I have recently acquired a rather large piece of artwork which takes the form of a plaster bust. While the time is not right to relate the entire story (as it does not yet have a conclusion), I will provide a snapshot of a recent chapter that perhaps sheds some light on Russianness.
This scene centers around my interactions with a certain UK-based moving company which operates in Moscow and advertises its services in an attractive, accessible webpage on the leading website for expats in Russia. Seeing that they also sold packing supplies (which I needed to prepare the bust for transport to the US), I called them. The conversation, mostly in English, went something like this:
"Hello, do you sell boxes?
"Just a moment....Yes."
"I need a very large box for an object that measures 75cm x 55cm x 55cm."
"Ah, our largest box is wardrobe. It is 100cm x 40cm x 45 cm. How many would you like?"
"Do you have any other large boxes, because that one won't work."
"No, we don't. Let me check."
Let me interrupt at this point. I was amused by that particular phrase: no, we don't, let me check. If you're so sure you don't have it, then why bother checking? Or if you're unsure and have to check, why say a flat-out no?
She returns to the phone: "I'm sorry, we don't have anything else. The wardrobe is the only one that will work for you."
"But it won't work for me, since the object is 55 cm wide and the box is only 45 cm wide. It won't fit."
"Oh, yes. Sorry. So do you want one?"
I eventually acquired a discarded flatscreen TV box outside a large electronics shopping center and cut & pasted it into a box of the appropriate size. Now I needed packing materials. Again, I called the moving company.
"Hello, do you sell bubble wrap?"
"Yes, how much do you need?"
"I don't know, not much."
"We only sell by the roll. One roll is 100 meters x 15 centimeters."
"How much does a roll cost?"
"Uh, $150 US Dollars."
I ended up going to an outdoor market and buying a foam mattress pad instead.
My final interaction with them was regarding a document I need from the Ministry of Culture stating that this is not a piece of historical or cultural significance. It's generally required of all artwork and antiques that are taken out of Russia. Again, the moving company advertises their expertise in this matter and promises to obtain all necessary documents for clients. The catch is, I'm not moving, I'm only shipping one box. I explain this to the woman and ask if I can pay them to get me the document anyway. After all, they probably do this every day - would it be that much more difficult to include one more application in the stack they drop off at the ministry?
"No, it is impossible. Let me ask."
Again, the juxtapositioning of impossibility and possibility. There are various explanations for this phrase, or dare I say, mentality. First, it is possible that the word "impossible" doesn't translate into English quite right. But no, невозможно pretty much means the same thing. The other possibility is that officially, everything is and always has been "impossible." But unofficially anything is possible with the permission of the boss. It's a phenomenon I encountered when getting my visa at the Russian consulate in the States. One minute it was "impossible" for me to get the visa in time for my departure date ("it is the law, you know."). The next minute the boss had intervened and made it quite possible. Apparently "the law" is flexible when the boss wants to be.
Thus, while the linguistic translation of "impossible" might be direct, the cultural translation of impossibility is not. However, while the possibility of possibility amidst the impossible is always possible, sometimes the impossible is impossibly inevitable: sadly, when she returned to the phone, she told me, "No, I'm sorry, it is not possible unless you go with us." Not wanting to explain for the third time that I don't have anything to move, just a box to ship, I thanked her and hung up.
And so, I am off on what may be an impossible (read: possible) mission, trekking to the Ministry of Culture myself to seek out that piece of paper that says Lenin is of no cultural value to the Russian Federation.