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ONE CANNOT BE TOO MUCH POLITE
30 September, 2010

How courteous and good-mannered are heroes of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and other Russian classics! Sometimes their manners are too good. (Though, to my mind, you cannot be too much polite.) Gogol makes his readers laugh when one of his heroes shows accentuated courtesy: “On, please, allow me not to allow you do that!” What a beautiful exaggeration! Alas, Russia’s sophisticated manners belong to the past.
The first thing they did when the Bolsheviks came to power, they changed Russian language (no

more ‘gentleman’ or ‘lady’, no ‘Sir,’ ‘Madame,’ ‘Your Excellency,’ everybody became just ‘comrades’) and abolished  nice manners, respectful bows, etiquette rules. Aristocracy, good upbringing, decency were despised and prosecuted in the Communist ‘classless’ society    .
When in the 60s one Soviet writer proposed to reintroduce old Russian ‘Sudar’ (Sir) in social relations, he wasn’t supported. I wrote an article for Literaty Gazette proposing to translate, into Russian, ‘Etiquette’ by Emily Post written in 1922 and widely read by Americans since then; my article was published, but no results followed. (Only recently did I find Russian translation of this classical book in a Moscow book store: 40 years later!) Once my Georgian friend, a writer politely addressed a waitress in a Moscow restaurant called her ‘Madame.’ She got very cross and shouted: “Why are you insulting me?!”
Americans respect and know good manners, but simplification and folly are universal diseases, so when you want to kiss a lady’s hand there, or give her way in the doorway, or tell her how beautiful she is, you may get into a big trouble. These manners are presumed to be insulting, provocative, undermining ‘gender equality.’ Centuries after the anti-British War for Independence ‘aristocracy’ still remains here a negative, frowned at, suspicious notion. Winston Churchill (or Paul McCartney) are ‘Sirs’ at home but they are just untitled commoners in the US. Isn’t it ridiculous?


Happily, in Japan I feel at home, as if a time machine has taken me a century back to my adorable Old Russia. Because in Japan I’m treated like an aristocrat!


I am getting emails from Japan now written in highly sophisticated language which I admire and try to emulate. Once in Tokyo I thought I had lost my notebook (later I found it) in the Gold Lion restaurant on Ginza; I returned there trying to find it and left my address. Next day someone from that restaurant brought a ceremonious letter to my hotel desk written in an out-of this-world style: “We are so sorry, Sir, your loss makes us so unhappy but...” Railway conductors are bowing when entering and leaving my car... Young people in the street are treating their girls like princesses, and females whom I’ve got to know, were not offended when I told them how beautiful they were. Thank you, God, for helping me find this blessed land!
A cult of exquisite, aristocratic manners colors and defines Japanese national character. I began to understand why Kurosawa liked classic Russian literature so much. His interpretation of Dostoyevsky’s Idiot is still the best, and his hero, so much Japanese, is so much Russian at the same time: A unique coincidence of cultures.
Before flying to Tokyo I reread ‘Sakura Branch’ by Vsevolod Ovchinnikov, an eye-opener and a cult reading on Japanese national character from the ’60s, still popular in Russia and good for understanding the present-day Japan. I learned from it, among other things, that in Japan people would not reject you by saying No; they’d find other words not to hurt you. What a noble manner, what a courtesy.

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