Just a net with two handles made of plastic or cotton. So small it can disappear in your pocket. And yet, if the conditions are right, it expands to surprising dimensions. The typical Soviet string bag, the avoska, is the concretion of a rather abstract concept – avos’.
The avoska is a bag that you take with you when you go out. Shopping in today’s sense didn’t exist in the Soviet Union, because you couldn’t plan on buying anything. You took your avoska and if you were lucky – if you stood long enough in line – there was maybe something for you in the shop. Milk, butter, bread, potatoes. The avoska would perfectly adapt to size and weight. And if there was nothing you could bring home to your family, the bag discreetly disappeared into one of your pockets.
Avos’ is said to be crucial to Russian mentality and is therefore impossible to translate. Just like the bag, avos’ means optimism in harsh circumstances. It is an attitude, a behavior passed from generation to generation. Because some things never change: Russian people suffer. They suffer from politics, weather, and gloom. Avos’ makes sense of the suffering. It means believing that the suffering is not in vain, and all sorrows can be overcome. Or, as every Russian mother says: everything will be fine.
Contrary to the Western notion of overcoming hardship or misery, the Russian approach is rather passive. It is based, I think, on the feeling of having limited power, the understanding of life being unpredictable and a tendency toward superstition. Avos’ means being hopeful without reason. It means ignoring problems, looking the other way and focusing on something less earthly, on the good things that might happen despite all rational doubts. When you have been governed by czars, dictators, drunkards, and corrupted autocrats, when worldly structures have mostly been there to exploit you – yo turn to sheer luck. But then again, it’s more than luck. It’s optimism and fatalism at the same time. It’s the resilience that says that it might as well turn out well for me (even though there are no indications of that).
Avos’ can be used as a particle or a noun. The particle means something like »hopefully« or »maybe« in the atheistic sense of »if God wills.« The noun means what I tried to explain above: blind faith and likable naïveté paired with often less likable passivity. For example, the sixteen-year old patient in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel Cancer Ward refuses an operation saying »Hope (avos’) it’ll be resolved on its own.« His friend answers: »It is stupid to think that you can build a bridge on avos’.«
Avos’ is an alternative to likeliness. Believing in it can lead to risky decisions, economic speculations, and falling for scams. It means buying a house from a shady construction firm, not checking its background, paying in advance and hoping that its system would collapse just after your house was built. It means signing a contract because the office is on your way home. It means getting engaged to someone who beats you and hope he will stop once you are married. It means giving your life savings to your junkie neighbor because he promised an extremely profitable investment. It means not doing your homework and hoping the teacher will not ask for it.
Acting according to avos’ doesn’t have much to do with the Western notion of laissez-faire because laissez-faire assumes that there are some kind of rules and laws. Avos’ does not. It comes from a world where not abiding by the rules means success, and abiding by them means failure.
There are many sad cases of avos’. Even Vladimir Putin recently urged his people to be responsible and stop relying on it to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. And yet, there are also beautiful examples of avos’ – because the word stands for disruption and surprise, and for something deeply human: hope against all odds.
Viktoria Morasch is a journalist and writer based in Berlin. She was born in the Soviet Union and moved to Germany when she was two years old. Russian was her first language, but once she grew older, she realized that her Russian skills remained at an elementary level. Changing this fact is one of her life goals.