Russians' real incomes have fallen for five years in a row: despite assurances that 2018 broke a trend of rising poverty, the state statistics agency on Friday published figures showing that real incomes dropped by 0.2 percent last year.
Russians are also getting deeper in debt: in 2018, collective debt of Russians increased by 23 percent to nearly 15 trillion rubles (over $230 billion). This is the fault of increasing mortgages and short-term high interest loans that trap many working class Russians into an endless cycle of debt.
One Central Bank official however saw a more existential reason for Russians’ financial troubles: Russian folktales are to blame for not instilling a sense of responsibility and thriftiness from a young age.
“Even when they have some financial literacy, people will still be doing the wrong things. We tell people about the golden fish and the pike. Look here, the older brother works – he is a fool, the middle brother works – he is a fool too, the youngest brother just sits around, then he catches a pike and everything works out for him. From childhood this grows into the way people deal with the financial market when they are adults. So we need to change the folk tales, you understand. We need to reject this background, teaching children about freebies. That is very important.”
Sergei Shvetsov, who is the first deputy chief of the Central Bank, seems especially irritated at the tale of Yemelya the fool, the young lazy brother who is finally persuaded by his family to help fetch some water from the ice hole. There he accidentally catches a magical pike, who asks him for freedom in exchange for anything his heart desires. Yemelya only needs to utter a certain code phrase and any wish will come true. Starting small, Yemelya first uses the magic phrase to get his chores completed without lifting a finger. At the end of the tale, he is a prince living in a castle with the tsar’s daughter. [See our Survival Russian column on this tale.]
Do Russian folk tales really discourage hard work and long-term planning?
It’s true that many of these stories aren’t kind to characters whose goal is to pinch pennies or to become rich, instead dumping sudden wealth on people – often kind and simple souls – who don’t particularly want it in the first place.
Take The Princess Who Never Smiles – another tale collected by Alexander Afanasyev. The story zooms in on a young worker who, when his boss pays him his yearly wages, only takes one coin, because he is modest and God-fearing, and then immediately loses it. This process repeats itself for several years. He then gives away the little money he has to small animals out of pity. At the end – spoiler alert! – he is of course the one to make the kingdom’s perpetually sad princess laugh, winning her heart and a seat in the castle. Not the sort of saving plan your bank would recommend, of course.
But take the tale written by Alexander Pushkin about the workman Balda, hired by a greedy priest who thought he was getting a great deal, after Balda agreed to work in exchange for hitting the man three times on the forehead at the end of the year. The man tries to send Balda to his death to avoid this, but Balda perseveres, teaching the man a lesson: Don’t go rushing after the cheapest alternative.
In other words, khalyava comes with some fine print. A good thing to keep in mind while online shopping.
Shvetsov’s term, khalyava (халява), is untranslatable, and even its origin in the Russian language is unclear. It is a slightly crude term (but not a swear word) for something that you get for free while doing absolutely nothing.
Today, khalyava is ubiquitous in marketing campaigns, especially on the internet. As always in Russian, the word inspires a string of adjectives and nouns with a similar root, notably khalyavshchik, a bad worker who expects to get the benefits of other people’s labors. Linguists have not been able to trace definitively how the word has come to signify a freebie: Dal’s Dictionary lists the meanings of the word as the leather upper of a boot, or a piece of glass that has been made into a bubble. Some believe the meaning stems from the Hebrew word khalav (milk) or even khailava, apparently used in the Chukchi language. Both seem equally unlikely.
Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567