Warning: The following contains mature language (or childish, depending on your point of view). Not suitable for anyone under 18 or anyone who has ever asked a comedian, "Why do you have to work so blue?"
I happen to be in Russia at the same time as a young man named Edward Snowden. I'm going to be here at least eight weeks and thought I would report on my experience and let him know what he may encounter now that he's leaving Sheremetyevo Airport and reportedly been granted one year asylum in Russia.
It's almost as hard as finding your way out of Newark Airport.
I'm here for a very different reason. I'm working in a comedy writers' room in Moscow, helping a small group of Russian writers "break" original stories for the Russian version of Everybody Loves Raymond called The Voronins. I was part of the American staff that produced 210 episodes of Raymond over nine years. Here, they've translated, adapted, and produced all but about ten of our episodes. For those of you who have seen Phil Rosenthal's (the show's creator) documentary Exporting Raymond, you may have some idea about how this all got started. And this is not the first or only American show that has been exported to what used to be our mortal ideological enemy. We've also launched Married With Children, The Nanny, and a host of other American missiles of mirth.
First impression: I've never been to a city before where I can't read the signs on the streets and buildings. I spent five weeks in Israel last year, but everybody speaks English there. The Israeli cab drivers speak better English than most New York cab drivers. There, all the signs are in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Here, with the exception of the occasional Pepsi, KFC or huge glowing Hitachi sign opposite the statue of Lenin (He must be spinning in his hermetically sealed case), it's the Cyrillic alphabet. I do, however, hear a lot of Western pop music. It's a strange sensation driving back and forth from the studio everyday. My driver will play an English language radio station, while I look out the window unable to read a damn thing. Aurally, I understand everything, "This is crazy... but here's my number, call me maybe." But visually, I feel halfway between dyslexia and a stroke.
I'm reading what looks like an "O" that all of a sudden is followed by a backwards "N." There's a "C," but then a pitchfork. What's that "3" doing in the middle of a word next to something that looks like either a baby grand piano or a bong sitting on a coffee table?
So as not to feel so helplessly illiterate, I've been learning the sounds of the Russian alphabet. I want to at least be able to decipher some of these words surrounding me every day. At a red light on my way to work, I'll point to a word and try out my pronunciation on my driver. I'm looking for short words, because if it's a long word, I won't be able to sound it all out before the light turns green. I feel like I'm back in first grade, going through my phonics book with my mom before the school bus comes around the corner.
And I'm trying to learn to roll my "r"s, but that doesn't come easily for a kid who grew up in the Midwest, where we pronounce our "r"s like a Barbary Pirate stubbing his toe, "arrrrgh." "Dad, I'm going to play in the backyarrrrghd." The "R"s here are backwards anyway and sound like "ya." And the thing that looks like a lower case "r" to my eyes is actually the sound for a hard "g."
It doesn't make it any easier that there are four letters that sound the same in both languages, the "T," the "O," the "M," and the "A." It just makes it more confusing, because the "B" is a "V", the "P" is an "R," the "C" is an "S," the "H" is an "N," the "y" is an "ooh", and the "X" is a "kha."
You see what I'm up against here.
It's like putting together an enormous jigsaw puzzle. I won't get even close to finishing by the time I leave, but, I have found some of the edge pieces, common words like "rent," (аренда) "flowers," (цветы) "bank," (банк) "24 hours," (24 часa) "pharmacy" (аптека). And of course, the universally ubiquitous Cтарбакс ... "Starbucks."
I would advise Mr. Snowden not to make the classic "PECTOPAH" mistake. I did the first day. Pectopah is Russian for "restaurant." I see the word all over the place. It's one of the few words that looks entirely English. I wanted to show off for my new Russian boss, Artiom.
Me: I've been working on the language. I already know "Pectopah."
Artiom: What's pectopah?
Me: You know... restaurant. (Off his confused look) How do you pronounce it?
As part of my job in the writer's room, I've picked up the word for "funny" (Smeshno) and the word for "joke" (Shootka). But, before I even learned those words, I asked what I am sure every American ambassador asks when he arrives in a foreign country not knowing the language.
"How do you guys swear?"
My translator and fellow comedy writers were happy to oblige.
My observations on this topic are in no way comprehensive. I simply have not had time to delve deeply into the entire catalogue of Russian curse words or what I am sure is it's complex grammar, syntax and dulcet melody. This is merely a beginner's guide to Russian cursing. What I can tell you from my limited sampling is that while American cursing is a fuck-based system, Russian cursing appears to be a cock-based system. Whereas, English speakers prefer variations of the verb "fuck," as in "fuck you," "go fuck yourself," then bending it into nouns, ("motherfucker," "fuckhead") adjectives, ("fucking this," "fucking that,") and even using it as a word extension as in "I guaran-fucking-tee you," the cornerstone of Russian cursing is... "cock."
For instance, in English one might say, "fuck you." In Russian, one would say (phonetically) "Pashol na hui," which literally means "go to cock." In this case, no particular cock is specified. My understanding is that it is customary for one go to the nearest available cock. The Russian equivalent of our C-word for female genitalia (C-word. Yes, that's where I draw the line) is also widely used in the same manner. I was also told that there is no literal equivalent for the ever popular and versatile "asshole." Apparently, the anus in Russia is not the source of giggling embarrassment and/or road rage that it is Stateside.
This fundamental expression, "hui," also covers things that are "cock-like." If you didn't enjoy a movie, you might say, "That movie was "huinya." It also covers something that is insignificant or "almost nothing" as in "His cock was huinya."
I'm not sure what this says about our different cultures that the essential building block of our cursing-style is a verb, an action word, while theirs is a noun, but it's probably why we won the Cold War. Although come to think of it, with all of these recent revelations about domestic surveillance, I'm no longer sure who won the Cold War.
I hope this has been enlightening and informative and slightly funnier than all of those steamy romance novels and "fuck-books" available to him at the airport. I, unlike the national security establishment in Washington, wish him the best of luck. I hope he gets his asylum and is able to one day tell all those who wish him ill to... "go to cock."