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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Unkindly, Not a Local Hero

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?? ???????: You'll never understand

In 1989, I worked as an interpreter-fixer for a U.S. television company filming a documentary about the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev. My first task was interpreting an interview with Boris Yeltsin, who had come to the United States on what would be a famous -- and infamous -- visit. He spoke cogently and fluently and was blessedly easy to interpret (and, for the record, stone-cold sober).

A few months later, the producers and I came to Moscow to set up the film shoot and to meet with Yeltsin again. This was Boris Yeltsin before he became Boris Yeltsin, as it were. In those years, he was a political outcast with a few aides and a slightly shabby office in the old Moskva hotel. While we waited for tea, my producers decided that they could manage with Yeltsin (one spoke Russian) while I made a series of phone calls to set up our next meetings. I went over to a desk and contorted myself into the typical picture of an interpreter-fixer: standing on one leg, balancing my calendar on the other raised knee, talking on the phone with the receiver jammed between ear and shoulder, scribbling notes in my address book on the corner of the desk, while at the same time listening to the conversation behind me and interrupting my phone conversations to correct mistakes in the interpretation. My producers paid no attention -- this was, after all, the lot of an entry-level interpreter-fixer.

When the tea arrived, I suddenly sensed some activity behind me. While my producers chatted on obliviously, Yeltsin brought a chair over for me, and then carried over a cup of tea and a cookie. There was no audience, no photo op. It was simply a small, kind gesture. And it would be utterly inconsequential, except that I can't recall a single other occasion when a client or the person I was interpreting showed similar thoughtfulness.

So far, Russians have not treated Boris Yeltsin as kindly as he treated a frazzled interpreter. He has been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in the country and denied credit for anything that has gone right. This might be understood as a pattern -- Mikhail Gorbachev has been similarly vilified -- except that today the situation is reversed: The authorities are credited with all Russia's achievements and absolved of any responsibility for the nation's lingering and, in some cases, worsening societal ills.

Perhaps this is just part of the historical pattern when a country goes through a revolution. Or maybe it is human nature to want to blame one person instead of inchoate "historical processes" or, even worse, oneself. It might be part of a political battle that is not yet over. It could just be that here is simply more to criticize in a period that was extensively covered in the media than in one that is not.

To that universal list of possible explanations, Russian commentators add some reasons they cite as peculiarly Russian: ?????? ??????? ?? ????? ????? ????????????? (Russia never loves its liberators). ?????? ????? ?????, ?????? ????? ?? ??? (Russia only values people when they are gone).

We foreigners can live in this country for 100 years and still not understand half of what goes on. The only consolation is that Russians don't seem to understand it all either.

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