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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Don't Smoke? You'll Just Die in Excellent Health

Let's face it, smoking is a major part of Russian byt, or everyday life. I know one Russian businessman who brosayet kurit' (quits smoking) every time he sees me because he is suddenly inspired to live po-amerikanski (in the American style). It rarely takes more than an hour, though, before he resumes living po-russki (in the Russian style).

As a Russian smokers' ditty goes, khot' kuren'e -- vred, a nekuryashchikh net (although smoking is bad for you, everyone smokes).

The Russian language demonstrates the extent to which Russian culture is suffused with smoking. Sometimes it seems that ne naidyotsya zakurit'? (Do you have a cigarette?) is a more common greeting between people on the street than zdravstvuite! (Hello). And this is doubly ironic, because zdravstvuite is nothing more than the imperative form of the verb zdravstvovat' (to be healthy, prosper, thrive).

Those who already have a cigarette are likely to greet you instead with something like ogon'ka ne naidyotsya? (Do you have a light?) or spichek ne naidyotsya? (Do you have any matches?). Perhaps reflecting the chronic shortages of everything that characterized the Soviet period, the ever-inventive Russian language formulated the compact verb prikurit', a single word that means "to light one cigarette from another one." Even if you don't approve of smoking, you have to respect a verb like prikurit'.

It is also indicative that Russian has one word, nekuryashchii, for "non-smoker" and two, kuryashchii and kuril'shchik, for "smoker." My businessman friend who just can't seem to make himself quit must be considered a zayadlyi kuril’shchik, or "inveterate smoker." Although he is by no means a chain smoker, one who kurit sigaretu za sigaretoi (smokes one cigarette after another).

We nekuryashchiye (non-smoking) foreigners can use the Russian obsession with smoking to our own ends. I have often sat in on business meetings and negotiations that dragged on endlessly as the Russians politely refrained from smoking. I imagine a clever non-smoking negotiator could eventually get his Russian counterparts to agree to almost anything in exchange for a perekur (smoking break).

The most interesting thing about the Russians' love affair with smoking is the nonchalance with which they face the health consequences of what they are doing. One might expect a nation of people who live in deathly fear of sitting in a draft would avoid smoking like, well, the plague. But not so. The Soviet-era slogan Kurit' -- zdorov'yu vredit' (smoking is bad for your health) is nothing more than a joke. And when you try to really push the point on smoking and health, you are likely to be reminded in verse that kto ne kurit i ne p'yot, tot zdoroven'kim pomryot (Those who don't smoke and don't drink will just die in good health).