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“You Cannot Grasp Russia with Your Mind”

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“You Cannot Grasp Russia with Your Mind”


Nearly one and a half centuries ago, on December 10, 1866, the poet Fyodor Tyutchev wrote:

You cannot grasp Russia with your mind
Or judge her by any common measure,
Russia is one of a special kind –
You can only believe in her.

Over time these lines became rather commonplace, quoted when appropriate and when not. “Russia cannot be understood with the mind” became perhaps the most common theme for self-irony in Russia – from talented and not so much so parodies to the numerous demotivators.

There also numerous copycat quatrains but it was also disputed by some: from Maxim Gorky (who speaking about the struggle of Russian revolutionaries against the government wrote: “In those days when knights fought to their death with the dragon, the petty bourgeoisie in verse and process sought to prove that “Russia cannot be understood with the mind”) to Igor Guberman, who penned a rather well-known parody, even if not quite decent enough to quote here.

Tyutchev’s lines have also recently become popular with politicians. Five years ago when welcoming French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin cited these lines, albeit revising the last line to say “You should only believe in her.” The verse also appeared in the remarks of former French President Jacques Chirac when he visited to Kremlin to accept a state award from Russia.

For some these words best reflect the irrationality of the Russian ethos while for others they are seen a great self-deception which for some incomprehensible reason flatters Russian vanity. But what is indisputable is the fact that this quatrain is among the best written in the Russian language.


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