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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Misfortune of Being On the Road With Fools

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U Rossii dve bedy — duraki i dorogi, or Russia has two misfortunes — fools and roads.

When I heard this expression twice in the same day recently — once on the road and once after a Russian colleague had to deal with some bureaucratic idiot –— I decided it was time to pass it on to the readers of this column.

This was not, of course, the first time I had heard it. The duraki and dorogi theory has been going around for years — perhaps even for centuries. It is, I hasten to add, a homegrown expression attributed to writer Nikolai Gogol — and not one generally repeated by foreigners.

The first time I heard the expression was while I was bumping along on a provincial bus emitting great clouds of black smoke as it navigated a patch of dirt and mud that passed as a road. That is when one of my companions uttered the duraki, dorogi expression. I am not sure if he was looking out the window or at our fellow passengers.

My destination was a strip of wilderness in the Urals said to hold a cache of semi-precious gems. I was easily persuaded to hop along for the ride with some gem-hunters eager to zashibat', or strike it rich. After a hike through the wilderness, we set up camp and started to dig.

But, as we quickly discovered, we were not alone. Other people eager to make a fast buck had also lugged their pickaxes and shovels to stake out their own territory. The forest was littered with abandoned pits, making the area look like an unfinished cemetery.

The gem hunters were not always on friendly terms. In fact, they were quite wary of each other, behaving bez shyma i pyli, or with caution (literally, without noise or dust). Each time a new treasure seeker approached our territory, my companions tensed, checking to see that their axes were handy. You never knew what they had stashed away in their knapsacks, and for all they knew we were storing pristine gem stones in our tent.

One day, a particularly menacing group approached on the old logging road near our campsite. Friend or foe, my companions debated, as an advance team went out to establish initial contact. The most mild-mannered among them hung back to protect the women folk. If anything happens, he advised us, vypulivaitec', or flee. More specifically, we should flee like a pulya, or bullet, from which the verb vypulivat'sya is derived.

Just head out to the woods and lay there, mishe vody, nizhe travy, or quieter than water, lower than grass, he said. As I was contemplating how to do this, the others returned to report that the latest team's truck had gotten stuck in the mud.

U Rossii dve bedy, one of them repeated, for the second time that week. Duraki i dorogi.