One Way to Live Happily Ever After

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to oped@imedia.ru, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

Остаться у разбитого корыта: To end up with nothingI don't know about you, but if I read, watch or see one more report on world events, I will lose my mind. I feel like I'm on the deck of the Titanic. We've already hit the iceberg, the ship is sinking, there aren't enough lifeboats, and I can't swim. Listening to the crew talk among themselves just intensifies my panic. We're all going down, and there isn't a thing I personally can do about it.

When reality is bleak, there's only one thing to do: Go to another reality. So that's what I've done. Instead of reading news reports, op-ed pieces and blogs, I'm reading Russian fairy tales. I highly recommend them. There's good and evil and no confusion about which is which. Tasks are difficult, but even Иванушка-дурачок (Ivan the fool) manages to solve them. Good always triumphs over evil. And everyone lives happily ever after.

Besides, you learn all kinds of phrases that might come in handy some day.

Russian сказки (fairy tales) usually begin with one or two phrases. The most common is Жил да был (жил-был) or if plural, жили да были (жили-были) (Once upon a time there lived; literally, something like "He/they lived, indeed he/they did "). Sometimes tales begin like this: В некотором царстве, в некотором государстве (In a certain kingdom, in a certain state). In both cases, the openings establish that the story really happened -- only long, long ago in a galaxy far away.

Sometimes fairy tales take place в тридевятом царстве or в тридесятом государстве (literally, in the 27th -- three times nine -- kingdom or in the 30th -- three times 10 -- state). These are kingdoms of magic or the dead. This phrase can be used in real life to refer to any nonexistent place. Это же происходит не в каком-то тридевятом царстве, а в нашей стране, сегодня. (This isn't happening in some kind of mythical kingdom, but right here in our country today.)

At the start of one fairy tale, three sisters sit weaving by the window and fantasize about how wonderful their futures would be кабы я была царица (if I were the queen; literally, the tsaritsa). I strongly identify with these sisters. I love to think of what I could do if only I were queen of the universe. Today, Russians use this phrase when they daydream about what they would do if they only had the power. Кабы я была царица, я запретила бы всем политикам произносить фразу "двойной стандарт." (If I were queen, I'd forbid all politicians from uttering the phrase "double standard.")

Sometimes fairy tales end sadly, often for morally instructive reasons. For example, in Сказка о рыбаке и рыбке (The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish), the old lady loses everything that she gained and остаётся у разбитого корыта (literally, she is left with a broken washtub). This can be used today to describe a person who exerts great efforts -- often for excessive personal gain -- but at the end is worse off than he was at the beginning. Если они неправильно себя поведут, то останутся у разбитого корыта (If they don't act properly, they'll end up with nothing at all for their efforts).

But most fairy tales end happily, with a big wedding party of the hero and his beloved. The Russian version of "and they lived happily ever after" is: Стали жить-поживать, и добра наживать, и горя не знать (They began to live and prosper, and they would not know sorrow). And to make sure the readers believe that the story was absolutely true, the narrator adds: И я там был, мёд-пиво пил (And I was there, I drank mead and beer).

I was there, too. In fact, I'm still drinking beer and hoping we'll live happily ever after.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.