Author: Petr Labut


The bon mot "там хорошо, где нас нет", which has its origin in Griboedov´s play "Горе от ума", is usually translated into English as 'the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence".  This interpretation seems to mean that other people live better than we do.

The question is whether Griboedov had exactly this interpretation in mind when writing the dialogue between Sophia and Tchatskiy (Софья: Гоненье на Москву! Что значит видеть свет! Где ж лучше? Чацкий: Где нас нет.).

A Russian woman, sitting near my table in a lovely pub in the Georgian Batumi this summer, reminiscing about the last year holiday she had with her husband in nearby Sukhumi, the centre of the breakaway republic of Abkhazia[1], suggested another interpretation of Griboedov’s bon mot. Comparing  Batumi, a developed city, which was shining into the dark night, with the crumbling and frowning  Sukhumi, she used the above mentioned bon mot. As she was sitting in Batumi praising it, the bon mot acquired a different meaning.

Olga, as the woman was called, started thinking aloud about the reasons why all the places where Russians or Soviets came to live looked like Sukhumi. She saw the reasons in the depths of the Russian character but having searched various mysterious aspects of the Russian soul, she started to accuse the current Russian leaders for what she saw as their failure to do anything but looting and destroying things both at home and abroad.

Although I do not like Mr. Putin and his cronies very much, I have to stand up for them. It's not just Mr Putin's privilege to lead Russia in this way. Russia has played this role for centuries. It can conquer territories but cannot colonize them. It can liberate them but not preserve their freedom. Put simply, the affected nations do not see many reasons why to take up the offer.

Russia has historically not been able to make friends; she only knows enemies or subordinates. Let’s recall the words spoken by Tsar Alexander III, which have since been repeated by Putin by the way : Russia has just two allies, the army and the navy.[2]  Sometimes there are moments in which it looks like Russia could break this curse but then again rulers of Putin's ilk come along and the emerging illusion is gone.

Olga´s interesting musings were suddenly interrupted by a group of intoxicated Russians who entered the pub and immediately demonstrated why Russian tourists are unpopular abroad.  This invasion of her compatriots provoked the following reaction from Olga : "As I told you: там хорошо, где нас нет".

Which interpretation would Griboedov prefer? And what about Russia's neighbors who frequently have to deal with the kind of Russian tourists who are trying to establish a Russian world in their countries?

[1] Abkhazia, quasi-independent state recognized by Russia, Syria, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru. This body can be seen as a de-facto Russian protectorate.