As They Say in Russia

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGuest blog by Tatyana Fertelmeyster, Co-author of Cultural Detective Russia and Senior Trainer of Facilitators

There is a Russian saying, “If a face is ugly, don’t blame the mirror.” I have been thinking about it lately as the topic of Russia has come up in different mirrors, and it is not looking all that good.

In addition to all these, Human Rights Watch, in its World Report 2013, addresses a long list of concerns, concluding that 2012 was “the worst year for human rights in Russia in recent memory,” according to  Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia Director at Human Rights Watch.

The official Russian response to all of that? It is complex, nuanced, and as contextual as everything in Russia. And most often it is about blaming the mirror or whoever is putting this mirror in front of Russia’s face. Just in the last few months Russia enacted laws that

  1. Require NGOs with any foreign funding to register as “foreign agents”,
  2. Reinterpret treason so broadly that almost anybody cooperating with foreigners can be — if necessary — accused of selling out the Motherland,
  3. Prohibit Russian orphans to be adopted by US Americans.

Two other very common Russian sayings come to mind:

  • “I am a fool? You are a fool yourself!” and
  • “Don’t teach me how to live my life!”

Considering that Russia is the largest country in the world, with the seventh largest domestic market and the second largest nuclear arsenal, it might be useful to know what they say in Russia. And it will be priceless to understand what they mean when they say it.

Cultural Detective Russia is available in our new Cultural Detective Online system. I hope you’ll give it  whirl and see how it might help make meaning of some of this.

Tatyana Fertelmeyster, Co-author of Cultural Detective Russia

4 thoughts on “As They Say in Russia

  1. Dear Luis,

    You are so right -let’s not forget the “anti-gay” bill as well as a number of other laws that have been flying out of Duma (Russian Parliament) in the last year or so. Many Russians now refer to Duma as a “crazy printer” or a “printer gone crazy”.

    I want to underline a couple of things in the article you have shared. Firs of all, do you see Russia’s classic “Don’t teach us how to live our lives” position in Mr. Lavrov’s reaction?

    Second, and most interesting/troubling in the whole thing is the growing tendency of the Russian political hierarchy to use children as an excuse for just about anything:

    – We are not against homosexuals, we are just protecting young minds…
    – We are not against freedom of information, we are just watching your internet site to see if you put out there anything that we can interpret as not appropriate for children (what exactly it might be nobody knows, which allows a wonderfully Russian approach to rules and laws on “it depends” basis)
    – We are not saying to America what laws it can adopt (Magnitsky Act - but we sure can prohibit these Americans from adopting our children (Russia today has more children living in orphanages or on the streets than it had after WWII).


  2. I couldn’t help but be struck by the first line, Tatyana, namely the saying, “If a face is ugly, don’t blame the mirror,” reminded me of a PowerPoint slide someone sent to me Recently which pictured of a mirror on which was stuck a note saying, “Reflections in this mirror may not accurately represent culturally constructed ideas of beauty.” In all of these kinds of discussions we need to be reminded of where our judgments come from as well as how we construct our own righteousness. Propaganda works because we believe it, or wants to believe it. There is always an alternative interpretation of the facts.


  3. George,

    I very much agree with you. It is all (or almost all) about perspective. Russia is one of the most interesting places right now if you want to observe or experience a power of perspective. Just watch an ongoing internal debate of what’s ahead for Russia (from extreme optimism to equally extreme pessimism). Another interesting (and troubling) one to watch is attitude toward the West (especially toward America and Americans – from fascination to hatred).


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