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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

CONFESSIONS OF A RUSSOPHILE: Don't Blame 'Dark Masses'




Bydlo. It's one of my favorite Russian words. It sits in the mouth like a lump of cold kasha, and, properly uttered, conveys a depth of disdain and despair more eloquent than a kilo of Dostoevsky.


For the uninitiated, I will translate: Bydlo means, literally, "cattle," but it is used almost exclusively as a term of disparagement by Russians to describe the dumb, plodding, silent masses. To describe almost everyone except themselves, in fact.


"After 70 years of Soviet rule, all that's left is bydlo," hissed a friend of mine recently.


"Do you consider yourself bydlo?" I asked, somewhat timidly. This was, after all, a friend. She gave me a withering glance. "Of course not. But there are not many of us left."


"So, who exactly fits the category?" I persisted. She just sighed and changed the subject. I guess it's one of those things that foreigners just can't understand.


Every Russian I meet seems to be the last survivor of the non-bydlo category. They lead their lives, go to work every day, adapt as best they can to difficult and changing circumstances, and, when they are not citing magnetic storms or the Powers That Be for the general mess in the country, they blame the chaos on -- you guessed it -- the bydlo.


The thinking goes something like this: The cream of the nation -- the intellectuals and aristocracy -- either emigrated or were killed during the Revolution. This left a vacuum into which poured the great unwashed, who generally fouled things up for the rest of the century.


This point of view has a certain appeal, unless you come from a country -- America, for example -- that was made up largely of those same great unwashed. It has never occurred to me to look around at my fellow countrymen and mutter "bydlo." Lots of other epithets, perhaps, but "bydlo," never.


Now, I have never met any bydlo in Russia, either. I confess that the word creeps slyly into my mind when, say, I'm fighting the crowds in the metro in the morning, being elbowed by a babushka, stepped on by a 20-year-old spike-heeled blonde, or breathed on by a man who apparently has spent the night indulging in vodka and papirosy. But then I catch sight of my own reflection in the window -- the set jaw, the purposely expressionless face, the empty gaze, and realize that I'm probably part of the bydlo for them, too.


So I suppose the term is just another facet of the Russians' seemingly inexhaustible capacity for beating themselves up.


While they may shout from the rooftops about the moral superiority of suffering or the spiritual depth of the Russian people, many of my acquaintances are secretly convinced that their country is a dark, wild one, and that all the good things in life are somewhere else.


Russians still, with an air of wry amusement, refer to the West as "the civilized world," and anything from a traffic jam to the latest tax commercial on television can send them into paroxysms of self-abuse.


"This isn't Europe, it's Asia," muttered a cabby recently, as we wove our way through the bumper-car world of the Ring Road at rush hour. "In the West, there is order. There are rules. People drive normally. But here -- bah!" he spat in disgust.


I was nodding sympathetically, although, as a native Bostonian, bad driving is part of my genetic makeup. I didn't think it worthwhile pointing out to my distraught driver that negotiating the narrow alleys of Florence at breakneck speed, or, for even more fun, the circle around Paris' Arc de Triomphe, would make even Moscow look like a dose of sanity. Let him keep his illusions. Everybody needs something to believe in. And what's wrong with Asia, anyway?


But, to paraphrase Rabelais, let's get back to our bydlo. It would be presumptuous of me to take on the role of champion for Russia's silent majority. I have neither the skill nor the strength for such a task.


But I will say that, with a few notable exceptions, the Russians I have met, from stage actors to cleaning ladies, have been walking, talking founts of philosophy, with a well-defined world view and a more or less coherent plan of action. Their philosophy may not always appeal -- in fact, there are many Russians whose attitudes I find completely incomprehensible. Try talking feminism with a Russian woman sometime.


So, I am on a campaign to lose the word "bydlo." Or will be until I hit the metro tomorrow morning.