Everyday at work I see some amazing people doing incredible analysis. They take complex problems and dissect them into manageable parts then construct solutions. But those same very smart people make some extraordinarily dumb decisions as well. I heard it said during a course I took that the only thing faster than the speed of light, is the speed of stupid. The most amazing thing about those stupid decisions, is they have a gravitational pull of their own.
This particular decision dates back a bit, and to be fair it was the entire U.S. government that committed the error. It was the idea that after decades of opposing the USA at every turn, the Russian government would be our buddies. Yeah – they weren’t Soviet, or communist, but they were still Russians. Those of us who really understood Russia and the Russians knew better – and many of them were gobsmacked at the decisions our government was making. Really smart men, blinded by the idea that if we just use the golden rule, then all would be okay.
I’m reminded of a time I was interpreting for an American general at a party and he wanted to tell a joke. Jokes are cultural and for the most part, do not translate well into other languages. Imagine trying to explain your favorite joke to a person who doesn’t speak English or doesn’t have the cultural context. I told him it was a bad idea and he seemed to accept that, until his Russian counterpart wanted to tell a joke. The American general glared at me as the Russian general began telling the joke.
Before I tell the joke – it’s important for the reader to have a context of the joke. There aren’t really any universal jokes for English speakers. We all know some bad Dad jokes, or knock-knock jokes, but I believe you would be hard pressed to find a “universal” English joke. Not so in Russian. Almost every Russian speaker I’ve ever met knows this joke – even a Mongolian driver in Ulan Bataar, who had studied in Russian in Mongolia – knew this joke. Its based on a Russian folk tale that dates back over 300 years.
*One more cultural reference is needed. The little golden fish is like finding a genie in a bottle in Russian folklore, the fish grants wishes for those who catch him. On with the joke.
One day an elderly fisherman takes his boat out on the Volga river to fish. All day he catches nothing until he feels a strong pull on his line and reels in a large golden sturgeon. This is not an ordinary sturgeon, but the legendary golden fish. As soon as the fisherman gets the fish in the boat the magical golden fish pleads, “Friend (comrade in Russian), you have caught the magical golden fish, if you will but release me, I’ll give you anything your heart desires – one wish”. The fisherman is stunned. As he starts to think about a mountain of gold or a palace, the fish speaks again, “there is but one thing about your wish – whatever I give to you, I’ll give twice to your neighbors”. The fisherman considers this for a moment, smiles broadly, then tells the fish his wish, “pull out my left eye!”.
For those of us in the West – not funny. For Russians, it’s a knee-slapper. Considering how far apart we are in culture and ideals, are you surprised about Russian behavior in the past or recently? As a footnote to this story – the general wrote me a very nice note about the perils of telling jokes, he was appalled by the Russian general’s joke.