The Best Russian Books in English

Forget War and Peace: this blog offers reviews of fun and interesting Russian books in English, links to their Amazon pages, interviews with new and upcoming Russian authors, with the emphasis on Russian genre fiction: LitRPG, science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, romance, mystery and other popular reads.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Russians and Handshakes

If you've been to Russia, you must have noticed: Russians are definitely not into handshakes. This is something worth making a mental note of: even today, with all the Western influence, handshakes are only really appropriate between male friends who thus demonstrate some kind of masculine camaraderie. But handshakes are definitely not part of introduction routines, so two Russians (male or otherwise), being introduced to each other, are just supposed to nod and smile to each other. Same at a workplace: only high-flying business partners at a mega-corporation committee assembly might greet each other with a handshake, but not normal business partners at a normal meeting. In Russia's business world, the role of a handshake is limited to sealing commercial deals.

I actually had problems with that as, after having lived in Europe for a few years, I automatically offered my hand to a new Russian acquaintance or business partner, only to meet their puzzled stares and tactfully remove it (yes, Russians, being actually very knowleadgeable about all things etiquette, know very well that to refuse a handshake is an insult to the person who's offered it, but a handshake takes them unawares, they're just not used to expecting one!)

Okay, so maybe you would like to know why Russians don't shake hands? This funny etiquette quirk has quite a bit of history behind it.

Until the early 1920s, Russians followed the exact same etiquette as the rest of the Western world. Even the Revolution of 1917 which attempted to glamorize working-class vulgarity, didn't mean to cancel handshakes. The best place to learn about the cultural changes the Revolution brought onto us all would be Mikhail Bulgakov's 1925 short SF novel, Heart Of A Dog. Scary and humorous at the same time, this is an entertaining story with a sinister message giving you a peek into the hearts of those revolutionary "new society" low-lifes. And the film made after the novel in 1988 by a cult Russian director Vladimir Bortko, Mikhail A. Bulgakov Heart Of a Dog (Sobachie Serdtse) is arguably one of Russia's best TV movies of all times.

So -- back to our handshakes. Watch the movie (which is shot by a native Russian and researched to near death, so it's as authentic as a historical movie can get, and then some) and tell me: do you see many handshakes in it? What happened, then?

The quick and sad answer is: the Spanish flu. Two million Russians died from it by 1920, and the word itself, ispanka, became a Russian synonym for a Biblical-scale plague -- aggravated even further by the fact that the Spanish flu epidemics in Russia coincided with the malnourished, immune-deficient and terribly unhygienic years of the Civil war. So beginning in the early 1920s, Soviet medical authorities embarked on a Hygiene Crusade. They wallpapered the whole country with posters depicting the dangers of unwashed hands, unwiped noses, kisses, and... handshakes. Handshakes were forbidden in offices and at workplaces. Big poets like Vladimir Mayakovsky, who never shied away from a snappy little rhyme with a message, versified medical leaflets for dummies telling their barely-literate small town readers what ills could befall them if they shook hands with other people.

And while we're on the subject of Mayakovski and hygiene poems, some of you must have read The Twelve Chairs (European Classics), the Russian comic novel of all times. One of its characters is a struggling young poet, Lapis Trubetskoi, who's busy all day concocting and selling half-baked verse for various trade publications... one of his hygiene-targeted creations went,

Gavrila took to bed with gangrene,
The gangrene made Gavrila sick...

Well, the little secret is, Lapis Trubetskoi is actually the authors' spoof of Mayakovsky and his hygiene rhymes.  Not many people even in Russia know it, so you're very welcome to this bit of arcane information!

So the moral of the story is, Russians have lost their once-inbred ability to shake hands to a wide and aggressive 1920s hygiene campaign aimed at stopping them from doing it. So now they don't. Simples!

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