Indifference as a National Idea

  1. Пофигизм: indifference; the attitude of "I don't give a damn!"

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I have often heard Russians say, Русский пофигизм неизлечим (The Russian attitude of "I couldn't care less" is incurable). But from drivers to professors to the prime minister, no one seems to care too much about this.

One place that you are guaranteed to see пофигизм in one of its most reckless forms is on the roads. When you attempting to cross a pedestrian walkway and a mad driver almost runs you over, you may shout, Ты с ума сошёл?! Ты нарушаешь закон! (Are you crazy?! You are breaking the law!) -- to which the driver may very well respond, Иди на фиг! (Go to hell!) or Мне по фигу! (I don't give a crap!) He also may показать вам фигу (give you "the фиг" -- the gesture of sticking the thumb between the index and middle fingers), but these лихачи (road daredevils) usually prefer a more serious gesture involving arms, not fingers, to tell pedestrians off.

As you can see, the root of the word пофигизм is the three-letter word фиг, which is a euphemism for the obscene three-letter term for the male sex organ. There are dozens of фиг-based expressions that are popular among Russians of all ages -- from preschoolers to pensioners -- and of all professions -- from plumbers to professors. There is фиг тебе! (you won't get anything from me!), as well as ни фига себе! and офигеть! (wow!). Or: это полная фигня! (that is complete rubbish, crap!), на фиг это тебе нужно? (what the hell do you need that for?) and зафигачил! which is what a football fan may shout when his favorite player scores a goal.

Nothing did more to strengthen modern Russian пофигизм as a national social phenomenon than the 18-year Brezhnev stagnation period from 1964 to 1982, as well as the subsequent 10 years of stagnation that lingered as a prolonged aftershock. The phrase "всеобщий пофигизм" (universal apathy) referred to the mass social inertia, disillusionment, cynicism, depression and utter hopelessness that anything could ever be changed in the decrepit Communist gerontocracy that Brezhnev so vividly personified.

Although пофигизм permeated all aspects of Soviet life, it was particularly prevalent at the factory, where managers regularly padded production numbers, workers churned out substandard goods, and both groups stole everything they could get away with at work. And at the end of the day, всем было по фигу (no one gave a damn -- about his job, the factory, the economy, the country or anything else).

Русский пофигизм, of course, goes back much further than the Soviet era. The quintessential "народный пофигист" ("national loafer") in Russian folklore was Yemelya, who was completely indifferent to ... everything. He lounged on his warm stove all day, and his answer to every appeal to get off his butt was мне неохота (I don't feel like doing it). At the end of this fairy tale, which every Russian parent reads to his child, Yemelya is rewarded for his пофигизм when he marries the tsar's daughter and rules the country -- a peculiarly Russian version of a Hollywood хэппи-энд (happy ending).

There is also пофигизм that is rooted in the harsh Russian winter. A muzhik, cigarette dangling from his mouth, who is cutting wood in the backyard in a T-shirt when it is minus 20 degrees Celsius outside, may say to his wife who is urging him to dress more warmly, Мне по фигу мороз! (I don't give a hoot about the cold!) When this phrase is used today, however, the word мороз (cold) is added for emphasis only, and it can refer to any danger that is shrugged off.

Пофигизм can also have elements of reckless, impulsive bravado, like when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in July showed the world who's boss by threatening in a televised address to send a "doctor" to "зачистить" (clean up, clean out, heal) Russia's leading mining and metals company, Mechel, as well as its owner -- after which the Russian stock market plummeted by $58 billion in one day.

Пофигизм is especially popular among young Russians. Many students гуляют (have a good time) all semester, passing exams only with the help of шпаргалки (cheat sheets) -- which most professors see, of course, but then ignore because many of them are also пофигисты. Then there is the 18-year-old жеребец (stallion) who doesn't bother to protect himself while sowing his wild oats. But if he is hit with the unexpected news that one of his adventures resulted in a "залёт" (slang for unplanned pregnancy; literally, "flight"), his friends may try to comfort him with a classic пофигисткий credo: Не бери в голову, бери между ног (Don't let it get to your head; just enjoy yourself and get back into the game).

Naturally, most Russians are pretty indifferent about their indifference, but at the same time, they have always been able to laugh at their incurable пофигизм. This joke, for example, was very popular during the Brezhnev era: Советский человек растёт: раньше ему было всё по плечу, а теперь ему всё по фигу (The Soviet man is "evolving": Before he was able to accomplish everything, but now he couldn't care less about everything).

Michael Bohm is the opinion page editor of The Moscow Times. Michele A. Berdy will return to this spot next week.