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Russian fatalism vs Western pragmatism in the Russian and English syntaxes and literature


*Ethnolinguistics (or cultural linguistics) studies the relationship between language and culture, and the way different cultural groups perceive the world.


Nothing narrows down the differences between the Western European and Slavic mentalities better than language, particularly the specifics of syntactic structures. There is a lot of common or related vocabulary between Western and Eastern European languages, however, words outside a sentence do not show the way of thinking and feeling. In contrary, it is how we order them and the grammatical forms that we use - that's what demonstrates our thinking patterns. I dedicate this essay to my English pupils who, in the process of learning the Russian language, made me think about this matter simply by making ‘the big eyes’ and asking the question ‘WHY?”…

…Why the Russian syntax has more passive structures compare to the English syntax?

This question is being asked on a regular basis, when an English speaker learns Russian cases, five of which express a passive disposition of an object, while only one (Nominative) case expresses an active role of a noun. English speakers find it particularly difficult to accept the way, in which Russians make a statement of need or possession… but, firstly, let us elaborate a little on the phenomenon of syntax.

Each word plays a certain role in a sentence:

A subject and an action/state (the linguistic word is predicate) of the subject are the semantic core of any speech, e.g: A man (subject) drives (action).

An action/state is performed on an object. Therefore an object is always a passive component. E.g., A man drives a car fast.

Then, there may be a condition (time, place, direction etc.), in which the action is happening, e.g., A man usually (condition of time) drives to London (condition of direction) in the evening (condition of time)

And, finally, a description of any of the above components of the sentence, e.g., A busy (description of the subject) man drives his big (description of the object) car very (additional description of the action) fast (description of the action)

Contemplative Russian language


In the English language, a subject, a state and an action cannot exist on their own, without subject and predicate, while it happens rather often in Russian. 

The first question that may be asked by a Russian speaker about the sentence It is cold is what’s ‘it’? This is because there is no need in a subject in the equivalent Russian sentence. Just think about it: who is acting here? Who makes it cold: God, Father Frost or nature? So, the Russian sentence has neither subject nor predicate. It consists of one word of the description: Холодно (Cold). Similarly, the nominative (a subject only) sentences exist in the Russian literary as well as conversational language. For example, the famous line from Alexander Blok’s:

Ночь. Улица. Фонарь. Аптека. / Night. Street. Light. Pharmacy.

The Russian syntax seems to reflect more contemplative thinking (and therefore less pro-active) in comparison with English syntax.


Expression of a need

Let us agree that there is always a factual subject in need and an object or action that the subject craves or influences. Compare the following sentences translated word to word (the more typical for each of the structures of the languages are highlighted in bold):

Figure 1.

English:    I need a doctor.                               Russian: Я нуждаюсь в докторе.

I need to sleep.                                               Я нуждаюсь во сне.

Figure 2.

English: A doctor is needed by me.               Russian: Мне нужен доктор.

              Sleep is needed by me.                                  Мне надо спать.

Semantics: In Figure 1, the person in need is the active subject and the verb need is used in the active voice. Responsibility or solution are grammatically implied in this structure by means of the verb need in the active voice and the pronoun Я /I, which comes in the Nominative case in the Russian version. If one is in need, one is likely to do something about it.


Paradox 1. In the Russian version of Figure 2, the person in need is a passive object grammatically. We know this because the pronoun Я is replaced by its Dative case мне, while the role of a grammatical subject in a Russian sentence is carried by the Nominative case exclusively.

Paradox 2. Figure 2: The object of the need (doctor in the 1st sentence and sleep in the 2nd sentence) become grammatical subjects. This implies that the power of the need is stronger than the person in need. Either solution or control over a need is not implied.

Paradox 3. Figure 2: Need is not a verb in the Russian sentence. In the 1st sentence, it is the short form of the adjective нужный and describes the noun-subject doctor. In the 2nd sentence, it is an adverb and describes the verb-subject of the need sleep/спать

The ‘active’ structure from Figure 1 (я нуждаюсь) has its rightful place in the Russian syntax, however, it is rather rarely used compared to the more typical structure мне надо. The actual subject (the person in need) is grammatically passive, which semantically implies less control over the described situation. Note that in the Ukrainian language, both of these structures are used with fairly equal frequency, which is a fact considering the more Western geographic location of Ukraine compare to Russia. 


Although the version of a ‘passive’ structure needed by me is technically possible in the English language, it is extremely unlikely to be used by a native English speaker. Hence the confusion...


Speaking about possessions

Possession has always been the most sensitive subject of human kind’s thinking. Interestingly, English and Russians relate to the things they own in quite different ways, although nobody seems to focus on this fact enough.


Compare the following examples:

Figure 3:

English:  I have/own a car                                  Russian: Я имею машину

                I do not have/own a car                                      Я не имею машины

Figure 4:

English:    A car is at me (in my possession)        Russian: У меня есть машина

                A car is not at me (in my possession)                  У меня нет машины


Again, the structures from Figure 3 are the most common for the English language, where an owner of an object is present as the grammatical subject. The sentence implies a mentally active disposition. This structure also exists in the Russian syntax, however, its frequent Russian user may be at risk of having a reputation of a self-centred individual. Я is the last letter of the Russian alphabet...


The version in Figure 4 is very unlikely to occur in an English speech. However, it is the most common for the Russian live language. The mental and cultural situation is similar to the example with expressing a need: in the positive statement, the factual object/possession машина is the grammatical subject. We know this because the word машина (car) is used in the Nominative case, while the word меня (me) is the Genitive case of the pronoun Я/I, which makes the owner a grammatical object rather than a subject.


The Russian negative statement is a predicative sentence (it has no subject at all). We know this because neither the pronoun меня nor the noun машинЫ are used in the Nominative case. The statement implied is I don’t have a car and it is nobody’s doing.


The differences between the English and Russian syntactic structures described above are not a simple coincidence. They reflect some crucial cultural moments that, possibly, is the cause of global misunderstanding between Westerners and Slavs, the misunderstanding of Slavic fatalism by Western pragmatism. And it started in 14th -15th centuries, when Europe was renaissancing, while Rus was hesychasming


England is the birthplace of capitalism and it is also the oldest survived democracy. Both cannot exist without accepting an active life position by the bearers of the culture. The word have is the centre of many fundamental syntactic structures in the English language. English even own their actions and obligations: I have to work, where a Russian would say either I need to work / Мне надо работать (implying that the action is unavoidable) or I must work / Я должен работать (implying obligation and finally accepting responsibility for it).


One takes charge to create capital. One performs the action of voting and makes a decision on the country’s government (or, at least, one thinks that he does). Actually, pragmatic people do not ask too many questions – they just act and achieve results.


There are always tricky questions that may pop into a Russian head regarding either of the two activities mentioned above. Say, one works hard making money but what if one lost everything because of some unexpected cataclysm? Then, one’s effort is worth nothing and is pointless… It is enough to track the Russian history of the last 200 years in order to understand such a mindset. 


And, realistically, the choice of the government is more the result of manipulation of the public opinion than an actual conscious choice of the country’s citizens. This is called an electoral campaign, which invented in the West rather than in Russia. The ordinary people are supposed to believe those promises on campaigns’ leaflets and TV debates. Then, the first thing that the elected government does is tripling the price of high education for its voters’ kids. Was that the voters’ choice for their children to pay 27K instead of 9K? So did they really know what they voted for? Just be honest… This is the Russian thinking. Being able to bite from a pie does not mean being in control of what happens to the rest of the pie.


Fatalism is the most global feature of Slavic mentality. Russians often are referred as the ‘crazy nation’; this is purely because deep down they believe that, whatever you do, it is not going to change the God’s plan for you or your destiny. Does not matter, what you call it. The law of karma is very close to a Slavic mind that, as they now say, have some common ancient history with India. Numerous similarities between the Russian language and Sanskrit have been pointed out by a number of linguists.  


The roulette is also called ‘Russian’… Perhaps, the essence of Russian fatalism was the best exposed in Mikhail Lermontov’s novel ‘Fatalist’, the part of his book ‘A Hero of Our Time’ (1840). Here is the plot.

During the conquest of the Caucasus in the 1820s, a company of Russian officers gathers at the home of the chief of the garrison frontline. They tie a philosophical debate. Some consider the Muslim belief - "if a man's fate is written in heaven" - existent nonsense, while others are convinced that everyone is assigned over the fatal moment.

Lieutenant Vulich, a native Serb, has a mindset of a fatalist. He offers to the disputants to participate in a mystical experiment. Say, if the hour of his death has not yet struck, then, Providence will not allow the gun, which he, Vulich, will publicly appoint to his forehead, fire. None expressed a wish to participate in the dangerous comedy, apart from Grigory Pechorin, the main character of the book ‘A Hero of Our Time’. He not only turned out the contents of his wallet on the game table but also said to Vulich out loud, looking into his eyes: "You will die today!"

The Serb won the first "round" of the dangerous bet: the gun misfired, though it proved to be quite serviceable in the next shot when Vulich made a hole in the cap hanging on the wall. However, watching the fatalist shifting the gold of the game table, Pechorin insisted that Vulitch has a sign of approaching death on his face. The Serb, at first embarrassed and, then, flared up, leaves alone, without waiting for the sluggish companions, and he dies before reaching the house: on his way, Vulich was slaughtered with the sword, from the shoulder to the waist, by a drunken Cossack. Now, even non-believers admit predestination of the Lieutenant’s death.


Of course, this is just a fiction created by the famous Russian poet and writer. However, this novel is a compulsory part of the Russian high school curriculum. As a Russian teacher, I was taught at the university that literature reflects social mentality...

Russia has been constantly accused of the lack of democracy by Western media and politicians. Meanwhile, even the Russian President himself represents the fatalistic mentality (Interview of Vladimir Putin about attempts of his assassination). Perhaps, the true cause of this is not only the leadership but also the Russians themselves... Bearing in mind that, in order to believe in democracy and implement it, one needs an active and quite pragmatic mindset, how likely is the fatalistic Russian mentality to fully accept Western pragmatic values? And, if Western society itself did not doubt those pragmatic values, why would such a depressing piece of literature about helpless people as Steinbeck’s ‘Of mice and men’ be a part of British high school GCSE curriculum?...

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