William Hackett-Jones on Russian spontaneity, toasts, and Leviathan

PaperPaper.ru, January 19, 2016
William first came to Russia as a schoolboy after a series of chance events, then returned for a year abroad, and ended up staying. For six years he published a magazine for Russians studying English before launching a new venture – a translation firm. He’s been living in the city for 12 years, and speaks Russian with hardly the trace of an accent.

The Brit told Paper what it’s like to work with Andrey Zvyagintsev, what helping others means in Russia, and what turns a Russian feast into a real ceremony.

AGE: 36

OCCUPATION: head of translation firm


What has Russia taught you?

The main thing I’ve learned in Russia is to help others and to be generous. In Russia people understand that life is tough, and that you have to support each other. Two years ago, a doctor discovered that I had cancer. My English friends wrote me lovely letters and asked how they could help. My Russian friends immediately suggested specific ways in which they could help me, and offered money. I noticed a fundamental difference in people’s understanding of what it is to help someone. When people ask for help, a well-brought-up English person is embarrassed to mention money. Russians don’t ask, but offer right away. People here are attuned to the facts of a hard life.

It’s great that England has so many advantages, like free healthcare, which is wonderful. But at the same time, people feel less personally responsible for the care of others, because we have a state which we all fund.

Who has been a key influence in your life?

There was a wonderful scientist, Prince Andrey Petrovich Gagarin, who happened to turn up in Cambridge one day. My mother and sister were visiting there at the time. They went to the market and – I don’t know how – got talking. My mother has this amazing ability of talking to everyone and discovering the ins and outs of their lives. So they began to talk, and it turned out that he lived in St Petersburg. My mother mentioned that I had just begun at a school where they taught Russian. And Andrey Gagarin, with hardly a moment’s thought, invited me to stay.

In Russia people understand that life is tough, and that you have to support each other.

I was 14, and in our family we had a tradition of sending the children abroad to live with foreign families. My mother took the Prince’s suggestion seriously. But Andrey Petrovich was away for the month when I came to St. Petersburg, and so I stayed with his friends. This was in 1994. I had grown up in the countryside, in an ancient English farmhouse, and here I was, living by Park Pobedy [Victory Park] in an awful Soviet high-rise building, which smelt of cat pee and cabbage. It was certainly an interesting experience.

Back then, I didn’t understand a thing. I didn’t even know the Russian alphabet. It was sink or swim! But clearly something got me hooked, because after that trip I continued to study Russian and every year I came to St. Petersburg for a couple of weeks or a month.

Photo: Yulia Semenikhina

What would you like to bring from your country to St Petersburg?

One of the things that is sorely absent from life here is independent institutions. For example, there are private and state universities, but none of them exist independently. There is always an owner, and when there’s an owner, there’s no independence. In England, for example, we have Oxford & Cambridge Universities, which have no owners – they’re self-governing.

The same applies to museums: all the major Russian museums are owned by the state. Why can’t a museum exist independently? You don’t have to make the entrance charges high for it to work. Many museums in England are free, but they don’t belong to the state or to private owners. This is really important. Bipolarity doesn’t bring about stability. When there are independent institutions, there is proper financial accountability. This would really help Russia!

Five St. Petersburg favourites

  1. Toasts
    Everyone asks me how to say ‘cheers’ in Russian. But there’s no equivalent! The simplest thing is “Za zdovorye!” (To your health!) But to be honest, you actually have to make a toast, and not just a toast but a speech. It often happens that you are required to do it off the cuff. I like this – it adds a bit of ceremony to a drinking session.
  2. The film Leviathan
    I watched the film Leviathan seven or eight times while we worked on the subtitles for it; and I still don’t understand the debate that blew up around it. The film isn’t a stick to beat Russia with, but a terrible story which could happen in any country. Our translation firm did the English subtitles for the film. It was a melancholy experience working with Zvyagintsev, but very interesting. He’s a great filmmaker, a very demanding client, and the producers speak good English – you can’t let your guard down for even a minute! Nowadays I rarely work on the translations of films that we do, but with Zvyagintsev I check everything personally.
  3. Yelagin island
    I often run on this island in the summer. It’s very beautiful and green, with waterways all around.
  4. The Chekhov restaurant
    I really love traditional Russian cooking, but it’s often made with utter indifference – which doesn’t make it taste particularly good. When it’s done with passion, it’s fantastic! There’s a restaurant called Chekhov on Petrogradsky Island, and oh my goodness it’s good! I always order their potatoes with sour cream, salted mushrooms, and wash it down with vodka.
  5. Russian spontaneity
    Russians are very spontaneous in terms of how and what they plan. In England it’s the complete opposite. It can get ridiculous – you try to meet your friends in London and they tell you they’ve got weekend plans fixed for the next four months! What kind of a life is that? On the other hand, I’m becoming somewhat tired of all this spontaneity. That’s aging, I suppose.

Photo: Yulia Semenikhina

Why are you here?

I can’t say that I knew why when I first came, but in time, I started to feel a kind of duty to help England and Russia to understand each other. I think that’s what I’ve been doing, first of all with my magazine (helping Russians to get to know us), and subsequently through translation work (enabling the west to understand Russian companies better). I have some ideas for the future in terms of writing about what’s happening here for people in England, because all the information they get is either about the 19th century, or it’s just terrible news. Although, I suppose, the news is always bad.