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Russian fatalism vs Western pragmatism

in the Russian and English syntaxes and literature: ethnolinguistic view

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

Nothing reflects the deep differences between the Western and Slavic mentalities better than language, particularly the specifics of syntactic structures. Words do not express much outside of a sentence. In contrary, the way we order them and the grammatical forms that we use demonstrate our thinking patterns. I dedicate this essay to my English speaking pupils. They 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 how 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:

An acting subject and an action / state (the linguistic word is predicate) of the subject are the semantic core of any speech. This applies to the English syntax even more than to Russian. An action/state is performed on an object, which therefore is always a passive component. Then, there may be a condition (time, place etc.), in which the action is happening and, finally, a description of any of the above components of the sentence.

Contemplative Russian language

The first difference between the syntaxes of our two languages: in the English language, a subject, a state and an action cannot exist on their own, while it happens rather often in Russian. For example, in the simple English sentence It is cold, ‘it’ is the subject and ‘is’ is the state of presence and ‘cold’ is the description of the state. The first question that may be asked by a Russian speaker 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 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:

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

The Russian syntax reflects more contemplative thinking (and therefore less pro-active) in comparison to the English.

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 languages structures are highlighted in bold):

The ‘active’ structure я нуждаюсь has its rightful place in the Russian syntax, however, it is rather rarely used compare to the more typical structure мне надо. The actual subject 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 quite curious fact considering 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.

Speaking about possessions

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

Compare the following examples:

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 Europeans and Slavs, the misunderstanding of Slavic fatalism by Western pragmatism.

England is the birth place 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 a capital. One performs the action of voting and makes a decision on the country’s government (or, at least, one thinks he does). Actually, pragmatic people do not ask too many questions – they just act and get 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… It is enough to truck the Russian history of the last 200 years in order to understand such a mind-set. And, realistically, the choice of the government is more the result of manipulation of the public opinion than actual conscious choice of the country’s citizens. This is called 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.

Fatalism is the most global sign 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 have some common ancient history with India. Numerous similarities between the Russian language and Sanskrit has 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 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 Grigoriy 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 on the next shot, when Vulich made a hole in the cap hanging on the wall. However, watching the fatalist shifting the gold off 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. The 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 and Russian leaders are constantly blamed by Western media for the lack of democracy. However, bearing in mind that, in order to believe in democracy, one needs an active and quite pragmatic mind-set, how likely is the fatalistic Russian mentality to 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?..

Semantic subject



In these sentences, the person in need is the active subject and the verb ‘need’ is used in active tense. Responsibility or solution are grammatically implied in this structure by means of the verb need in the active tense and the pronoun Я /I in the Nominative case. If one is in need, one is likely to do something about it.

I need a doctor.

I need to sleep.

Я нуждаюсь в докторе

Я нуждаюсь во сне

Paradox 1. In the Russian version, the person in need grammatically is a passive object. 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. 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 that the person in need. Either solution or control over a need are not implied.

Paradox 3. ‘Need’ is not a verb in the Russian sentences. 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 adverb and describes the verb-subject ‘sleep/спать’.

A doctor is needed by me.

A sleep is needed by me.

Мне нужен доктор.

Мне надо спать.

Semantic subject



Again, this is the most common for the English language structure, where the owner of an object is the grammatical subject. The sentence implies mentally active disposition. This structure is also exists in the Russian syntax, however, its frequent user might be at risk of having a reputation of a self-centred individual

I have/own a car

I do not have/own a car

Я имею машину

Я не имею нашины

This version is very unlikely to occur in an English speech and it is the most common for Russian. The mental and cultural situation is similar to the example with expressing a need: the factual object машина is the grammatical subject in the positive statement. We know this because the word машина is used in the Nominative case and the word меня is the Genitive form of the pronoun я, which points at an 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’.

A car is at me (in my possession)

A car is not at me (in my possession)

У меня есть машина

У меня нет машины

About the author

Marina Vantara is a Russian practitioner: a teacher, independent researcher, non-fiction writer and blogger.

Marina was graduate as a teacher of Russian Language and Literature and Experimental Psychologist at Cherkassy National University, Ukraine. She taught Russian as a native language in 1990s and Russian as a foreign language from 2010 in London. Currently, Marina is combining her teaching practice and work with children with special needs and with English as an additional language at one of the high schools in West London.

This a diverse experience inspired her research of common features in the English and Russian languages. Marina is the author of the ‘English – Russian Comparative Dictionary’ (over 5500 words common between English and Russian) and the book ‘Decoded Russian’, where she expressed the background ideas for the comparative method of teaching the Russian language to English speakers as well as teaching a foreign language in general.

To promote the Russian culture to the English speaking world, Marina is running a website http://www.decodedrussian.co.uk/ , where various resources that support the comparative method of teaching and learning Russian can be found, as well as multiple links and references to Russian film and contemporary music.

Marina’s blog can be found on https://www.blogger.com/profile/08279604061164870247 .

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