Jeremy Paxman reckons that if you were looking to define the English mentality with one phrase then that phrase would be: "I know my rights." And I can’t think of a better way to capture both their concern with justice and their nimbyist pomposity. The best and the worst of the English is in there.
(I am reliably informed that the American version of the phrase is: “I know my rights, and if my failure to ascertain the facts on the matter in hand leads me to fear that they might ever be infringed in the slightest way, then you are Hitler and Stalin’s bastard love child and are clearly planning to construct concentration camps with fences made from the bones of the Founding fathers and lit with burning American flags.” But I digress.)
And the Russians?
Do they have a phrase?
Is there some immortal line echoing through the mysterious chambers of the Russian soul?
Oh god bless you yes, indeed there is, and it goes "Что делать (Chto Dyelat) ?" or “What to do?” The literary translation is “What is to be done?” and the New Jersey translation is “Wha ya gonna do? Huh, I mean, like wha da fuck a ya gonna do?”
A certain Nikolai Chernyshevsky wrote an insanely long and mind numbingly tedious novel with this title in 1863, and an even more certain Vladimir Illyich Lenin, acclaimed it as his favourite book and took the title for a 1902 pamphlet. But where the two of them differed from modern Russians was the fact that they thought the question actually had an answer, and we all know how that worked out.
Occasionally it comes with an added question “Chto dyelat, i kto vinovat?” “What to do and who’s to blame?” but this longer form is rarer.
Anyway, one is tempted to consider alternative translations, as the literal rendition into English fails to capture quite what is going on here. Some possible renderings would be:
“That’s just how it is”
“I don’t give a flying fuck”
“I am, as we all are, powerless to effect change”
“Let’s talk about football now” or
“Forgive me, but the centuries’ long autocratic nature of the Russian state has destroyed my faith in humanity’s ability to effect even the slightest of positive changes, did you see the Chelsea game?”
There is in this modest phrase a whole world of fatalism, apathy, helplessness, indifference, evasion of responsibility and black humour. What’s more you hear it daily. Sometimes I think they might be better to just use it to say “hello” and “goodbye” and be done with it.
Ivan: Chto dyelat, Misha?
Mikhail: Vanya, chto dyelat? How’s the wife?
Ivan: Spending like a maniac, but chto dyelat?
Mikhail: Been there, old friend, chto dyelat?
Ivan: Anyway, gotta run, chto dyelat?
Mikhail: Ok take care, chto dyelat?
Injustice, incompetence, random abuse of power, traffic jams, -30C temperatures, summer cities full of acrid smog, and Arshavin’s seeming unwillingness to get out of a comfortable armchair when Team Russia are 2:1 down and on the verge of going out of a major championship, are simply the facts of life. Attempting to change them would be exceptionally hard, quite possibly dangerous and more than likely futile. So we end up trapped where we were and the things that need to improve, including many of the ones that could be improved, remain largely unimproved.
But hey, chto dyelat?