Riddle Wrapped in English Debate

Winston Churchill's notion of Russia -- "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" - was recently unraveled a bit.

In a packed room at the Anglia British bookstore, a group comprising mostly Muscovites mused over the nature of being Russian during an evening entitled "Russian Character in Three Minutes," organized by Stephen Lapeyrouse for his biweekly English-language discussion club.

About two dozen people volunteered their three-minute diatribes, coming up with a best-worst list that might have left Churchill clinging to his original conclusion.

Lapeyrouse usually invites native English speakers to lecture to his audiences - who range in age from "teenagers to gray heads," he said. Since the meetings began a year ago, speakers have included a BBC journalist, the country director for the Peace Corps, the editor of The Moscow Times and three employees of the U.S. Embassy.

"I started the meetings because I was bored and lonely and wanted some intellectual stimulation," said Lapeyrouse, a Californian who teaches English and for five years has written for the newspaper "English," which is distributed to schools and universities across the country.

"So far it's been more successful than I thought it'd be, and we always have people lining the walls," he said. "The group is getting to be more bright-eyed and smart."

Lapeyrouse is an ardent facilitator, leaving most of the discourse to the audience. For his "Russian character" exercise, Lapeyrouse encouraged participants to compress opinions into concise, colloquial statements.

The evening's program met with mixed results. "I come because it's the best way to communicate with different people, and we can learn a lot about ourselves. But I don't agree with this dividing of features into good and bad," Lena Tatarskaya, 27, said in flawless English, pointing to the marker board where the "Russian" traits were recorded.

"Skepticism" - included on the "bad" list - "can be good if it protects you from falling in with a bad set of beliefs, like the Moonies or Hare Krishnas," Tatarskaya argued.

"Hospitality" and "kindness" both earned a few mentions for the plus side, while a handful of participants named "laziness" as their nation's worst trait. "Too much obedience to their rulers" was also among the minuses.

"There is a contradiction in the Russian soul. They love freedom and they need a strict leader. That's it," said a student of sociology and psychology, in the evening's shortest sermon.

"We are a closed society of open people," said another, adding that Russia was too diverse culturally to be subject to blanket judgments.

"I was a Soviet engineer," Valery Simonov introduced himself. "From my technical work with a large telecommunications company, I can say that Russians are quick, more positive and very creative. Foreign specialists get lost. Maybe because they follow instructions too much ... But in ordinary situations, Russian engineers are not so disciplined."

"The best is kindness," said math student Artyom Isayev, 19. "The worst is our addiction to alcohol."

"Russians are used to working hard and are used to celebrating very well. So that's why they drink," countered Katya Kozireva, 19.

"If we have love, it's deep. If hate, it's strong, for a long time," added another young person, waxing on the "widespread and undisciplined" Russian soul. "Russians don't have measure ... but we're not so overactive like Italians."

"Probably all those positives could be viewed as negative and all those negatives, positive," a 50-something woman concluded. "The important thing is Russians certainly are a peculiar people and they deserve close attention."

The Anglia British bookshop is located at 2/3 Khlebny Pereulok. On April 13, the featured speaker will be John Helmer from The Moscow Tribune. Entrance is free; the meeting begins at 6:15 p.m. For further information, call 203-5802.

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