Russians will say anything

A corollary to this statement is that Russians will also believe anything, which just may explain the catastrophe the country suffered in 1917, and from which it has never recovered.

Vasily Rozanov, very brilliant and very Russian

These days it’s unfashionable, practically criminal, to highlight differences among nations and races, especially in matters of the intellect. That, however, doesn’t mean such differences don’t exist – only that we’d rather not talk about them.

However, having lived my first 25 years in Russia, the next 15 in the US and the past 32 in England (time-sharing with France over 20 of them), I find this subject fascinating and therefore unavoidable.

Of the four peoples I know first-hand, the Russians are second to none in innate talent. Yet it’s a peculiar talent, manifesting itself mostly in creative areas, including mathematics and natural sciences.

Stepping outside, into the domain loosely described as the humanities, one is struck by the deficit of intellectual rigour the Russians habitually display. It’s easy to get the impression that words, and hence ideas, have so little value to them that they’ll try anything on for size.

That explains why they’ve produced many brilliant philosophical essayists, but precious few philosophers. This is an important distinction, for the first group aren’t scientists and the second are.

Perhaps the greatest specimen of the first group was Vasily Rozanov, who starved to death in 1919, which is what talented writers did in the neonatal Bolshevik paradise.

Rozanov used to write for both conservative and, under a pseudonym, left-wing publications, displaying the same dazzling gifts in articles defending mutually exclusive propositions.

In the same vein, he was capable of producing virulently anti-Semitic tracts one day and philo-Semitic ones the next. (The former sounded closer to his heart.) He also swung with the same ease between pious Christianity and anticlerical deism, or between monarchism and socialism.

Facts meant little to Rozanov: if they contradicted his idiosyncratic thoughts, he’d either ignore or even distort them. Sometimes he simply got them plain wrong, often knowingly.

I don’t think any of Rozanov’s English contemporaries could match his virtuosity of style and originality of thought, although perhaps Chesterton came close. Yet few of the contemporaneous English thinkers were as slapdash in their thinking and treatment of facts.

This points at a key difference between the English and Russian minds. The latter is at least equal to the former in brilliance, but it displays a lack of intellectual rigour, integrity and, if you will, responsibility.

That may be why the Russians so easily jump on any bandwagon that comes rattling in: they lack the constraints that prevent the English mind from running too wild. It would be simplistic to ascribe Russia’s political and economic disasters solely to this trait, but I have no doubt it plays a part.

What triggered these observations was a video lecture I clicked on the other day because the title caught my eye: How Language Determines the Perception of Colour.

The speaker was a professor of comparative philology working for the Vinogradov Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which is as high as one can go in his field. I’m not naming him because what interests me here isn’t the particularity of this gentleman but the generality he represents.

The lecturer didn’t take long to stagger me with an amazing statement. To a Russian speaker, he said, the spectrum has seven colours; whereas an Anglophone has to make do with only six.

Being bilingual in those languages, I knew he was wrong. Still, I had to allow for the possibility that the good professor knew something I didn’t.

Well, he explained, the fact is that in Russian the dark-blue and light-blue colours are denoted by two different words (синий and голубой), whereas in English the word ‘blue’ covers both.

Springing to mind instantly was the mnemonic for the colours of the rainbow that any English pupil learns (well, used to learn) at an early age: Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.

Each initial capital stands for a colour, and the ‘I’ is a reminder of indigo, which is the English for синий. Hence the only one with a perception problem here is the professor himself, who clearly can’t tell a certain portion of his anatomy from a hole in the ground.

We all make factual errors, and I’m no exception. For example, preparing the second edition of my book How the West Was Lost, I found to my horror three or four utterly avoidable bloopers in the first edition.

Yet none of those errors acted as the basis for any theory or logical structure. Here, on the other hand, a celebrated academic discussing the effect of language on the perception of colour shows disdain for fundamental facts on which his whole lecture rests.

The professor probably doesn’t know English very well, but he still could have checked his facts on Google in five seconds flat. The reason he didn’t is simple: as a Russian, he didn’t feel the need.

Those of you who don’t read Russian publications, nor watch Russian academic videos, will have to take my word for it: the situation I describe is widespread, reaching pandemic proportions.

As Comrade Stalin used to say (quoting John Adams, probably unwittingly), “If facts are stubborn things, then so much the worse for facts.” Also so much the worse for the people whose thinking reflects this maxim.

1 thought on “Russians will say anything”

  1. If you look hard enough for something [as with the colors] you will find what you are looking for, even if it is not really there. “It must be there, therefore it must be so.”

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