October 01, 1998

Ending Telephone Hangups

Ending Telephone Hangups

It is impossible to spend time in Russia without picking up the phone. And for the visitor using Russian phones, there are two potential sources of frustration: the system itself and Russian phone culture. Unfortunately, we can’t do much about the infrastructure of the phone system, some of which dates back to before the revolution (!), but we can offer some help on the cultural side.

Russian phone culture, like anything in today’s Russia, is in a state of transition – and yet, the remarkable linguistic hiccup from the past “telephone law” – телефонное право still holds true. This phrase dates to the Soviet era of management when a simple phone call from a properly placed apparatchik was enough to, say, stop a criminal investigation, secure a lucrative job for a Politburo son in the Foreign Ministry, or obtain the best seats in the Bolshoi.

Many innovations in the phone lexicon have been introduced with the dissemination of modern means of communications among “New Russians” (Новые Русские) who moved from using the once-fashionable pager (пейджер) to state-of-the art cellular and mobile phones сотовые / мобильные телефоны. The proper usage, by the way, for contacting someone by pager is: “to drop a message on one’s pager” – сбрось / скинь мне на пейджер. Interestingly, since the pager is usually worn on the waist, inventive Russians have come up with a humorous replacement for “low blow,” now literally a blow below the pager (удар ниже пейджера). Compare with удар ниже пояса. There is also a current famous joke about the son of a new Russian using his mobile phone as a spade in a sandbox. “What are you doing?” his sandbox buddy says. “You’ll break the phone.” “Big deal,” he replies. “Daddy will buy me another one.” “Yeah, but it will take him at least couple of days to buy and register it. In the meantime, you will have to resort to using a pager, ike an idiot.”

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