I had just got out of the elevator on the ground floor of the Moscow apartment building where I have lived for a number of years when my upstairs neighbour, a portly forty-something businessman, came in from the street. As usual, we both managed to whisper a zdrastye in mutual greeting.
It is a peculiar thing, this Russian whisper of a hello. And when I say “whisper,” that is exactly what I mean. Not a low murmur, but a barely audible, sibilant greeting starting somewhere at the back of the throat and forced out with just the necessary amount of air. So quiet in fact, it’s almost as if sometimes the other person isn’t really supposed to hear it.
An entire nation whispering greetings to each other. It had always struck me as odd, but, equally as strangely, I had never given the matter much thought. I am, after all, living in a foreign land, and folk tend to do things differently abroad.
For some reason though, that day was different. As I made my way to the local DVD shop to pick up my weekly stash of films, it nagged at me. What does it mean? Where did all the hushed hellos come from?
And then, right in the midst of my perusal of the paltry selection of zombie movies, it suddenly occurred to me that although I had been in the country for more than a decade, there was something else that I hadn’t worked out about Russia.
Don’t worry; I’m not talking here about the type of “big” questions that the professional “experts on Russia” would have you contemplate for endless wasted hours as you flick through their weighty tomes. Stuff like, “What is Russia’s destiny?” and “Will Russia ever develop a functioning democracy?” You know, the unanswerable teasers, posed by the same wise guys who, despite their amassed knowledge and expertise, so spectacularly failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union.
No, the riddle that had left me baffled was of a less grandiose nature. Namely, why have the Russians and the Soviets before them never made any really good horror films? (I was, as you see, in a curious kind of mood that day…)
In fact, good or not, you can count the number of horror films made here in the last century on the fingers of two hands. (Even if some of those digits have been hacked at by a slasher movie maniac.) Why exactly have the Russians never turned their attention to the genre? After all, it isn’t like they haven’t had their fair share of real-life terror over the years.
In a society where random murder is the norm, where gulags and the KGB, and later shootouts and vodka-fuelled violence continue to decimate the population, is this aversion to horror on the big screen a simple reaction to too much bloodletting in everyday life? Are the Russians inured to violence? Or are they just simply bad at making horror films?
I was so confused by these twin puzzles that I forgot my change, and the shop assistant had to call me back to pick up my rubles. Life in Russia is funny like that – you can be walking along minding your own and suddenly it’s “boom!” – Mystery! Riddle! Enigma!
I didn’t try to investigate the horror conundrum, but I asked a few people about the whispering thing over the next few days. Some of them just shrugged, others laughed, not really ever having paid attention to it before. Of course, Russians don’t always greet each other like this, but it is a fairly common event, and usually happens when the other person is a vague acquaintance or a total stranger. Whispering hello to family and friends is virtually unheard of.
“Perhaps,” Alexei, the owner of a Moscow watch company, told me, “it comes from the Soviet period, when there were great numbers of official enemies of the people. Folk it was better not to associate with, or even to be seen talking to. Unless you wanted a visit from the KGB. Still, you have to be polite, and so the whispered hello arose.”
Could Alexei’s explanation be the reason? Could a decades-old fear have been somehow subconsciously handed down through the generations?
“It comes from the chaos at the start of the 1990s, after the break up of the Soviet Union,” another friend, Polina, told me. “Society was in a mess, there were criminals everywhere, and people were afraid of drawing attention to themselves.”
That sounded good as well.
“Rubbish,” 65-year-old Tamara told me. “People have said zdrastye like that for years. Since I was a child at least.”
Whatever the truth, there was clearly a lot more to the issue than it first seemed. Just a couple of questions, the tiniest bit of digging, had turned up information and opinions on the Soviet-era and the breakdown of society at the tail end of the 20th century. What would I find if I dug deeper?
For a moment I was tempted to launch an investigation, to travel the country and meet with historians, linguists and intellectuals galore in an attempt to get to the bottom of things. But then I remembered my stash of films, slipped “30 Days of Night: Dark Days” into my DVD player, and quickly lost all interest in my mission. After all, if horror films teach you one thing, it’s that curiosity is rarely rewarded.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.