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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Better Sorry Than Safe?

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Avos: (participle) faith in success or good fortune, often unfounded. Can be translated as faith in good luck, trust in a favorable outcome, counting on/expecting a miracle or windfall, "with luck," or "God willing."

My trusty Dal dictionary tells me avos is a conflation of a vot seichas (a-vo-se) which I'd translate as "any minute now." As in, "Any minute now, Prosya, the rain will come and save our crops" or "You just wait, Vanya, any minute now my company will pay me the wages it owes me and then we can buy some drink." Over time, it's come to represent a deeply held belief in a deus ex machina salvation.

I think of avos as one of those seminal concepts in Russian life, something that goes into making Russians Russian. It's what Ivan the Fool counted on to get him out of a jam in Russian fairy tales, and what saved him time and again, despite his foolishness. Today it's what spurs the driver of the Mercedes 600SL to slip into the lane of oncoming traffic at 120 kilometers per hour: with certainty (totally unfounded) that he'll zip back into his lane before a truck appears.

It's avos that was responsible for probably half the babies in the country -- their parents were sure they could make love without protection just this once avos pronesyot (with any luck nothing will happen -- literally misfortune will pass us by).

And it's avos government officials count on when they plan a budget in which expenditures routinely exceed revenues by 50 percent: Somehow they are sure that the heavens will open and there will be enough money to pay the pensioners, the military and state employees. (And if the heavens don't deliver, maybe the IMF will.)

I can see how avos took hold of the Russian psyche. Imagine you are a Russian peasant, circa 1235. You live in a dark and smoky hovel with about 25 of your closest relatives, two goats, five chickens and a pig. Your daily back breaking struggle to work the land barely produces enough to sustain life, and you never know when you will be wiped out by a drought, flash flood, hailstorm, or early or late frost. Or when the local prince will need all your grain for some campaign in the south. Or when the church will need it to buy gold leaf for the new cupola. Or when Mongol invaders will come screaming over the steppes for a round of raping, pillaging and burning.

There is no way you can pull yourself and your family out of the muck and mud of poverty by your own efforts. When you are utterly powerless and without rights, the only thing you can do is hope that God willing the prince will collect enough grain before the officials get to your house or any minute now the Mongols will get bored with raping and pillaging and pass your village by.

We Western plodders, with our Protestant work ethic, our belief that "slow and steady wins the race," our genetic memories of gentler climates and richer land, never enjoy the adrenaline rush of avos. We rarely walk off the diving board of caution into the void of "it will all work out fine."

When a Russian driver stops dead in the middle of the Garden Ring at rush hour to consider whether he should pay his cell phone bill now or not, and it doesn't even occur to him to be afraid that the eight-ton Kamaz behind him will turn his car into a concertina -- well, this is evidence of a far deeper belief in a benevolent God than I possess. I envy him.

But a tip for state budget makers: Remember all those babies. Avosdoesn't always work.

Michele A. Berdy, a Moscow-based translator and interpreter, is co-author of a Russian-English dictionary.