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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

From Hocus-Pocus to Stakhanovism

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Vozdushka: money not made through production, but through trading or other means, "money made out of air," "money made out of nothing."



One of the delights of the early post-Soviet period was the magical way some people made billions overnight. They didn't seem to do anything. They didn't have any factories, or own an import-export firm, and there was no such thing as a stock market. But somehow, the day after the Soviet Union fell, banks opened with initial capital of millions of dollars. Beats me, but I was never convinced that prosto skinuli semeynye sberezheniya (they all just chipped in their family savings). But maybe I have the wrong kind of "family."

In any case, Russians quickly came up with a term for this kind of money: vozdushka -- which I translate as "money made out of air," "money made out of nothing." Or maybe, "magic money." Someone who makes money this way is a vozdushnik, a "wheeler-dealer," or "tradester" -- someone whose money is not made through production.

Another lovely way of making millions in those years was the investitsionnaya piramida, a pyramid investment scheme. In American English this is also called a Ponzi scheme, after the man who bilked his fellow countrymen out of millions in the 1920s, before there were laws against this sort of fraud. People who invested in these were first called vkladchiki (investors), and then very quickly obmanutye vkladchiki (cheated investors) or, perhaps more harshly, lokhi ("suckers"). Unfortunately the expression, "If it seems too good to be true -- it is" got here late.

Of course, you can also make money by taking on extra work Rabotat po sovmestitelstvu means "to take on a second job," and podrabatyvat also always has the connotation of "to earn extra money." Voobshche ya inzhener v NII, no ya rabotayu konsultantom po sovmestitelstvu (I have a regular job as an engineer in a research institute, but I moonlight as a consultant). Dengi nuzhny? Beri khalturu -- khoroshii perevodchik vsegda mozhet podrabatyvat (You need money? Moonlight! A good translator can always earn some extra money).

You can also make money the old-fashioned way: by working really hard. On tak pashet! On ochen trudolyubivy (He really puts his nose to the grindstone. He's a very hard worker). Ya gnula spinu nad rukopisyu vse bykhodnye, I nakonets-to zakonchila otchyot. (I broke my back over the manuscript every weekend, and I finally finished the report). However, Russians and Americans have different styles of working. Americans tend to plug along, doing a bit every day, while their Russian colleagues tend to sail along for a bit and then push hard, kak Stakhanovtsy -- like workers in the Stakhanov movement, a group of miners who achieved high rates of production in the '30s. This makes for lots of intercultural misunderstanding, with the Russians driven mad by American zanudstvo (pedantry, tediousness) and Americans terrified that the work won't get done.

The only problem with Russian work binges is that the quality of work can suffer, which is why Russians check to see when a car or television was built and try not to purchase anything assembled during the last days of a month or quarter.

On the bright side, the tendency to put things off until the last minute applies equally to spending money; the best time to hit up a ministry for extra funds can be the last quarter, when they suddenly realize they haven't spent their quota.

Ya poidu vybivat dengi iz MinPechati -- oni dolzhni raspredelit vse fondy do kontsa goda (I'm going to the Press Ministry to wheedle some funds out of them; they have to allocate everything by the end of the year).

Which just goes to show, v Rossii net khuda bez dobra (In Russia, every cloud has a silver lining).

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.