THE BLOG
02/13/2014 12:05 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2014

How Are You Is Not Fine

2014-02-13-445pxThomas_Paine_rev1.jpg

Thank God for the Russians. Russia produced The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, War and Peace and Pussy Riot. OK Sochi might not be the best choice for the Winter Olympics, but you can't say the Russians are running away from the challenge. Now in a Times Op-Ed piece "The 'How Are You?' Culture Clash," (NYT, 1/20/14), Alina Simone points out that Russians don't simply take "fine" as an answer. When you ask a Russia "how are you," you might get Chekhov's wonderful short story, "The Lady With the Dog," Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time or Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. Your average Russian is going to tell it like it is. Simone writes,

"Ask a Russian, 'How are you?' and you will hear, for better or worse, the truth. A blunt pronouncement of dissatisfaction punctuated by, say, the details of any recent digestive troubles. I have endured many painful minutes of elevator silence after my grandmother (who lived in the Soviet Union until moving to the United States in the 60's) delivered her stock response: 'Terrible,' to which she might add, 'Why? Because being old is terrible.' Beat. 'And I am very old'"

What's ironic is that Russia is still not a free society. Russian citizens are routinely persecuted for their beliefs and there are many egregious examples like the case of the Sergei Magnitsky, the 37 year old tax lawyer who died in jail after refusing to testify for the authorities ("Lawyer Held in Tax Case in Russia Dies in Jail," NYT 11/17/13). The Yukos billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky who spoke out against Putin was recently released and deported after spending l0 years in prison ("Russian Tycoon Is Free, but His Money Is Still Tied Up," NYT, 12/20/13). Perhaps it's a little like samizdat, the uncensored poetry that was so prized during the most repressive period of Soviet history. Maybe the private exchange is even more prized since public expressions of truth were and are so limited. Commenting on the theory of a prominent Russian cultural historian, Anya von Bremzen, Simone says,

"As a citizen of a Communist utopia, you were pretty much supposed to feel fine all the time (never mind the time you spent squabbling over the communal stove or waiting in a two-hour line to buy toilet paper)."

Americans seem to be attending a perpetual small talk convention in which "how are you" and "fine" are the lingua franca, but they won't go to jail because of a negative Twitter feed about the President Obama. Nothing, of course, is worse than those Americans who abuse the privilege of living in a free society by responding to "how are you? with "I can't complain." If Tom Paine could hear such drivel, he'd roll in his grave.

Painting: Thomas Paine by Auguste Miliiere

{This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture}