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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Playing the Lucky Fool on April Fools' Day

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On Wednesday, Russians celebrate День дураков (April Fools' Day), and just like in other countries it is a perfect day to валять дурака (play the fool). It is also a nice opportunity to take a closer look at Russian дурь (lack of good judgment, reckless or shocking behavior), дурость (careless or foolish behavior) and дураки (fools).

It is interesting that April Fools' Day coincides with the birthday of Nikolai Gogol, to whom the often-quoted phrase, В России две беды -- дураки и дороги (In Russia, there are two misfortunes -- fools and bad roads), is attributed. Gogol's satire of fools and the overall absurdity of Russian life in his novels remains his classic trademark.
 
Of course, every country has its share of foolishness and fools, and the United States is certainly no exception -- you need to look no further than "Beavis and Butthead" or "W" to get a clear picture of what американская дурь и дурость (American foolishness and stupidity) are all about. But Russian дурь and дурость, with all due respect of course, are in a league of their own. They are a witches' brew of imprudence, carelessness and bottled-up reckless energy -- sometimes spiked with a few vodka shots -- giving it a uniquely Russian flavor.

If you watch any of Russia's reality crime shows on television, such as "Petrovka 38," you are bound to see plenty of дурь. In one recent episode, a group of muzhiki were knocking a few back when they got into an argument over which football team is better, Zenit or Spartak. It ended when one придурок (dolt) took out a knife and plunged it into the back of his drinking buddy. When an ambulance arrived and the victim was asked if he wanted the police to be called, the poor guy, who still had the knife sticking out of his back, managed to say with a weak smile, "Да нет. Мой друг просто подурил." ("No need. We were just horsing around, and my friend did something stupid.")

Although often grouped together, дурь should not be confused with its derivative, дурость (air-headedness, carelessness). One of my favorite examples of дурость occurred in February 2008 in the southern city of Yessentuki, near Stavropol. In one of the city's infamous sanatoriums, a nurse had mixed up the canisters when she administered enemas to 17 tourists. Instead of water, she сдуру (foolishly, stupidly, absent-mindedly) injected hydrogen peroxide, which is often used to bleach hair. Although the tourists experienced some ... well ... discomfort from the mix-up, they came out OK. So we shouldn't be too harsh on the poor nurse. And besides, she had been giving enema after enema throughout her shift, and by the tail end of the day -- pardon the pun -- she simply одурела (was "numb, stupefied" from overwork).

Indeed, Russians tend to treat дурь, дурость and дураки with leniency as long as the consequences aren't tragic: Дураку и Бог простит (God will forgive a fool). At the same time, fools and foolishness are often the target of good-natured ribbing: Лося бьют в осень, а дурака всегда (Elk are hunted during the fall hunting season only, but fools need to be "hunted" every day).

Another example of дурь: When your restless 19-year-old son does something really foolish -- like come home with his hair dyed green and five lip rings -- you could say to him: Ты что, сдурел? (Have you gone crazy?)

Or take your slightly off-her-rocker Aunt Dusya, who has gotten hooked on мочевая терапия (urine therapy) to cure her laundry list of ailments. After a lengthy process of boiling and steaming her urine so that the water content evaporates, she leaves her super-potent urine concentrate in a jar on the windowsill to "ripen." At the end of a week, the stench is so strong that the neighbors start complaining and they scream: Хватит дурью маяться/мучаться! (Stop wasting your time on such idiocy!) Dusya, however, ingests her magic potion anyway. Here, you could really say: Моча ей в голову ударила (A crazy idea -- literally, urine -- had gotten into her head).

Дурость is often diagnosed as a chronic condition. You may often hear the expression, Если ты дурак, то это надолго (Once a fool, always a fool). Or: Пьяный проспится, дурак -- никогда (A drunk can sleep it off, but a fool can't).

The Soviet period was full of дурь -- with a particularly high concentration of it in the Kremlin. Among Soviet leaders, Nikita Khrushchev was clearly the most animated example of дурь. His most famous дурные (foolish, scandalous) outbursts -- the shoe- and fist-pounding incidents at the United Nations -- became a fixed symbol of Soviet recklessness, boorishness and buffoonery.

His second most-famous incident did not involve Khrushchev himself so much as his eager, obsequious bureaucrats. Impressed during a 1959 visit to Iowa by how Americans exploited corn for many different agricultural and commercial uses, Khrushchev instructed his apparatchiks to догнать и перегнать (catch up and outdo) the United States in corn production to help solve the Soviet Union's agricultural crisis. Many bureaucrats took Khrushchev's order to grow corn "everywhere" literally, and they по дури (foolishly) tried to cultivate it, well, everywhere -- even in some of the most frigid areas of Siberia. This example clearly showed that Услужливый дурак опаснее врага (An obliging fool is more dangerous than an enemy). It also confirms that Заставь дурака Богу молиться -- он и лоб расшибёт (Force a fool to pray and he will smash his forehead against the ground, thinking he is praying "better").

During Leonid Brezhnev's reign, it was always tempting to poke fun at the старые дураки (old fools) in the Politburo. Soviets liked to quote -- albeit in a whisper -- the old saying: От старых дураков молодым житья нет (Old fools don't let the young live).

Boris Yeltsin, in addition to his positive attributes, clearly had his share of дурь as well. The most colorful example was during an official visit to Germany when he grabbed the baton from a conductor and started conducting the orchestra with the elegance of a bull in a china shop -- a case of дурь par excellence.

Vladimir Putin, however, clearly stands out as the country's most presentable and intelligentny leader, despite his fondness for occasionally peppering his lexicon with tough-guy slang. And during his presidency, he didn't miss the opportunity to invoke the image of дураки. In a December 2007 interview with Time magazine, Putin was asked if he felt lucky to be president during a period of record-high oil prices. He answered: "Везёт дуракам, а мы работаем с утра до ночи." ("Only fools get lucky. We, however, work day and night.") On the other hand, Russians are also fond of saying Работа дураков любит (Those who work too much are fools), which makes defining Russia's work ethic a particularly tricky task.

Whether Putin was correct about lucky fools or not, I think it is safe to say that we could all use some good luck to go along with our hard work on this crisis-stricken April Fools' Day -- без дураков (no fooling!)

Michael Bohm is the opinion page editor of The Moscow Times.