion.

Anyway, none of that was  relevant to the picture I’m about to show you. Brace yourselves.

This book is titled “Magical Riddles,” but the only riddle I have is why the hell the wolf on the cover of a book targeting the 3-7 age group is dressed like Tupac Shakur? With his own bling, which reads “волк ” or wolf in Russian.

When I first Tweeted this picture on Instagram, a couple of Concerned Citizens pointed out that, even in English, it looked like the wolf was up to no good:

I have no explanation for this cover illustration and why it’s appropriating American gangsta rap culture.

 Are Russians hoping to corner the hip-hop marketing segment of children’s literature? Do they think the wolf (W-Dawg) appeals to those 4-year old toddler girls who are dreaming of someone sexy and dangerous, yet safe, to escort them to Grandmother’s house? (Yes, that is little Red Riding Hood, but in Russian she’s Little Red Riding Cap, because, you know, communists)

More importantly, if the wolf  can afford bling, why can’t he afford a nice pair of Prada pants without patches, like Kanye? Is it because the illustrator is trying to show that, while daddy has a Boomer and a 14-k gold nameplate he’s still relatable to the proletariat?

We many never know.

But while you’re puzzling over that, there’s another Russian children’s series I’d like you to check out.  It’s called Tanya Grotter and it has no resemblance at all to anything in English-speaking culture whatsoever.

This pacticular book is called “Tanya Grotter and the Hammer of Perun,” Perun being the Slavic pagan deity of fire, mountains, and plagiarism.

I can just imagine a marketing meeting where the publishers of these books got together.

“How can we sell our own rich literary culture, spanning back hundreds of years and including such beloved Russian children’s authors as Marshak, Barto, and Nosov?” One suit says to another.

“We can’t.  Now that everyone has the Internet, Russian culture is boring. America, America, America, they all want.”

“So what are we going to do?”

“We will plagiarize and appropriate everything, by God.”

“ALL of American and Anglophone culture?”

“Yes, all of it.”

“But it’s so overwhelming! Where do we start?”

“How about you draw a Hip Hop wolf, and we’ll go from there?”

“But even if we develop a hip hop culture, we don’t have the ‘hood. How do we rap without a ‘hood to objectify?”

“Are you looking around you?  You have a whole country full of rusting post-Soviet machinery that hasn’t been maintained in over 40 years  just waiting to give you tetanus, and you’re complaining that we don’t have a ‘hood? Get back to drawing that wolf, bratan.”

 

Why do Russians love Ferrero Rocher?

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If you’ve ever been to a Russian house, you know what I’m talking about.  The tea set comes out, the fruits and nuts come out, and out comes the Ferrero Rocher.

Ferrero Rocher is the currency of Russian households.  We received at least three Ferrero Rocher gift boxes this holiday season, and gave out at least two. What is it about this candy that makes it the Mercedes of the Russian community? Is it because it’s just expensive enough ($9.99 per box) to say, “I care and here’s something for your house so we don’t come empty-handed”, but not big enough of a commitment as wine? Is it because we love Italians?

I mean, for me, personally, it’s because it has Nutella in it (which I actually didn’t know until recently), and also because it reminds me of every Russian dinner gathering I’ve ever had to sit through in my childhood.

But back in the day, in the salad days of immigration, you only bought Ferrero Rocher for other people if you were a baller. So maybe the brand recognition has stuck.

How I misinterpret Russian song lyrics

A couple weeks ago, Mr. B and I ordered Russian cable , because all the best concerts and shows are on in time for New Year and, honestly, watching American TV for New Year is like spending Christmas in Florida, a la Home Alone 2.

When you order Russian TV, you get three channels: Perviy Kanal (Channel 1), RTV, and RTV+, I believe.  While these are three Russian channels, they are Russian channels in the same way that mall sushi is Japanese food.  The content is filtered and packaged for the American Russian-speaking market.  People our age don’t order Russian tv, so basically it’s geared for grandparents, most of who don’t have the Internet and don’t speak English, meaning that Russian TV is often their only media lifeline for entertainment throughout the day.

So instead of actually cool and ridiculous Russian shows like Afromoskvitch (An African…Muscovite!) and The Russian Nanny, we get shows that teach you how to speak English using key vocabulary from the Holocaust.  I wish I were making this up.  We cancelled Russian TV about four days after we got it.  Ok, I think the Russian Nanny is ridiculous enough to merit a full epsidoe YouTube clip instead of a link :

But the one cool thing that it does have is the New Year’s concert, where Mr. B and I heard this song and instantly fell in love with it. It is so rare for Mr. B and I to agree on music that I chalked it up to a New Year’s miracle.

 

The song is called Absent’ (ahbSENT), or Absinthe, and is basically about a chick who hangs out in bars and drinks a lot and won’t tell her boyfriend that she loves him because all she wants to do is party. But in a classy way. It was originally sung/written only by the female singer in the clip, Elena Vaenga.

It goes something like this:

I don’t know why it’s pulling me,
It’s pulling me, oh, how it’s pulling me,
And I always vanish at night, at night, at night
It didn’t happen only once, unfortunately,
This is going to repeat, repeat
I’m only going to change the time and the faces,
The green color-I won’t change

Chorus:
I found out an interesting fact
That Van Gogh, Matisse, and Dali,
Smoked tobacco,  used absinthe,
And, actually, could do a lil’ something else.

This is a really bad translation because there are very distinct Russian nuances, but you get the point.

So, Mr. B and I were driving in the car last week, listening to this song admiringly, when I turned to Mr. B, as I often do when I have problems with the Russian language, and broke the silence by asking , “So, what does it mean?”

“What do you mean, what does it mean?”

“So, like, she had sex with Van Gogh, Matisse, and Dali?”

“What?  What are you talking about?”

“In the song.  She says the she found out that they could do a lil’ something else.  So she basically had sex with all three of them?”

“What?  No.  Are you daft?* A lil’ something else means she found out that, not only do they smoke weed and drink absinthe-”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa.  I thought таба-табак was, like cigars and stuff.”

“No, I’m pretty sure she means that they smoked weed.”

“That ruins my whole image of the song, of them hanging out in fin de siècle Vienna and smoking cigars and discussing art and stuff.  Ok, fine.  But what about the sex?”

“There is NO sex.  She just means that, in addition to all the bad stuff they do, they were also all geniuses and managed to create some of the greatest art, in between the absinthe and the weed.”

“Are you sure? I thought it was like, ‘You know, they could *wink wink nudge nudge* do something else, too.”

“Yeah, no, I’m pretty sure.”

We went back to listening to the song.

We listened to it for 10 more seconds.

I turned it off.

It just wasn’t as good anymore.

*he actually said stupid, but I like to pretend that we are British and we fight classy-like. Just pretend he said daft.

 

How We Learned American

I am so excited about this NY Times article about American kids learning Russian and going to a Russian school in Moscow.  Because it’s about time those hipsters get a taste of their own medicine. And by hipsters I mean American parents and teachers that teach their kids that each one is a special snowflake. More Americans need to learn how the rest of the world works.

Here’s a video where Mr. B and I recall our memories of learning English, and debate why the American school system is terrible, but mostly just talk about nothing. It’s like a real-life Seinfeld, only with horrible production quality. Guess what? They don’t teach iMovie in American schools, either.

The VeeLog: School n’ Stuff from Vicki on Vimeo.

I would LOVE if you included your memories of being integrated into the American school system and learning English in the comments.  Let’s swap horror stories.  Or how we completely mischaracterized American education.  Or talk about why you’re a Special Snowflake and don’t know 7 times 7. 

What Russian Men Talk About? Surprise! It’s Cheating on Their Wives

A couple weeks ago, Mr. B and I watched some movies that my aunt brought when she came to visit from Russia in August.  One of them was a movie that’s Russia’s favorite current bromance comedy and has stirred up a lot of press, even in English, “What Men Talk About.”

The story is basically four guys in their late-30s early-4os escaping everyday life and going together on a road trip from Moscow to Odessa, where one of their friends owns a nightclub on the beach.  During the trip, they talk about what life means to them, in sometimes lighthearted, sometimes bittersweet ways.  The team is made by a group of guys that’s made movies together, making them kind of equivalent to the actors that always appear in Judd Apatow movies, in different rotations but similar comedic scenarios.

One of the funniest part of the movie is the different imaginary scenarios they talk about, kind of like Scrubs.  In this one, they imagine that famous hottie pop star Zhanna Friske has to come on business to the same rundown Ukranian hotel they’re staying at for the night, and that a married guy, schmuckish, is staying next to her and refuses her advances.  They imagine how it would be for him to refuse Zhanna Friske, revenging all the hot women that have refused him,  and what his wife would say in response when cross-examining him: (she says he’s a moron) Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find the movie with English subtitles, but you get the idea:


Basically, it’s a good movie.  Lots of really imaginative moments (Nazis who shoot you if you don’t tell the truth about what you’re thinking), the characters are really fleshed out, and a lot of good life dilemmas are explored.  And it’s funny and has good music.

Except for one thing.

All the characters in the movie are either cheating or thinking of cheating on their wives or girlfriends, as may be the case.  And it’s not like an American type of comedy like Hall Pass, where cheating is seen as this crazy big thing that men can never do.  In fact, most American movies, and American culture, in general, to me seems to not condone cheating, even if it is done.  It’s a huge deal to cheat on your husband or wife (even if the divorce rate here is astronomical,) partly due to the Puritan backbone that this country has, and partly I think due to the fact that being married is seen as more of a choice than in Russia, where the masses see it as the only direction your life can take after a certain point.  In fact, I joke with Mr. B that everyone our age and younger in Russia has kids because there’s really nothing else to do, and I do think that people middle class and lower, especially in smaller cities in Russia really have no other choices, so that’s what they do.

Anyway, getting back to the point at hand.  In this movie, one of the main characters, Kamil first mentions he has a mistress simply by saying that she called him the other day and that it’s possible his wife could have seen.  But he didn’t say “my girlfriend” or “the woman I’m cheating with” but just mentions her by name, and mentions his wife as “his wife,” which makes the relationship seem very casual and “no big deal.”  To me as an Americanized woman, this was really shocking.  And there are many such moments in the movie that are clearly exaggreated and meant to be funny, but point, with a wink and a nod, to Russian men who are cheating and consider it a vital part of culture.

Because I’ve never really known any Russians that cheated on their spouses (within my small, limited immigrant sample size here,) I was also really shocked to hear my aunt say a phrase I hadn’t heard a couple years ago: ‘Zhena ne stena, mozhno oboiti,” or, ‘A wife is not a wall, you can step around.’  Which is crazy, right?  I mean we don’t have any sayings like that in Anglo culture, right?  I mean, a folk saying is not be-all end-all indicator of society, but still.  Also, there is the fact that the Russian woman-man ratio is still very low, what with WWII and Afghanistan and vodka, meaning that men cheat, and what’s worse, women are more accepting of it.

I really liked this part of Julia’s article:

Wandering spouses have become a common trope for the women of Moscow. “Men’s environment here pushes them towards cheating,” Tanya told me, adding that, these days, a boys’ night out in Russia often involves prostitutes. Tanya and her friends are young, educated, upper-middle-class Muscovites, but talk to any woman in Moscow, and, regardless of age, education, or income level, she’ll have a story of anything from petty infidelity to a parallel family that has existed for decades. Infidelity in Moscow has become “a way of life,” as another friend of mine put it—accepted and even expected.

For the most part, Russian women shrug off the fooling around. It’s seen as unavoidable and natural. Men are slaves to hormones. Why get worked up over that, or the weather? “My sister’s husband cheats on her,” says Tanya, of the underwear story. “She knows this for a fact, but she doesn’t cheat on him. When I ask her why she stays with him she says, ‘I’m going to split up with him over some nonsense? He’ll get it out of his system and settle down.’” “Faithfulness in marriage is seen as something that is nice but unrealistic,” says Moscow sociologist Irina Tartakovskaya. She points out that if women don’t really expect it of their husbands, they can pre-empt feelings of shock and betrayal.

And I wonder if it’s true, and if so, why women put up with it. To me, staying with a cheater is like staying with someone who abuses you.  But maybe in Russia, women without men have no choice to be so.  My aunt in Russia isn’t married, and she’s doing alright, but she probably wouldn’t be if we didn’t send her money occasionally, or she didn’t receive pension and keep working at the same time.  Maybe being with a cheater is better than being alone in Russia? I don’t know.  And I do know a couple of my parents’ friends who have split up after 20 years because of cheating, but that seems similar to the U.S.  Basically, all my knowledge of this issue is second-hand and I come across as really naive.  So I’d like to know more.

Issues like this are why economics interests me.  And I’m hoping at one point I get past seeing math formulas and can dive into this stuff, the real stuff it’s all about. More discussion here and here and here.

What I do know is that I took an informal poll in our household whether Mr. B would ever cheat on me, and he said he was “too lazy” to “remember what other women’s names and birthdays were.”  So looks like I dodged a bullet there.