Party like a Russian

The whole concept of wishing things for the New Year and resolving yourself to live differently once the clock strikes 12 is rather mystical, if not religious.

A lot of people, of course, have given up on New Year’s resolutions.

For many Russians, it is a much much bigger deal that Christmas, for obvious reasons.

Initially, the Soviets tried to replace Christmas with a more appropriate komsomol (youth communist league) related holiday, but, shockingly, this did not take. And by 1928 they had banned Christmas entirely, and Dec. 25 was a normal working day.

Then, in 1935, Josef Stalin decided, between the great famine and the Great Terror, to return a celebratory tree to Soviet children. But Soviet leaders linked the tree not to religious Christmas celebrations, but to a secular new year, which, future-oriented as it was, matched up nicely with Soviet ideology.

The blue, seven-pointed star that sat atop the imperial trees was replaced with a red, five-pointed star, like the one on Soviet insignia. It became a civic, celebratory holiday, one that was ritually emphasized by the ticking of the clock, champagne, the hymn of the Soviet Union, the exchange of gifts, and big parties. Source

For the New Years celebrations, most Russians will clean their house like their hosting judgment day. They will cook up so much food as if it’s their last meal on this earth. They will call their frenemies as if they are making peace before they die…

I still think that there is no such thing as a truly non-religious mindset. A religion will creep in, whether you call it a religion or not. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing, at all.

The thunder rattles, the dog barks

As the world ages, we gain collective experience. Relationships between things are clarified: insecurity gives way to confidence, truth, gained through an insufferable struggle, turns into familiar axioms that don’t demand any sort of struggle.

The well-intentioned man who once encouraged our predecessors to remind themselves of humility, would be the very first to be ashamed of his naiveté, should he rise from the grave and see the successes of his descendants.

In every way, we have succeeded; in every way, we have become enlightened. As we progress, our beliefs become firmer: they morph from vague illusions into something tangible.

The thunder rattles, the dog barks, the stubborn halfwits triumph – these are the simple truths that we have garnered and on which our future well-being relies. We recognise as truths only those truths that smack us right in between the eyes and physically stimulate our senses. We record in our annals only those facts that have the advantage of being in the perfect tense.

Everything else is labelled as lacking evidence and attributed to the realm of nonsense, and because nonsense is axiomatically useless, we treat this “everything else” with skeptical condensendence if not with outright hatred.

Where our unquestionable truths come from, what effects the thunder has, why a dog barks, why stubborn halfwits triumph, and not good people – we don’t think about it and aren’t interested in explanations. We just take it as fact, immutable and irresistible. On hearing the thunder, we say: this is thunder. On hearing a barking dog, we say: this is a barking dog.

The meaning of all our aspirations and worries is to be free from all doubts forever and to create for ourselves a position of flawless confidence in which we could live without thinking.

Each individual has a preference for a certain framework: we each create a comfort zone, and then we only need to make sure that we don’t venture into the unknown. In front of us, a prize dangles on a string, on which our eyes are fixated and which serves as a guiding star in our journey.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that creating the comfort zone is easy – quite the contrary! There is nothing more fragile than the framework to which we so diligently cling, nor is there anything more insistent on disturbing it than the unknown, from which we so stubbornly run. Staying in the comfort zone requires us to constantly repel the unknown with hard work and even violence… But we persevere. Assuming that our morals have been simplified enough that they don’t impede us in the our zealous quest for the said prize, what happens when we finally sink our teeth into it? I will tell you: the minute we reach the prize, when we feel it in our hands at last, it turns out that its richness isn’t quite what we thought it would be – the prize itself has become a victim of the unknown that we so strenuously fought against. And so, even though we judge the dreamers with their nonsense, we too end up in pursuit of nonsense, crude and stupid.

The question is: what was it that we were fighting for?

This is my rather liberal translation from Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s Sign of the Times, c. 1863. Quite possibly its first English incarnationOriginal text in Russian.

Saltykov-Shchedrin Legkovesnie Priznaki Vremeni


Can we live without evil?

Black or white?

What you label as evil essentially depends on which side of you are on.

Being directional, having a goal, being in pursuit involves labelling things and people as allies or obstacles. In pursuit of our goals, we do many things which we may think are perfectly okay, but somebody else will thinks are evil. I am typing this on a MacBook Air. If I were a Chinese person, I would probably have good reason to consider Apple evil. As I am on the consumer side here, I feel somewhat overcharged and not having a lot of options beside MacBook, nonetheless meaning that they are my ally. Good and evil, all at once.

My actions inadvertently lead to the death of the cutest and friendliest cat you can ever hope to meet. This made me see myself as someone who can do evil, even though it was never my intention to do evil. Whenever someone else did evil previously, I felt they were, well, evil. Bad. Shouldn’t exist. This experience has taught me to see things differently.

Another throwback to my 1990s Russian childhood: there were some Roma people around. They have vanished since; I’ve no idea where they’re gone. I guess that’s just part of the lifestyle of those people I witnessed. The unfortunate prejudice was that you need to hold on to your wallet when one is in sight. Indeed, on occasion, I would witness some cursing shopkeeper shouting as a Roma woman was running away. As a child, I recall wondering what stimulates these particular women to live this life. It is really quite clear and much more relatable when you are an adult.

Indeed, a lot of the the men and women whom we may regard as criminals are in pursuit of their goals: they have babies to feed, bills to pay, whatever. We may feel that it is unfair for them to rob what we’ve earned with our hard labour (as if robbing isn’t labour). They may feel it is unfair that we sit in a comfy office pushing paper (as if pushing paper is that easy). Our motivations are actually quite similar.

I really don’t like that variety of philosophy that ends up telling you that white is black and black is white. So I am not doing that. All I am saying is that good and evil are subjective and transient.

how do you tell good from evil
Grim but beautiful. Wicklow mountains

A Darwinian life

Any kind of goal-directed behaviour is likely to result in someone else’s suffering. Maybe, in fact, it isn’t even the goal-directedness of our behaviour, but the fact that nature makes us compete. Are win-win situations really that great when you consider the wider context? Tesco (a kind of British Walmart) not only allows residents of small towns to purchase goods cheaper, but it also creates jobs in the small town: someone has to pack the shelves, look after the purchasing decisions, etc. It is also well known that whenever the likes of Tesco move into a small town, for every job they create, they kill two jobs (who wants to buy from the butcher now that you can get the “same” stuff cheaper). Whether it is good or bad on balance, it is Darwinian and it causes suffering for the butcher.

Or consider my poor moths. I lived in a carpeted apartment for a while. Mid-plank I noticed that some bits of the carpet were bare and then found that there were moths living under it. I had to commit absolute genocide against them. Three rounds of poisonous chemicals. They must have “thought” I was evil. But did I really have a choice? Again, a Darwinian reality of them versus me.

In an insect’s mind, the most important life on this planet is an insect’s life. It’s all the insect has – nAot unlike us, though some of us think of life in a more abstract manner.

In a Darwinian world, is it possible to never do evil? How about a better question: is it that clear what good and evil is? Doesn’t it all depend of perspective?

why can't we live without evil
You can have perspective even when its cloudy. Kerry mountains.

Happiness and accomplishment

This is why being terribly obsessed with goals and accomplishment is so disturbing: it relies on a concrete framework of wanted and unwanted events. For those who are especially interested, the 1996 Mount Everest disaster is a great example of how being goal-directed can cloud one’s perception of good vs bad.

A lot of readers indicated that they wish to hear more on the subject of happiness. Read the fable “Blessings in disguise” in this context. Events that we see as undesirable could well be good. I sometimes look back at my failures. In what now seems like a former life, I was interviewed with McKinsey. After what seemed like 17 000 rounds of interviews, I received a phone call from the partner. As he greeted me, I assumed I had it in the bag. Why else would he call me? No, it was a kick in the stomach. I went digging and found out that some slightly younger guy with a reasonably unremarkable CV got it instead of me. I couldn’t figure out the conundrum for ages (I naively believed I could). I now feel that it was a lucky escape.

I even look back at some of the events I then labelled as successes and think: I wonder where I would be now if I hadn’t gone down that rabbit hole.

My working hypothesis is that to feel happiness one need to experience or perceive change and have perspective. Perspective is largely a set of cognitive judgements. I don’t want the reader to think that absolutely any event can be rationalised into being perceived as good when it was first thought of as bad or evil.

I want to simply highlight that some of our judgements about good and evil are completely off the wall.

I recall one scientist tell me that he won’t consider his career successful until he gets a paper published in Nature as a first author. Even if we ignore the needy narcissism, what a miserly contract to make with yourself! This is what I call off the wall.

Furthermore, everything is a chain of events.

If my aunt hadn’t suffered a medical negligence case, I wouldn’t have had the chance to go in on a rescue mission and reconnect with her, something that was way overdue. At the time of course, it all seemed like a bad dream.

can we live without evil
Grey’s a happy colour. Mizen Head



Inside a bilingual mind

My mother is in the throes of learning a foreign language – and I am doing my best to help. I am bilingual in English and Russian. There are definitely lots of people more talented at languages than I, but I am always surprised at how exceedingly rare people with near-perfect grammar and pronunciation in two languages actually are. Indeed, it is one of the things that stops me from wanting to learn another language – knowing how hard it is to get to proficiency.

In my attempt to help out with my mam’s progress, I found a lecture from this polyglot on the psychology of learning a language. He made a very interesting point:

in order to speak a different language you need to mentally switch wavelength and adopt a new persona. He argues that a language has a certain emotional state associated with it.

I don’t think it’s as literal as “happy vs sad”, but it’s more like a feeling you get when you speak a language. To be blunt about it, I imagine if I tried to speak Italian I would be more laid back and extroverted than if I tried to speak German. Indeed,

a few of my close friends remark that my mannerisms, tone and timbre all change when I switch between my two native languages. I had zero insight into this until I was told about it.

On reflection, I realised that a friend of mine who is fluent in German and English does something similar. He kind of seems to look at his shoes more when he speaks German – and seems generally less approachable.

what it's like to be bilingual

I also feel quite different when I am speaking English vs Russian. This is going to sound like I’ve lost the plot, but I can think of no better way to describe it.

In English, things are slick – like an iPhone. In Russian, things are deep and meaningful – like Dostoevsky.

I like to listen to podcasts. I realised that listening to a good podcast in Russian made me see the speaker as being intelligent, whereas a good podcast in English made me feel that the speaker is competent. The difference is subtle and so cliché! It gets worse. The Russian speaker always seems a little too direct – though not aggressive – and the English speaker seems a little sales-pitchy. I mean that’s just caricature-worthy  – but also true.

It looks like I am susceptible to the “national stereotype” biases even though I am well able to play for both sides and understand that these are just biases.

Much as I hate to admit it, I think I am also more polite when I speak English – and probably more tolerant. At the same time, I would also tend to oversimplify things more when speaking English.Perhaps having to speak English as a lingua franca has changed the world. The Financial Times has an interesting published an article portraying the ultimate beneficiaries of this arrangement as its victims here, arguing that China and Russia understand the USA and UK much better than they understand the rest of the world.

English is a language that doesn’t really allow for long sentences because there aren’t sufficiently complex noun and adjective endings, verb conjugations, etc to show what belongs where in a long sentence. For example, a typical German sentence is longer – because they do have the necessary grammatical framework.

In order to make sense in English, sentences have to be short and declarative – and by proxy, so do one’s thoughts.

All in all, there is definitely a persona-migration that happens in my head when I switch languages.

But that, as usual, got me thinking.

Adopting a persona to do any task at all is a thing. It’s not limited to languages. It’s a bit like having an implicit role model. It’s a dangerous game to play though.

On the one hand, it seems to make things easier. If one imagines themselves as a competent surgical trainee from Gray’s Anatomy, studying for medical finals get that little bit easier. However, isn’t this a departure from reality? I really like the point brought up in Steven Pressfield’s War of Artimagining yourself as a poet/artist/programmer/whatever – is only a vanity project. The point isn’t to define oneself as a poet/artist/programmer/whatever, the point is to make poems/art/code/whatever. Acting in a role, faking it until you make it is well and good, but travelling too far out into the world of alter-egos, be they Italian or surgical, should be done with a lot of insight.