In Russia, the truth is optional

August 27, 2006|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Staff

We moved back from Moscow a year ago, and there are lots of things I miss about the place: the sardonic humor, Baltika beer, the cold snap that comes in late August. But one thing I never expected to feel nostalgic about, and certainly do, is Russian culture's healthy skepticism about the value of always telling the truth.

Lies, of course, can be despicable things. But in the West, the gentle art of deception - the flamboyant, shameless or spiritually uplifting stretcher - has long since fallen out of fashion.

Not so in Russia. There, bold prevarication is a form of recreation, a tool of personal diplomacy, a social lubricant almost as necessary and cherished as vodka. Blatant, mostly harmless falsehoods are defended as the sincerest form of honesty. Inconvenient, distressing or impolite truths are quietly ignored, or flatly contradicted.

"You speak great Russian!" my hosts would implausibly insist. (The farther from Moscow, the more hospitable people seemed to become.) A nudge and wink would invariably follow. "How young you look! I better lock up my daughters, eh? Now, what do you think of our local watermelons?"

Once, we in the United States understood the value of occasionally avoiding the truth. Mark Twain, in his 1882 essay "On the Decay of The Art of Lying," praised the lie as "a recreation, a solace, a refuge in time of need, the fourth Grace, the tenth Muse, man's best and surest friend ... "

But somewhere on our journey from the frontier to the suburbs, we lost our way. It's not that Americans don't lie: We do, in boardrooms and bedrooms and on tax returns, just like everyone else. It's just that we don't always lie charitably and generously, perhaps out of fear we might get caught. When we do lie, many Americans can't seem to admit it, even to themselves.

In this respect, Russian culture seems more honest than our own. A few years back I visited Pyatak Prison, a centuries-old monastery stuck in the middle of a forlorn lake a couple of days' drive north of Moscow. All the inmates had been convicted of multiple murders. When I interviewed them, they all matter-of-factly confessed to their crimes. (One man beheaded his taxi driver rather than pay the fare.)

American prisons, anyone who has ever visited one knows, are filled almost exclusively with the innocent.

Cheating is another point where Russia and the West diverge. People in all cultures cheat, of course, as recent sports doping scandals show. But few cheat as boldly and joyfully as the Russians.

Tim Harte, a veteran of 11 marathons and a scholar of modern Russian art, ran a five-kilometer road race near Moscow State University one bright blue Saturday afternoon back in July of 2002. As he sprinted up Sparrow Hills above the Moscow River, some of the other runners started to dart off the course and take short cuts.

"They cut not only corners, but also entire sections," he recalled. "And most astounding for me was that 200 yards from the finish, a huge group of runners suddenly materialized right in front of me - they obviously cut a kilometer or so off the race by going through the woods."

Students have been cheating on exams for millennia. But in Russia, students, parents and teachers seem to regard it with equal measures of outrage, amusement and even pride in the cheaters' ingenuity.

Last year, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, a museum in the city of Cherepove(sp?) hosted an exhibit on shpargalki, or "cunning papers," the cheat sheets Russian pupils start to use in the third grade. The exhibit included a pair of underpants full of scribbled facts and figures.

"Many students use shpargalki," Lena S., a cheerful Moscow middle schooler, told me matter-of-factly a couple of years ago. "All my classmates do."

For history exams, she said, she liked to write notes on her knees and inch up her skirt to peek at them. In math tests, she wrote answers in tiny letters on the back of a wooden ruler. When the teacher walked by, she would flip the ruler over to hide the notes. The ruler trick worked so well that many classmates copied her. "Students with rulers made of plastic were out of luck," she said.

She was proud of, not embarassed about, her scheme. She relied on shpargalki, she explained, because her homework, dance classes and English lessons don't leave her enough time to sleep, much less study.

Yuri V. Scherbatykh, a psychologist at the Medical Academy of Voronezh, a city in southwestern Russia, says there is a "double standard" in Russian society. "Cheating is condemned on the one hand, but on the other, it is taken with understanding."

The psychologist, author of books titled The Art of Cheating and How to Cheat, says that the Russian attitude toward cheating is, in fact, one of the most difficult things for Westerners to grasp. "There is a proverb in English, `Honesty is the best policy,' but this isn't a Russian proverb," he said.

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