In 1849 the French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr came up with a spiffy epigram: the more things change, the more they remain the same (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose).
It appears that Karr’s Russian contemporary, the great satirist Mikhail Yevgrafovich Saltykov-Shchedrin, dedicated his work to proving the Frenchman right, at least where Russia was concerned. Modernise his language ever so slightly, and everything he wrote about Russia and the Russians reads like contemporary reportage today. (You’ll notice that a few of his epigrams now apply more widely, having left the confines of Russia.)
Shchedrin lacerated with a light touch, which made his satire even more devastating. I don’t know if he was aware of his prophetic powers, but, if he was, I’m sure he hoped some of his observations would no longer apply centuries later.
So much more disappointed he’d be if he came back to see that every poignant word I’ve taken the liberty to translate still rings true:
If I fall asleep for a hundred years and they ask me what’s going on in Russia these days, I’ll reply: “Drinking and thieving”.
When they start talking about patriotism in Russia, you must realise: they’ve stolen something somewhere.
I felt like something: either a constitution or sturgeon with horseradish or to scam somebody.
In other countries railways are for transportation, but with us they are also for thievery.
When has there ever been a bureaucrat who wasn’t sure that Russia is a pie he can freely approach, slice and munch?
When all you get for our rouble abroad is fifty kopeks, that’s fine. The trouble starts when all you get is a punch in the snout.
Russian powers-that-be must keep the people in a state of constant bewilderment.
The strictness of Russian laws is mitigated by optional compliance therewith.
It’s not like that here, mate. Here we’d not only eat all the apples off a tree but also snap every branch. The other day Safron walked by a mug of kerosene – and even that he drank up.
God’s world apparently has corners where all times are transitional.
Alas, not even a quarter-hour had passed, but I already sensed that now was high time to drink vodka.
Literature and propaganda are the same thing.
Here in Russia everyone steals. And while at it, they laugh and keep repeating “When on earth will it all end?”
When spreading wise thoughts, one can’t avoid being called a bastard.
Nowadays, Mum, they live without a husband as if with a husband. Nowadays they mock religious prescriptions. They find a bush, get hitched under it – and Bob’s your uncle. They call it civil marriage.
All it takes to thieve successfully is speed and greed. Greed is especially important because a small theft may be grounds for prosecution.
A bribe destroys barriers and shortens distances, it makes an official’s heart open to the little troubles of everyday life.
Civic maturity is a transition from off-colour gossip to a more accurate perception of the authorities’ glances.
Education must be spread with moderation, avoiding bloodshed if at all possible.
When meeting an important official, it is permitted to express the pleasure felt thereupon by polite and respectful body movements.
For a true liberal, there is no worthier task than awaiting trustfully further clarification from the higher-ups.
A citizen is always guilty of something.
It’s but one step from irony to subversion.
Sleep and vodka – these are man’s real friends.
…he even allowed that even people’s worst misapprehensions shouldn’t always lead to execution as an ineluctable consequence.
“Credit,” he was explaining to Kolia Persianov, “is when you have no money… you follow? You have no money, but then – bang! – you’ve got it.” “But, mon cher, what if they demand repayment?” Kolia lisped. “Fool! You can’t even understand such simple things! You’ve got to repay – more credit. Repay again – still more credit! All states live that way nowadays!”
They sat thinking how to turn their loss-making business into a profitable one without changing anything.
Many tend to confuse two concepts: ‘Motherland’ and ‘Your Excellence’.