Let's Have a Kind Word For 'Our New Russians'

A semi-anonymous businessman from Nizhny Novgorod has publicly raised the question that has quietly tortured the staff of "The Word's Worth" for a fortnight.

Namely, was it fair for us to characterize "New Russians" in a recent column as people with fountains in their living rooms who swear a blue streak into their cellular phones while their Filipino maids perform curtsies and serve tea?

"I am probably one of those 'New Russians' about whom so many hostile and judgmental things are being said," read the entrepreneur's indignant letter, signed only "Yury."

"I have a two-story house, a foreign car and a healthy account in the bank. The only thing I don't have is free time, since I run around from morning to night, although I don't consider myself a workaholic. So, in my opinion, a 'New Russian' is a Russian who isn't a drunk."

Yury's lament was addressed to the weekly Argumenty i Fakty, although it could just have easily been aimed at us, judging from the averted eyes and grunts of contempt we've been getting from New Russian acquaintances lately.

Come to think of it, since when did noviye russkiye become an oath one utters every time a silver Mercedes cuts one off on the Ring Road?

No one can say for sure. What is known is that the term entered the Russian language from abroad; the first widespread reference I can recall is the title of Hedrick Smith's postperestroika sequel to the 1976 classic, "The Russians."

"New Russians" became a designator among European hoteliers and restaurateurs for the rowdy new rich from the East. I believe "The New Emirs of the East" was also in vogue for a while, but it never caught on here.

So, the term noviye russkiye has entered the language, if for no other reason than that a name was needed for a set of society that previously did not exist and therefore had no name.

There is no doubt that the new elite has formed a separate entity with its own linguistic code, elements of which appear in Yury's letter: solidny schyot ("a healthy account"), trudogolik ("workaholic") and osobnyak ("a separate house").

It's also true that the phrase nashi noviye russkiye is almost always used in the pejorative. Conspicuous consumption, bad manners, fast cars -- these are just some of the attributes that have been pinned on the New Russians.

Pace, Yury. Most folks haven't had the opportunity to notice the good things you bring Russia, most notably a work ethic you can rejoice in. Prejudice, the poet Batyushkov once wrote, is the remainder of a former truth.

Now, if you could only do something about that driving.