A few weeks ago during his visit, my friend told me ecstatically that he learned how to say “deal with it” in Russian. As the only American-raised Russian speaker out of his numerous friends and acquaintances, I almost play the role of a cultural advisor and authentic storyteller. “This is interesting”- I eagerly responded – “What is the word?” I rarely have a chance to practice my Russian and, my language attrition has reached such level that I can’t communicate freely. So, when someone thinks of me as an expert I instantly give in to the temptation to challenge my memory of the language and demonstrate my skills to someone who doesn’t speak Russian at all.
“The word is….he hesitates….sounds close to the word “prostitute.” “Prostitute…hmm” I think for a second, “I don’t believe there is a word close to this sounding that would be translated as “deal with that” – I conclude.
We laughed; he – at the funny sounding and I – at my alleged incompetence, and proceeded with our conversation on a different topic. Later that week, he sent me a WhatsApp voice recording wherein his born and bred Russian friend dictates the word. He does not translate the word to English as the language of communication for the majority of the Russian community in Israel is Hebrew. In Hebrew, there is a designated verb for “deal with it” so I am not worried about the parts being lost in translation. The word that the recording utters is “Terpet’” (to be patient) This word is, of course, basic so I don’t doubt my translation nor do I doubt my American friend’s interpretation because he is fluent in Hebrew.
I give my friend my feedback while trying to understand how the casual “be patient” could possibly veer toward “deal with that” and then it dawned on me; being patient is the way of dealing with things in Russia.
For Russians, happiness can be achieved when bigger goals are met such as having a fulfilling relationship or devoted friends, in other words, Russian happiness is spiritual.
Throughout many decades, the construction of Russian society did not allow people to pursue their goals and embrace their personal desires to the fullest so being patient was the way of achieving comfort and even happiness. By being patient with assigned jobs or endless queues for toilet paper and canned salmon people would allow themselves to channel their thoughts towards more ethereal, eternal things such as poetry, camping and bard music. By “toughing it out” many were able to embrace their lives in the limited setting and even become apprehensive towards ultimate freedom of choice.
It made me think of the notion of lingual representation of cultures. Since the beginning of the 20th-century linguists and anthropologists such as Edward Sapir were trying to understand the correlation between words and cultural perception but little emphasis has been made on the meaning of equivalent words that in reality do not convey the same idea.
For example, the word “happy” in Russian does not express the same sentiment as it does in English as Russians attach a complex emotional connotation to the word. While in English, we can be “happy” with our morning coffee or the result of a successful work presentation, in Russian one can only be “happy” in a subliminal state of mind when the soul is thriving in the atmosphere surrounding an individual.
For Russians, happiness can be achieved when bigger goals are met such as having a fulfilling relationship or devoted friends, in other words, Russian happiness is spiritual. In his work Family Happiness, Leo Tolstoy says “A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor — such is my idea of happiness.”
Russian Happiness has a similar sense to it, and almost always presupposes struggle of dealing with life, almost like the theological notion of one’s soul struggle. Happiness cannot be spoken but can be understood through comparison, as Leo Tolstoy famously said in Anna Karenina “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
As I happily sip my Earl Grey, I recap on the culture that is deeply engrained in my parents; Russians are not any different in their ability to enjoy the word, they can be vulnerable and sensual heart-driven and love-audacious. However, because of the history of their country, the skill of “dealing with it” though patience is more important than “being happy without achieving it through the struggles of one’s entity.”