In this day and age of political correctness in the West, you might assume it is coming to Russia… But is it?
Is PC coming to Russia?
In this day and age of political correctness in the West, you might assume it is coming to Russia… And it is, but so slowly, and in such a moderate form that I can say confidently that political correctness in Russia is unknown to anyone who is not familiar with the Western way of life. In this blog, I will try to explain why.
Russians are rather old fashioned
Russians are an old fashioned folk, by Western standards. Boys are brought up to be masculine and brave – future breadwinners for their future family. They will be gallant and romantic towards girls but they would expect the girls to take care of all domestic aspects of life. Girls are brought up to be feminine, relying on men for physical help (carrying heavy objects, or indeed carrying the girl herself over a puddle of water!) and expecting men to provide for the family. That’s the idea – even if in real life it turns out to be completely different. After all, we’ve had equal rights for men and women since 1918, and even in the 19th century Russian women could go to universities and engage in all sorts of professional activities. And yet, every Russian girl awaits a prince on a white horse to sweep her off her feet and carry her away into a bright future… No worries if there is no prince though – she will make it herself. But the idea that the prince (should one appear) would allow her to carry her own luggage or let her pay her portion of a restaurant bill is very off-putting. So if you are dating a Russian woman and decide to go Dutch, think twice. Your chances of seeing her again will not be very high after that!
Men and women in Russia
In Russia, men and women are equal in the workplace (officially, anyway) and there are a lot of women in high flying positions, but in their personal lives women are proud to be the fairer and weaker sex. A Russian woman may be making more money than her husband or boyfriend, but she will be upset if he does not pay her all the traditional signs of male attention: opening doors, carrying heavy bags, helping put on coats etc. This is true of the workplace as well, especially with older people. For example, when I was giving English entrance exams at the Faculty of Journalism at Moscow University, the Dean of the faculty (a man) would kiss the hands of all the women examiners in the admin meeting before starting the exam. Similarly, I’ve had my hand kissed by numerous male students in Russia, and even very recently by a couple of Russian students learning English in London – yes, in this day and age. I would imagine that a British woman would be horrified by that (?) but I like it. It is considered to be an old-fashioned sign of respect for a woman. In short, Russian women are strong, resilient and powerful but they wouldn’t want men to treat them as if they are men. I hope it makes sense.
PC and politeness
I am always unpleasantly surprised by British students of mine, taking Russian lessons in London, when they go through the doors in front of me, or do not help me move heavy flipcharts, or unplug a laptop, especially if the power point is deep under the table, and you have to crawl around in an undignified way to find it. That would be considered the height of rudeness in Russia!
The Russian language is not PC friendly
Another reason for the lack of the PC culture in Russia is that unlike English, our language does not yield itself easily to the grammar and vocabulary of PC. The idea of “unisex” is simply impossible to implement in a language whose grammar is heavily dominated by the category of Gender. Even tables and chairs have genders, so how can people or their professions be genderless?
Besides, the Russian culture of communication is a very direct one, people say things point blank, without any polite “beating around the bush”. Most Russians genuinely do not understand what is wrong with describing an old, fat, blind or stupid person (not in front of them, obviously) with these blunt words describing their conditions. After living so long in the UK, I find it almost impossible to type them, let along say them, but in Russia my discomfort would be utterly foreign.
As a result, Russians are genuinely surprised and baffled by the language of PC. I myself first heard of it at the beginning of the 90-s, when I worked alongside an American girl teaching English at the Institute (now University) of Foreign Languages in Moscow. My students, whom she was teaching, asked me if it was true that English and American people call a pet an animal companion and a black person – an African American. Even though I had visited the US by then with a long visit, I was absolutely sure that it was some kind of linguistic joke, and I told them so!
Political correctness in Russian media
Political correctness is usually ridiculed in Russian mass media with sarcastic comments. For example, in a newspaper article I have read recently in Argumenty i Facty (Аргументы и Факты), the most popular Russian newspaper, it was suggested that “an idiot should be called a representative of the intellectual majority”.
What to expect if you go to Russia
So if you go to Russia – be ready to see women expecting men to pay for them in restaurants, open doors, helping them into their coats, etc. Be ready for older people on public transport to expect younger people to give up their seat.
For restaurant bills, non-romantic occasions are an exception. As a man, you don’t have to pay the full bill in a friendly or a business meeting. As a woman, do not take all these signs of courtesy from men too seriously, it may be that a man is just being polite. And if you know Russian well enough to read and watch the mass media, be prepared to hear some shocking (by British standards) language on TV and in the newspapers. Sometimes it even makes me cringe - I’ve lived in the UK too long!
Another thing regarding PC – be prepared to see people wearing lots of natural furs in winter. A mink coat for a Russian woman is a symbol of her status, an aspiration to look middle class and respectable. So do not think that all those women on the tube in Moscow wearing mink are rich. People save up for them for years, or even take out consumer credits with huge interst rates to get one. It may seem stupid to Westerners, but it makes Russians feel good and more confident.
All that said, there are of course little buds of political correctness coming into the language, reflecting the trends of the epoch. “Invalids” are now officially called “people with limited physical abilities”. But in colloquial speech, in real life, who would use a 5 word expression, when you can just use one word? As I said, our language is hopeless in this respect.
So don’t tell me I didn’t warn you…