Review: The Russian Word’s Worth

This review was originally written in 2013.

The Russian Word’s Worth represents a collection of 230 articles on Russian Language and Culture written by American columnist Michele Berdy for the Moscow Times, an English-language newspaper in Moscow. I’ve read this paper several times and do not think much of it – their editorials and op-eds treat Russia with patronizing superiority. However, you can see none of this in Berdy’s columns, most of her writing is non-judgmental and apolitical. She’s an open-minded person who loves to dive into linguistic discoveries and although she looks at Russian language through an American prism, she does it inoffensively and with good humor.

Topics Berdy covers include the political (linguistic quirks of Russian leaders), the personally serious (expressing condolences in Russian), the etymological (why the Russian equivalents of complain, pathetic, welcome and salary have the same root), the annoying (especially Moscow traffic and drivers), and the just plain essential (calling and dealing with a plumber in Russia, or excusing oneself to visit the facilities), twenty-first language slang, as well as Soviet-speak remnants. All of these are treated in an entertaining and ironic style, suffused with the author’s deep knowledge of both languages and cultures.

Perhaps yet another positive thing about this book is that the reader doesn’t have to be fluent in Russian to enjoy it. I started reading this with only minimal knowledge of Russian language and was still able to understand much of it. All Russian words are translated into English, but are written in a strange italicised cursive font (which sometimes makes it hard to identify individual characters). The book is divided into short essays, so you can jump in anywhere and not feel like you have missed something.

If you’re strongly interested in Russian language and culture, then chances are you will enjoy Berdy’s book.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Russian Word’s Worth by Michele Berdy. Pub. 2010 by GLAS New Russian Writing. Paperback, 500 pages. ISBN13: 9785717200875



One comment

  1. I have once read a book of the similar genre. It’s Anthony Perry’s “Twelve stories of Russia”, an author who came to Russia in the “wild ’90s”.
    Absolutely apolitical, but funny and friendly it also contains many acute observations concerning cultural and psychological peculiarities of everyday life in Russia those days.

    Liked by 1 person

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