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Valentyn Stetsyuk (Lviv, Ukraine)

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Self-expression of Ukrainians and Russians by proverbs

The value of the study of proverbs for the development of national strategies and worldview concepts of individual peoples is exceptionally great, but not appreciated. Proverbs and sayings can be and often are the axiological strategy of an individual, therefore, national ideas will be assimilated by people sooner if they are based on the national tradition reflected in proverbs.

The choice of certain practical actions by a person is based on the totality of knowledge about the methods of evaluating life situations and is subject to the laws of the so-called natural logic. One of the most important components of this logic, which differs from the theoretical one, is its dependence on the worldview formed under the influence of the native language and especially under the influence of proverbs and sayings that reflected the practical experience of previous generations:

Proverbs and sayings represent exceptionally rich material for studying the patterns of natural logic, its axiological patterns, and analyzing the evaluation strategies recorded in the language.(BARANOV A.N. 1989: 80).

The book called "Self-expression of the Ukrainians and Russians by proverbs. Ukraine is not Russia" was published in 2005 by the publisher League Press in Lviv. The full text of the book with minor additions is given here. Corrections are mainly related to the need to clearly define the difference between national character and social consciousness.


The first version of this paper was written at the time of the so-called "perestroika" when the communist party leadership of the Soviet Union, trying to contain the collapse of communism and the collapse of the empire, was looking for ways to enhance the creative activity of citizens in their own interests. Declared 'openness' allowed writers and academics to raise for considering that was under strict taboo before. However, the sad experience of being in a "big zone" and the old repressive apparatus which "rebuilt" itself very slowly, forced the authors to be very careful to deliver according to the reader in a veiled form, allusions, allegorical, hopes that the people will understand by their mind what silent the author. Such an attempt was made by the author in the article "On the study of national character Ukrainian and Russian" published in the third issue of "Yevshan-Zilla" that came out in 1987-1990 in Ukraine’s samizdat.

"Perestroyka" has long faded into the past, the Soviet empire collapsed irrevocably and Ukraine became an independent state where scientists were able to do their research with unprecedented freedom for choosing methods and themes. However, those wishing to explore the ethnopsychology of Ukrainians and Russian by the proposed method was not found. Meanwhile, this topic for the development of the Ukrainian state is extremely important when the majority of Ukrainian citizens mistakenly identify themselves with Russians in origin, language, and common historical past. When our northeastern neighbor still has imperial ambitions, such installation of Ukrainians may jeopardize the integrity of the Ukrainian state. During the recent political development topic separatism individual regions suddenly emerged and during demonstrations flags of neighboring states in the crowd can often be seen that the most zealous enemies of Ukrainian statehood would like to join. Of course, the majority of Ukrainians intuit the difference between themselves and the Russians, but how deep the difference is they are often unaware. However national ideas without understanding this difference will be fruitless.

However, in Ukrainian society, you can see growing interest in understanding the typical traits of the national character of Ukrainians. But this topic affects more publicists than scientists. Obviously, humanities scholars constrain inexperience in applying effective mathematical methods, and perhaps skepticism about the existence of common mental characteristics of individual nations and therefore of the concept of «ethnic psychology». Usually, this term is understood as a form of social consciousness together with typical moral and psychological traits mostly representatives of some of the nation, which is manifested in their behavior and activities. Many scientists believe that a combination exists. Lev Kopelev just claims that a sense of national character is formed spontaneously by nature under the influence of various factors – hereditary traits, previous historical experience, moral and ethical standards in society, geographical conditions, as well as a result of the deliberate, conscious activity of all sorts of religious, educational and cultural institutions.

For thousands of years, humanity has formed and adopted to a certain extent justified habits in relation to strangers, among which (habits) there have always been fears and distrust, and these habits, being inherited, have remained to our times among people living in a closed circle of their compatriots. For a long time, ideas about the peculiarities of the national character of this or that distant person were formed under the influence of the opinions of authorities. Once upon a time, travelers, merchants, or ambassadors, such as Herodotus, Xenophon, Ibn Fadlan, Plano Carpini, Rubruk, Marco Polo, Olearius, Beauplan, Lasota, and many others, who traveled to different countries and left on paper their subjective impressions of distant lands and the people who inhabited them. Here, for example, is what the English traveler Jeremy Horsey wrote about Tsar Ivan the Terrible and the Russians: "The tyranny of this sovereign was a just punishment that God sent on this criminal people for a living, caring only about food and drink, and mired in paganism flagrant sins of Sodom".

Probably, on the basis of similar subjective impressions in Europe, Johann Ravisius Textor in 1595 made an attempt to characterize the various peoples of Europe. Later, the attempt was repeatedly repeated by other authors in different countries. The Vienna Museum of Ethnology exhibits an 18th-century table by an unknown author with a description of ten peoples of Europe, including Russians, Poles, Germans, Spaniards, and others. In it, people are characterized according to the following features: customs, mind, behavior, preferences, virtues, comparison with any beast, etc. The Spaniards in this table are characterized as proud, and smart, their land is fertile, they spend time in the game, and they love glory, compared to an elephant. The Germans are sincere, invincible, of good behavior, they like to drink, and they are compared with a lion. The Poles are of coarse peasant customs, boastful, spend their time in quarrels, their land is wooded, and they themselves are like a bear. Russians are of good nature, but wild and stupid, they love to sleep most of all, and they are compared with a donkey [KELLER MECHTHILD…1985: 23-25]. In all such characteristics, their own people were endowed with all sorts of virtues, while negative properties were attributed to other people. These judgments largely for many years determined the collective idea of some people about others, and the angle from which people viewed each other, from generation to generation repeating stereotyped national characteristics of largely negative content in relation to strangers. Dr. Tsymbalistyi expressed similar thoughts: “In the matter of national differences and peculiarities, the tendency of human thinking to use categories obtained in constant open contact with reality and tested by the mind, but ready-made, borrowed, stereotyped clichés, is very clearly manifested” [TSYMBALISTYI B. 1992]. It is clear that the study of formulaic views will not lead us to the truth. However, it is worth considering how formulaic views arise and how much they can correspond to the truth.

The characteristics of individual peoples are compiled on the basis of observations, and conclusions about individual features of their national character are made when, in the opinion of observers, they are inherent in the majority of their representatives. The conclusions will be more or less objective if we summarize the opinions of different observers. Russian researcher S.K. Ivanov, for the study of the national character, proposed the selection of appropriate judgments of political, state, cultural, and military figures of the past [IVANOV S.K. 1988]. After reviewing hundreds of thousands of pages of various texts, he selected 2500 judgments about the features and characteristics of the Russian national character, which belong to more than 100 authors, and among which the statements of Russian classic writers and "democratic revolutionaries" occupy the most part. Apparently, some of the rest of the judgments belong to Russian figures of a different plan, and a very tiny part remains for the share of foreigners. Consequently, instead of an objective study, we have to analyze the conscious self-assessment of Russians, which cannot be objective. Without conducting scientific research, these figures gave an emotional assessment of those traits of the national character of Russians that most caught their eye or bothered them the most, while certain traits could remain out of their attention. The scientific value of such estimates raises a reasonable doubt, although some of them may be of interest to readers. Here are some examples:

N.G. Chernyshevsky: "Historical circumstances have developed in us purely passive virtues, such as long-suffering, tolerance for hardships, insults and all sorts of hardships."

M.O. Dobrolyubov: "Humility, obedience, patience, self-sacrifice and our other features, which are sung in our people by Professor Shevyrev, Tertiy Filippov… constitute a miserable and ugly perversion… of the beautiful quality of delicacy"

M.E. Shchedrin: "We Russians are somehow too willing to be afraid, and, moreover, we are always afraid with enthusiasm."

V.I. Lenin: "… the Russian layman is generally accustomed to the omnipotence of the government."

In the presence of opposing judgments, which the author himself admits, the idea of a quantitative analysis of evidence about individual traits and traits of the character immediately emerges in order to identify among them the most typical, and not the most impressive, but Ivanov for some reason suggests considering the entire set of judgments in as a whole: "The unity of this totality is not mechanical, but a dialectical unity of opposites that complement and contradict each other, which allows us to see in the collected information about the Russian national character more than a simple arithmetic sum of judgments that are included in it." There is something in this phrase both from demagoguery and scholasticism, but more Russian: "Cut it down, then we'll figure it out!" After all, when investigating some complex phenomenon, one must first analyze it, separate it, refine its individual parts, and then synthesize it into a single whole. It is this approach that is generally recognized in the study of complex phenomena in their dialectical unity.

To study such a rather vague concept as national character, we need to take another, more specific subject, in which it (character) is reflected more. Already in the first half of the 19th century, European scholars, in particular Wilhelm von Humboldt and Arthur Schopenhauer, believed that the national character is most of all determined by the language, mainly by its style. Also, the national character affects the creative activity of the people, in its music, architecture, folklore, etc. At the same time, verbal folklore is precisely the activity in which both language and creativity are combined at the same time. Any folk art is a spontaneous process and fairly accurately reflects the national character or that part of the public consciousness that is formed spontaneously. Folklore, in principle, is not self-esteem, but self-expression of the people, it reveals its soul, its aspirations and secret desires, its attitude and stereotypes of behavior. It is a form of the public life of the people, and as much as public consciousness reflects public life, so much folklore reflects public consciousness, and with it the national character. Therefore, we can assume that the study of the national character, has an undeniable advantage over its conscious intuitive assessment by individual people, even outstanding ones.

Based on these provisions, one can try to explore the national character in the verbal forms of folklore. This can be done by analyzing songs, fairy tales, proverbs, and sayings of different nations. In this case, even a non-specialist can catch the eye of certain patterns. For example, the frequent presence in Russian fairy tales of a character like Ivanushka the Fool may suggest that the cherished dream of Russians is to obtain wealth and happiness thanks to a fantastic chance, and not hard work. However, on the other hand, this character may sometimes look not so stupid, so the analysis of fairy tales carries a significant element of subjectivity, depending on the position of the researcher, and with a relatively small number of fairy tales on a certain subject, it can lead to erroneous conclusions. In addition, an additional difficulty is determining the popularity of individual fairy tales. Apparently, proverbs and sayings, which play the role of stereotypical stamps that Tsymbalistyi wrote about, are most suitable for studying national psychology. Their huge number guarantees a comprehensive analysis of the issue, despite the fact that one such folklore unit mostly covers one, sometimes two, and very rarely three topics, the systematization of which makes it possible to make a fairly easy quantitative assessment of national character traits according to these topics.

The different popularity among the people of individual folklore units also had to be taken into account, but again, with a large number of them, the error would be insignificant. It should also be borne in mind that the study of the national character of one person is impossible without comparison with another, otherwise, it will not be possible to separate the universal from the specific national. This is exactly the way Kostomarov went when in his work "Two Russian Nationalities" he first raised the issue of the separation of Ukrainians [KOSTOMAROV N. 1861], but his idea was practically not developed either in Tsarist Russia or in the Soviet Union. According to Yaniv, Kostomarov showed a brilliant observational gift by writing this work, and after a century and a half, it can be stated that some of his hypotheses were theoretically confirmed. In particular, his idea that Ukrainians and Poles are spiritually closer to each other than Ukrainians and Russians is confirmed. New research in the sociology and history of the Slavic languages confirms this. Unfortunately, Kostomarov also began to form a stereotyped idea of Ukrainians as having a dreamy and poetic nature with a strong bias towards individualism. Professor Yaniv, in general, objectively evaluating the work of Kostomarov, writes that "he did not start from analytical studies, but immediately moved on to synthesis" and he lacked a complete justification [YANIV VOLODYMYR. 1992].

In this work, the author offers the reader's attention to the second attempt to study the national characters of Ukrainians and Russians on the materials of collections of proverbs and sayings by Nomys and Dahl [DAHL V. 1862], taking into account the comments of reviewers and with the involvement of additional material from Nomys' collection. True, since the compilers collected folklore back in the 19th century, it may seem that significant changes have occurred in the national characters of Russians and Ukrainians over the past time, especially since part of the Ukrainians was largely russified. Thus, we come to the conclusion that in addition to the traits inherited from their ancestors, people can acquire new ones in accordance with the new conditions of existence. However, the question arises of how durable they can be and whether they can be inherited from generation to generation. Evolutionary psychology explores this possibility:

Genetics of behavior studies the basics of behavior and all that is associated with it – mental illness, a propensity for divorce, political preferences, and even a feeling of satisfaction with life. Evolutionary psychology is looking for mechanisms through which these features pass from generation to generation. Both approaches suggest that nature and education are involved in the formation of behavior, thoughts, and emotions, but in contrast to the practice of the twentieth-century nature has preference now [CSIKSZENTMIHALYI MIHALY. 2008: 89]

However, the previously formed and inherited traits are also transmitted by the mechanisms of evolutionary psychology, so they are not lost, and the acquired traits only enrich the national character of people. Thus, fundamental changes in the national character of the people should not have occurred, although it should be recognized that now social and economic changes, and especially the mass media, influence the public consciousness to a large extent, and the study of this influence is a separate research topic. Another thing is that the material collected by Nomis does not reflect the regional peculiarities of the character of Ukrainians, since it was collected in a rather limited space. To complete the picture, other materials of the Ukrainian paremia should be drawn on, especially those relating to the present, since this topic has become relevant and should be continued due to the aggravation of relations between Ukrainians and Russians after the war unleashed by Russia.

Taking into account all these circumstances, the analysis of materials from the collections of Dahl and Nomis can be considered a development of the methodology for future research. The structure of both collections is built differently, and this difference largely determines the research methodology. In Dahl, proverbs that contain more than one topic are repeated in different sections of the collection, while in Nomis almost every folklore unit occurs only once, and at the end of the collection a general list of topics is presented. Therefore, the actual number of Russian proverbs is somewhat less than the total number of topics that were taken for research (29008). The number of topics reflected in 13 thousand Ukrainian sayings accepted for analysis is 21,036. Although 29,000 and 21,000 are fairly comparable values, the number of individual topics that reflect a certain trait of a national character should be determined as a percentage of their total number. Comparing these values with each other, we can assess which specific feature and how much prevails in the national character of Russians or Ukrainians. A certain complexity is also caused by the classification of topics according to character traits, which is done by both authors but done differently, and this is what requires bringing the material into a common system. In addition, the classifications of Nomis and Dahl are not based on any theories, but solely on their own reasoning.

Збирання матеріалів фольклору було започатковано в Західній Європі. Шарль Перро опублікував "Казки матінки моєї Гуски" ще в 1697 році. Однак систематичне збирання казкового фольклору започаткували німецькі філологи брати Грімм більше ста років пізніше. І ця робота була поширена і на галузі народної творчості. Збірка Карла Зімрока німецьких прислів'їв вийшла в 1846 (Simrock Karl. 1846). Деякі приклади з цієї збірки будуть подані тут. Під впливом публікацій західних фольклористів подібна робота почалася і в Росії. Через двадцять років після появи збірки Зімрока свої роботи опублікували Даль і Номис.

Another difficulty arises when designating the ancestors of Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians. There were times when they were not yet aware of their own ethnicity and might not have self-names, although they spoke different dialects. If we call the ethnic groups of those times by modern names, then one can object that people themselves did not call themselves either Ukrainians, Russians, or Belarusians. This is true, but this does not mean that these people did not have direct ancestors. To avoid cumbersome constructions such as "ancestors of modern Ukrainians", modern ethnonyms in a retrospective sense will be used to simplify the presentation.