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The other day I was teaching my son not to throw the trash on the ground. «Мусорить плохо» [It’s bad to litter], I said and then added «и некультурно» [lit.: and it is uncultured]. That’s when he asked me what «культурный» means. Good question!
Growing up in Russia, I’ve heard the phrase «культурный человек» [a cultured or civilized person] plenty of times. But for the life of mine I can’t remember a single instance of an adult defining it for me in a clear positive way. Instead, the definition stemmed from a long list of what «культурный человек» is not and doesn’t do. For example, it was clear that since Katya from my first-grade class was picking her nose, she was a very «некультурная девочка» [uncultured girl]. Everyone knows that «ковыряться в носу – некультурно» [picking one’s nose is uncultured].
Same went for such acts as «показывать пальцем на людей» [finger point at people], «плеваться» [spit], «ходить по газонам» [walk over the lawns], «бросать фантики на землю» [throw candy wrappers on the ground], «хамить взрослым» [be rude to adults] and «ругаться матом» [curse].
Obviously, to be a cultured person one had to behave well at all times. Easy enough to remember and pretty straightforward, isn’t it? Except in the fifth grade our Russian language teacher, Natalya Grigorievna, threw a monkey wrench into the picture. Reviewing the not-too-impressive results of the latest «диктант» [dictation exercise] she said that «культурный человек не делает орфографических ошибок» [cultured person does not make grammatical errors]. Say what?!
And since she was also our Russian literature teacher, she insisted that «каждый культурный человек обязан читать Пушкина и Лермонтова» [every cultured person must read Pushkin and Lermontov].
Of course, by then our other teachers started pitching in and soon the list of things a cultured person must know/read/be able to write or solve or conduct an experiment with became overly long. Turns out, «культурный человек» must not only behave a certain way, but must also «знать и интересоваться» [know and be interested in] certain things.
Russians are very taken with the idea of «культура» [culture] and «культурный человек» [cultured person]. They talk about people and institutions as possessing a certain level of culture. The progression goes from «безкультурный» [uncultured] to «низкокультурный» [of little culture] to «культурный» [cultured] until it reaches the apex in «высококультурный» [of high culture].
But if you look for a line that separates these different levels or a defined scale that measures «культурность» [“culturedness” or amount of culture present in an individual], you won’t find one. Instead, you’ll find plenty of confusion.
In every Russian town and in many small townships there’s at least one «Дом культуры» [House of culture]. In a larger city, you will likely find «Дворец культуры» [Palace of culture]. These «ДK», pronounced DE-KAH, are centers for social and cultural activities. Yet these placed are frequently criticized for allowing «безкультурье» [lack of culture] or not fighting it enough.
«Артисты, художники, певцы» [entertainers, artists, singers] are thought of generally as people of culture. Yet not every single artist or musician qualifies to be «культурный». As the old joke goes, an authentically cultured person will never describe himself as “a loather and a penniless idiot” and instead go for “I am a creative type”.
Education is definitely an important component, yet «можно быть культурным человеком и без высшего образования» [it’s possible to be a cultured person even without a college degree].
Thankfully, a couple of «культурологи» [cultural studies scholars] from Moscow conducted a study of an image of a cultured person as perceived by college students. Turns out, a person of high culture would be someone who is well-mannered (Mom was right) and educated (my school teachers were right too), but also «вежливый» [polite], «скромный» [modest], «приятный» [pleasant], «с чувством долга» [with strong sense of duty] and ability to overlook others’ shortcomings.
If this sounds like a lot of work, it sure is. But take heart in the following lines by Russian poet Nikolay Zabolotsky
«Не позволяй душе лениться!
Чтоб в ступе воду не толочь,
Душа обязана трудиться
И день и ночь, и день и ночь.»
Do not let your soul to idle!
To avoid wasting time on mundane
The soul must work, it must labor
Night and day, night and day.
P.S. If you know a better way to translate the above, let me know!