A Few Words of Praise Could Go a Long Way

How strange! We Russians don't know how to encourage and compliment each other on our successes in life. But on the other hand, we know precisely how to find fault with others and point our index finger: See how badly you've done that. Very bad. Worse than yesterday. Even worse. All that disapproving finger-pointing.


I'll begin with myself. During my 10 years as a grammar school student, I cannot remember a single occasion when the teacher complimented me on my work. True, I was a bad student. For example, in eighth grade I got solid D's in algebra, chemistry and physics. But then, I always received good grades in history. Oh, how dear that grade was to me at the time. It made up for all the other D's.


The reason was that the history lessons were taught by the principal himself. He was a true sadist and was capable of calling 20 students to the blackboard in a row and giving them all F's for the least stammer or slip. He came to the school from the Communist Party's regional committee and could not tolerate the slightest inaccuracy. All sound and fury after handing out 20 F's, he finally called me to the board. The only thing I ever studied that year was history. I sometimes spoke for 30 minutes, answering all his tricky questions.


Holding its breath, the class followed the questioning: Here stood a bull foaming at the mouth, its sharp horns thrust forward, blood streaming from its neck, and eyes glaring with rage from the picador's blow. He approaches and, just in time, I deftly free myself from the beast by waving a red cape around my waist. The bell sounds, signally the end of class. The principal then marks my grade book with a big A in red pencil and without a word leaves the deathly silent classroom.


That's how it was. Not once did he ever praise me for my excellent knowledge of the subject. In the end, I grew to detest history.


The absence of the institution of compliments and the deficit of encouragement is a serious and tragic problem of our national consciousness.


This is what a ballet teacher, some of whose students have made it to the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theaters, had to say on the subject. "In the provinces, people don't know how to support their own stars. They don't give the performers flowers on opening night. The applause is weak. There is never more than one or two curtain calls. The spectators quickly leave the hall after the performance. They do not know how to get excited about art. Some of young dancers lose heart after such cold receptions. This is a very dangerous moment. If they are not encouraged now, they will never become real ballerinas. And then I take them abroad to Vienna. There, people know how to value and support artists. My girls dance excerpts from "Swan Lake" on a stage that is built in the middle of a lake. They dance splendidly, as always. And the Viennese public gives them a stormy ovation. The applause lasts 30, 40 minutes. A mountain of flowers is thrown at the stage. My students' eyes are filled with tears and joy. Their posture becomes straighter. This is how they first come to know what love, praise and admiration from the public means, what it is to experience real success. Now I am certain that there will be star dancers from among them. But if they don't hear ovations when they are young, they will be lost."


How sad it was to hear this, but the fact is Russian stars make their names only in the West. In Moscow, it is impossible to produce a single top model, artist or writer. Their names are only made abroad -- on tours at La Scala, at auctions at Sotheby's or shows by Yves Saint Laurent. Here, no one makes any efforts for unknown figures. From year to year, the same old familiar personalities are unconscionably and cynically exploited, and Russian fame arrives in the form of humanitarian aid.


The shortage of compliments in the country goes back in history. Tolstoy's "War and Peace," for instance, was first greeted by critics with silence, then negative criticism. Meanwhile, the reading public was in raptures over it. And Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment"? Raskolnikov was seen as a caricature of student life. Only one critic at the time, Nikolai Strakhov, had high praise for the novel. In Russia, contemporaries are always hissers, nay-sayers, abusers and skeptics.


Today, we find that critics are just as sparing of their praise. I was astounded to learn not long ago that the legendary creator of the submachine gun, Mikhail Kalashnikov himself, is still living and has not received anything from the government other than a standard three-room apartment and free passage on public transport. And the country has received millions of dollars from the sale of this weapon. In Africa, they would have built a palace on the sea for him.


Russia's illustrious poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, once complained that during all his years of fame not once did a domestic publisher ever offer on its own to publish his verse. It was always Yevtushenko who went about the publishing houses submitting his manuscripts and waiting for an answer.


It bears repeating: We don't know how and don't want to praise and encourage one another. Nowhere else is it as difficult to make a career as it is in Russia. Not one of our performers will ever become a world star if he stays at home. Mikhail Baryshnikov is a case in point. Only the dead here can attain glory. And if fame suddenly does come, then it turns into a hysterical cult. Take the return of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, which was turned into a grandiose show in the spirit of Gorky's return from Italy to Stalin's Moscow.


The lack of respect for talent, silence surrounding success, indifference to genius and severity with children are traits of our mentality which have brought the degeneration of glory and pride to Russia. And love for the dead threatens the country with suicide.


Not long ago, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the world's seventh-seeded tennis player, won the Roland Garros Cup in France, considered to be among the most prestigious tournaments. This was the first time a Russian won. His return to Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, where no one met him, was reported on brilliantly by NTV Independent Television's Anna Dmitriyeva, to her credit. No one recognized him or asked for his autograph. The tennis star simply stood in an enormous line waiting for a taxi.


When the German player Boris Becker won the same tournament years ago, it was almost a national holiday. Becker was met by thousands of people, including the German chancellor, and was carried through the crowds. In a word, his victory became a victory for the nation.


As Kafelnikov dragged his heavy, wet bags, he tried to joke with the television reporter. They were both ashamed at the way the country had once again devoured its children.





Anatoly Korolyov is a writer whose best known work, "Eron," has just been published in French translation. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.