Monday, October 20, 2008

A week or so ago, Marta and I were waiting for a trolleybus near the Universitet metro station. It was raining, but Marta didn't care, and so we didn't join the small crowd taking shelter underneath the covered bus stop. A middle-aged woman with a disabled teenage girl leaning heavily on her tried to squeeze in and accidentally pushed another woman already standing there. They had a brief but rather nasty argument. The girl had cerebral palsy and wasn't capable of walking on her own; her mother had a heavy bag in her other hand. It hurt badly to hear that other woman bark at them.

When the trolleybus finally arrived, the woman basically had to lift the girl to get her inside, and not a single person offered help. But they got to sit at least, even though the trolleybus was packed.

Marta was offered a seat, too, across the aisle from the disabled girl and her mother, and I stood next to her like a wall, keeping other passengers from accidentally falling on her. After a while I started chatting with a delicate-looking grandmother of a very sweet 9-year-old computer whiz kid sitting next to us. He was running late for his first advanced-level class at some computer school and was terribly nervous about it, so I tried to calm him down a bit, telling him that all he had to do was apologize and everyone would understand. That seemed to have cheered him up. He told me he used to be as fair-haired as Marta when he was her age, and then he shared some bizarre memories he thought he had from the time he was 3 years old: sitting in some empty room, playing with some wires, thinking thoughts that were too complex for a little kid, but could have just as well been his - because he definitely seemed like an odd kid, in a totally lovely way.

I was standing back-to-back with two guys in their mid-20s, and even though I could hear them talking, I wasn't paying any attention. Until I heard the mother of the disabled girl address them very loudly: "Please stop using that word!" They had been cursing, obviously.

I still can't get over the exchange that followed.

The guys - who looked very average, not starving, not super cool, most likely on their way home from some boring office where they probably worked as sysadmins or something, though actually I've no idea and don't really care - so yeah, the guys told the woman that it was none of her business what kind of language they used among themselves. She told them they were not at home, and that there were kids around. One of the guys then told her that right, they were not at home, but on a public trolleybus - and in public they were free to say whatever they felt like. And then he specified, in a very loud, theatrical way: "I can say blyad, suka, nahui all I want - and I don't give a shit about what you think."

You know, Russian curses are way stronger than their English equivalents, so there's no use to translate what the guy said to the poor woman. But it was totally unacceptable, and shocking, and it seemed to have left everyone who heard it speechless, whereas the guys continued their interrupted conversation as if nothing had happened. They moved a few meters away when some space cleared as some passengers got off the trolleybus at the next stop, and that was it.

If Marta and that cute boy hadn't been there, I might have said something to the assholes. Or maybe not. Because it only seemed possible to respond in curses to them, and that would have made things worse, regardless of whether there were any kids around or not. So I just stood in silence for a minute or so, and so did everyone else around me, including the grandmother and her brilliant grandson, and then she and I resumed our own interrupted conversation.

I continued with a story of my early childhood memory - of a 1976 or 1977 earthquake in Kyiv, which I somehow remember very vividly, even though I was either 2 or 3 years old then (our lamp was swinging like crazy that night, and even now, especially in Istanbul, I keep looking up at the ceiling to check for an earthquake). The woman told me that she loved Kyiv, had many friends there, but wasn't feeling too safe to visit them, because, you know, the situation in Ukraine is so crazy, so chaotic, etc. - all the basic stuff that I'm already used to hearing here. I told her not to worry - and not to believe everything that the Russian TV was telling her. She smiled and gave me a knowing glance, I guess - which was nice. But I also find it wild that she could bring up the mess in Ukraine after the ugly conversation we had just overheard. Like, it's paradise here, but utter hell over there. Right.

Anyway, I keep thinking about those two sissies. When they are home, their mommies probably kick their asses for innocent words like zhopa ('ass'). But when their mommies aren't around, they can curse all they want. And then, I guess, their mommies come home from work, exhausted and, quite possibly, humiliated, hurt and shocked, because someone else's sissy boys have been cursing at them on those public buses, a platform of free speech in our part of the world, as it turns out.

I don't really mind cursing - I do curse, too. But I prefer a selective approach to cursing.

What upsets me about all this is something else.

A few days after the trolleybus incident, I ran into this post (RUS) by LJ user semiurg, in which he was defending his own and everyone else's right to tell people to fuck off:

One of the principal human rights is pravo na nahui [the right to tell someone to fuck off]. [...] Nothing is more humiliating than not having a chance to tell someone to fuck off when you really feel like it. If some total jerk is standing in front of you, saying all kinds of offensive bullshit, and you can't even tell him to fuck off - because of political correctness, or subordination, or just out of fear - this is worse than getting hit in the balls [...]. [...]

The post goes on and on and on like this, and it spent some time on the Top 30 list at Yandex Blogs portal, and has generated four pages of comments. One woman wrote that she was currently re-reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and thought that the message of the novel was the same as the message of pravo na nahui post.

Me, I thought that the trolleybus incident was a good illustration of how this pravo na nahui gets implemented here and why this part of the world often feels like an asylum and a minefield at the same time.

And I also thought about my dear friends in Iowa City: a gay couple, the sweetest people in the world, they've spent over 20 years together and have raised two wonderful kids. What a great way to tell everyone to fuck off, no? Without actually saying it, by simply living their lives the way they wish to. How practical and how subtle. And how human.


  1. Aye, Україна has a ways to go in the category of public manners. But then again, when you have such childish politicians in office who do nothing but hurl insults, it sorta makes society even more cynical and frustrated.
    I don't really recall too much public cursing on something as intimate as a маршрутка during my trips there, but what always really got to me was all the pushing, the lack of orderly lines.

  2. This happened in Moscow, actually. Could've been anywhere, though.

  3. What a lovely way to end an otherwise depressing post, Veronica, thank you.


  4. This is an interesting post. As I have been learning Russian, I've noticed that there is a lot of what I would call, "casual" verbal abuse used between strangers not just in using bad language, but that people can be very disrespectful for no reason at all. I have had people say things to me that have left me literally speechless. I thought maybe it was me being sensitive or I didn't understand but it just seems that your post supports my theory that there is a lot of verbal abuse in the culture here.

  5. Neeka, good for you for protecting the young girl with cerebral palsy. It seems to me that vehicles adapted for the disabled would go a long way towards alleviating problems. Buildings, and public vehicles, in other countries are, by law, adapted so that disabled people can have easy access to them. That includes buses.

    As for the right to be a boor in public - I've never seen a human rights organization, or a democratic constitution, ever list that as a fundamental human right.

    It reminds me of the Ukrainian kids I spoke to, whose idea of democracy is that everyone has the right to drive drunk behind the wheel of a car.

    Freedom of speech, of course, is all about prohibiting the government from suppressing or prohibiting political speech.

    It is certainly, and obviously, not about the right to suspend all rules of etiquette and good behavior in public.

    Although, I must say, that when Kuchma was prattling on and on about his memories of the Beatles, on the big screen during the Paul McCartney concert thrown by Pinchuk (Kuchma's son-in-law) in Kyiv earlier this year, I very heartily applauded those kids who lifted their hands and extended their middle finger during Kuchma's prattling.

    One bad deed - Kuchma's prattling - deserves a good deed - an extended middle finger.

    Not quite the same as what those kids were doing on the trolley.

  6. This was a beautiful post. Personally I tend to think incivility has more to do with intent and conduct than the particular words used, and I really enjoy a well-used curse word in any language. You are right that actions speak louder than words, a nice reminder when I've got my head fully immersed in the war of rhetoric that is the US presidential campaign.

  7. It would have helped if someone would have voiced an objection to such public behavior. It would be especially effective if more than one person did it (peer-pressure is a powerful force), but I think you're right that objecting alone would have only exacerbated the situation.

    Ideally, the driver as an authority figure would have intervened. Was there no response from him or her?

  8. Elmer,

    Sorry to disappoint, but I did not attempt to "protect" the disabled girl - she and her mother were sitting across the aisle from us, there were people standing in between (including the two assholes) and I had my own daughter to take care of. I think you've misread me.



    A nice example of someone voicing an objection is here.

    In our case, there was no reaction whatsoever. Except, of course, for the initial polite protest of the disabled girl's mother - which made the whole ugly thing a lot uglier.

    As for myself, if I had been alone, without Marta, I would've still thought twice - because, as I said, the last thing anyone needed then was more cursing. I'd like to think this was what stopped some of the other people from saying anything. That silence did seem to have some meaning - a kind of a peer-pressure thing, albeit pretty useless.

    With Marta right there, however, my hands were tied (quite literally, by the way, because in addition to Marta I had some heavy bags of my own, too). It would've been irresponsible of me to interfere, for a number of reasons.

    The driver was out of reach - the trolleybus was really packed, the driver sat behind the closed door and was too busy anyway, driving through rush hour traffic and fighting with jerks who didn't know how to park.

    What could've helped, I guess, is a couple of guys from the Caucasus region - where men aren't expected to talk to women like that, ideally at least - but alas, there were none on that ride.

  9. Oscar, Michelle, Megan - thanks for reading and writing back :)

  10. Neeka, the way you gay friends live their life is just living their life. I do not think we should waste our lives to make any kind of statements by the way we live them. Too bothersome and infantile...I think.
    The right to tell people to fuck off is actually our obligation. By not calling evil by its name we do evil a favor. Other people will treat us the way we allow them. If you and that older woman and the mother of the disabled child and bunch of others had stood up and told those guys to fuck off (using appropriate language, considering your children), you would have tought those gyus a lesson and you would have tought your children a lesson how they should NEVER allow any bullying.
    You could have shown those assholes that there are consequences if they disrespect public in a public place. Only the public can teach those kinds of lessons.
    Any intolerance, any kind of publicly displayed -ism should be called by its name. You probably will not change a person, but you will confine their gaping hole to the four walls of their kitchen where it belongs.
    You have missed your chance.

  11. I enjoyed this post. I've given this subject a lot of thought.

    You wrote something when Marta was first born that really left an impression on me. It was about hearing cursing out of a window at night from the street below and how that might impact your baby at some point when she was old enough to understand.

    When I was growing up cursing was not allowed or tollerated in our home. It was a direct insult to my parents. It showed a lack of respect for them even in their absence as I represented them. Nothing could be worse.

    When I moved away from home and got a job there was a lot of cursing/ profanity in the shop I worked in. It wasn't long before I was party to it. When I would go back home I found myself holding my toung.

    One could say that times have changed. I curse too now more that I'd like to admit. A Christian friend once scolded me for it. I argued, that it's just words and there was no real harm. But he made a convincing argument for how words really can hurt.

  12. Don, I'm so happy to hear from you, as always. In that old post I think I was writing about myself, not Marta: what would have become of me if I had been growing up in that room - the room that was not mine until well into the mid-1990s - exposed to all that language coming from the drunks in the street... Would I be speaking in nothing but curses since age 4? :) In a way, though, I think I was still trying to find something positive about a room-of-my-own-less childhood...


    Anna, I've re-read what you wrote about my gay friends several times and I don't see how your argument addresses what I wrote in my last paragraph, really. Sorry, it just doesn't make any sense.

    As for teaching my daughter how to fight bullies, we are at a sandbox stage right now - if someone hits or pushes her, I try to talk to those kids' parents and I also tell her that soon she'll learn how to push back herself; if the kids in the sandbox aren't beyond hope, I always try to encourage them to play together, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. Having her see her mother being spat and cursed at by two huge guys would have been counterproductive at this tender age.

    As for teaching the two assholes any lessons, I'm not their mommy. That's what the disabled girl's mother tried doing - and they turned out to be not the kind of people who are able to take it from anyone but their mommies.

    I've definitely taught myself a lesson, though: from now on I'll avoid public transportation in rush hour when I'm with Marta - there's always a cab option available, right?

  13. I get in this fighting mode as soon as I get off the place in Kyiv. There is something in the air...It's hard to live there and not mind anyone around you, just not possible. There fore this great principal of understatement and subtlety can get a bit lost in translation back home, I am afraid..

  14. Sorry Neeka, I was not too clear when making my point about your friends. I meant to say that if they are going to SF and get married to make a point, if they adopt a child to make a point, if they hold their hands in public to make a point-that is a waste of life and a childish behavior. If your friends just follow their nature and do not worry about what point their lives make…well, I applaud them.
    About facing the bullies. My son is 6 and I do not expect him to eloquently tell someone to fuck off. But my example, example of my husband mean a lot in this age. If my son sees me caving in when someone else is being humiliated, he will learn exactly that-how to cave in. If I sigh and say:”well, I am not their mommy, what can I do” I loose my right to complain about how imperfect this world is and how people are rude and intolerant and inconsiderate.
    I am not trying to tell you how to raise your child. I am trying to share my view: if you feel that something is not right-speak up against it. If you do not speak up…well…do not expect bad things to disappear on their own.

    I am just saying.

  15. Some of these comments give me inspiration to write more about my mother, our family's true fighter - thank you, guys. Tons of stories, will share some of them one day, I hope.


    Anna, I do not disagree with you at all in general - but situations and circumstances differ, and so do people. In my post and comments I've described, among other things, the specific circumstances I was in, which determined my behavior in that specific situation. You, on the other hand, chose - among other things, of course - to make some pretty generalized pronouncements about missed chances and a forfeited right to complain. I applaud your passion, but can't see much substance in the points you make in this particular context. But in general I agree with you completely.

    Well, okay, almost completely: the reason I mentioned my gay friends was to show how some people I know and admire manage to live a life as a wonderful couple and a wonderful family, despite all kinds of pressures, tons of them - and without resorting to random acts of uncivilized behavior, the way the two jerks on the trolleybus did. It may sound strange to you, but those two jerks most likely considered the disabled girl's mother a bully, you know? A reincarnation of an evil school teacher, perhaps, a blast from the past. And reacted like sissies to what they must have interpreted as an infringement on their freedom - or, like adults, as they must have believed. Anyway, the point of the last paragraph in my post is that there are different ways to exercise your right to tell people to fuck off - some truly great, others truly terrible. And I'm sorry that you've misread me and assumed that my friends live the way they do only to make someone angry. Quite the opposite. Also, I don't see how holding hands in public - for whatever reason - can be considered "a waste of life and a childish behavior." Your comment on this as well as on the weddings in SF and child adoptions - yet another generalization - make you seem like a less tolerant and principled person than you might have otherwise appeared.

  16. Olechko, it's hard to live in this fighting mode on a permanent basis. When it gets too much, it's nice to switch into a "не чіпай лайно, не буде смердіти" mode. And then to go to Istanbul to recharge the batteries... :)

  17. I mention SF and gay adoption and I am!
    I am disappointed. But it is my problem, right?
    Do not bother to reply to this.

  18. No, Anna. The context and the way in which you mention it make you appear somewhat biased and doesn't seem to tie in nicely with the rest of what you wrote. Though I do hope that this time it was me who misread you, not the other way around.

  19. Sooo - it happened in maskva.

    Well, if you say anything bad about Vlad Dracul Putin, whether on the Internet or otherwise, you get arrested and put in jail. Ask Taras Zeleniak.

    So it's not surprising at all that pravo nahui seems to be a big deal.

    Except that one can't tell Putin or Medvedev to go nahui.

    So one naturally relieves one stress in maskva by telling trolley passengers to go nahui.

    Now, I'm not quite sure what being gay has to do with this, or how being gay is a form of telling people to "fuck off," in a human way or otherwise.

    The couple who lived next door to us for a while was gay. They didn't make a big deal, or any deal about it, and neither did we. We had them over for hamburgers and such, one of them worked in a pet store chain that we patronize, and everything was great. They were good neighbors, and I like to think that we were good neighbors to them.

    Somehow, it never seemed to me that they were telling anyone to "fuck off" or to go nahui.

    I still don't know what being gay has to do with a couple of boors on a trolley bus in maskva.

    And it is indeed a sad state of affairs, and a monumental waste of time, when some Russian idiots spend tons and tons of cyberspace discussing a non-existent "right."

    It seems to me they would be better off discussing how to make Russia a better place to live and work.

  20. Guys, you start reminding me our disfunctional "democratic" coalition where allies try to outargue each other on whose democracy is a better democracy. Well, in our case that argument is just a store-front, but I think you got the idea. I was having a drink with a Dutch friend last night, who's a diplomat posted in Tehran. He's in his 50's. He was telling me they all call him zionist there as soon as they learn where he's from. The best way to make them change that paradigm is to tell them he's gay. Which he is.

  21. To Sasha:

    Tons of hugs and kisses to you and the Zionist :)


    To Elmer:

    But if you had minded the way your neighbors lived their lives, it might have felt different to all of you. And there are people out there who do mind, and it takes a lot to get past them gracefully.

    And Sasha is so right - my point seems to have gotten lost in all this, and I wasn't even trying to make a point, I guess - this whole thing, including the mention of my gay friends in Iowa, was my way of saying that I really, really miss the kind of sanity that I remember living in while in Iowa.

  22. Anton Dvorak spent a little bit of time in Iowa - some relatives had previously immigrated there.

  23. In relation to the 'right to fuck off' post you linked to, I have noticed a tendency in Russia to refer to basic courtesies as "political correctness". Not long ago I emailed a business contact with whom I have a good working relationship and apologized for getting back to him later than I'd promised. He said that I shouldn't be so hung up on "political correctness." Политкорректность тут не причем! I simply extended the courtesy of apologizing for a delay.

    The term "political correctness" is an American one, and I wonder if Russians are tarring common courtesy and politeness with that brush to provide some justification for behavior that, deep down, they know is boorish. Everybody knows that Americans are hypocrites, right? They give fake smiles out indiscriminately, say have a nice day when they don't mean it, make encouraging noises at business meetings about deals they have no intention of signing...and they get hung up on political correctness, too! In this way, you can turn something positive (refraining from saying fuck off to a babushka on the trolley) into something negative (hypocritical and foreign ways of suppressing your identity).

    Anyway, thanks for a really thought-provoking essay. I loved the note on which you ended.