William Hackett-Jones on risk-loving Russians

Nation Magazine, September 2015

NationBritish.
Co-Founder of Eclectic Translations, a company specialising in translating Russian films.
35 years old.
Living in Russia since 2003.

 

In conversation with Violetta Krivosheeva
Photo: William with his Russian wife Alexandra

 

In Russia, and especially in St Petersburg, things look pretty much European, but the people can act pretty un-European at times. It can throw you. Go, say, to India or China, and you can immediately tell from the architecture, the faces in the streets, the hieroglyphs all over the place, that the mentality is going to be completely different. But go to St Petersburg, and it looks somewhat Italian, somewhat Austrian, and the faces are mostly European. So, you don’t expect that there’s a completely different approach to life here. It’s a very unpredictable country.

I live in St Petersburg, close to Udelny Park, and every now and then there’ll be a tractor out doing something to the trees. There’ll be a bucket on to the front of the tractor with a man in it. The bucket is lifted above the tractor, the man approaches the tree and then he does his thing. That would be impossible in England because of the health and safety laws now in place. On the one hand, it’s a good thing – hazards in the workplace should be minimised. But on the other hand, it has made us a country of cowards, where no one wants to do anything that could be ‘dangerous’. At my family home (Glemham Hall, in Suffolk), we host all sorts of events. For a long time the curtains and light bulbs were left unchanged because the odd-jobs guy had grown rather old and was afraid to climb a stepladder. He used to do it, ten years ago, but now there are all these laws, and we are all such good, law abiding people… And yet you can’t fire him. It’s madness! Simple manual labour has become very expensive, as now you have to hire the specialists, with special equipment, and so on. Something a Russian could do in half an hour, could take three days in Britain, not forgetting the two weeks needed beforehand to approve everything, and thousands upon thousands of pounds [laughs]!

We do subtitles and voiceovers of Russian films for the Western market. We do everything, from the kids’ cartoon Kikoriki, to the Yolki series, to the films of Zvyagintsev. Unfortunately, films like Yolki are… well, they aren’t great. I probably shouldn’t say that. But it’s the sort of humour that was big in the West 15–20 years ago. You won’t amaze anyone with that stuff. The recent works by Zvyagintsev, however, are most definitely another matter – beautifully shot with excellent acting and direction. Granted, Leviathan is a terribly oppressive film. The plot, of course, is very dark indeed. And I can see how abhorrent it would be to a Russian patriot.

I have a theory about Russia. Any foreigner who comes here will ask about the locals, “Why is it that people don’t smile, what’s wrong with them?” I’ve noticed it too of course. I asked my Russian friends and they said, “What, you think we should be like those stupid Americans? Walking around smiling at every stranger in the street, and looking like some kind of retard?” Well, I thought about it a bit and came to this conclusion: Russian society is tribal. If people don’t know you, if you aren’t “one of them”, then you are an outsider. Nobody’s going to help you just because, or for that matter smile just because. But you can become “one of them”. It’s not that hard. There’s no one clear formula to success here. Sometimes, it can be a very long process; but at other times, all it might take is one simple joke or deed of some kind. But once you become accepted as “one of them”, the bond is far closer than when you make friends in England. I have good friends in England, and we have fun together, but there is a line… Here, people are far more loyal to their own, more compassionate, they give you more. Two years ago I found out I had cancer and I went to England for treatment. My English friends called and wrote wonderful messages full of hope: “If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know”. But right off the bat, my Russian friends wrote, “What can I do to help? Do you need money? Time? Connections?” It is so much more – and more valuable – than our English approach of, “If there’s anything I can do to help…”