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Whistling in Russia?!

I like to whistle. I do it fairly well – now mostly classical – though I am not near such a whistler as the man I once encountered by chance while ambling and marveling, amongst the alleys, canals, and courtyards of Venice, who whistled for a living with his lute. But in my rented Russian apartment in Moscow, I am a reckless Czar of whistling – and I don’t care but a bit of a wit what my Russian friends have warned or worried me about it. Even one of my colleagues – who is an ardent “Slavophile” – on once hearing me whistle while preparing an evening meal at my place, some bars of the “Ode to Joy” of Beethoven’s Ninth, said I whistle “so beautifully”. What could I say?

Don’t whistle!

Indeed, this reminds me of a time, now more than two decades ago, when I was living in south-western Germany in the home of a retired, “old world” German Professor – who was rather strict in many, perhaps most, ways. I tended his home and needs, in exchange for room, board, and German. It seemed to me that he often viewed me as a sort of Californian semi-barbarian. In any case, he considered “whistling” not “money whistled away”, but an unconscious, undeliberate, and therefore slightly slovenly human act. I was not merely warned against whistling; it was verboten.

And after a few spontaneous mistakes of beginning to whistle when he was in his home – firmly chastised! – I had learned a kind of Pavlovian reactive fear of anything resembling the breath of a whistle from my mouth, when he was around. But when he left his small village house…I could sooth my melancholy or express my moods, by whistling “to my heart’s content”, as the expression goes.

Once, when he took his Sunday evening stroll, on a path which meandered briefly beside his own home, while I washed dishes in his kitchen after supper, I deliberately whistled as loud, clear and well as I could. I noted through the bushes how he had stopped to listen. As I recall now, I had no other intentions then than to let him know that I was free of his rules – at least when he was away.

That evening, after he returned, he came to me and said that he had heard me whistling…and that “such pure, clear notes” he could permit…“if it helped me with my melancholy”. I appreciated his special permission – but still, after some four months together, we were not too sad to part when another – younger, milder – American youth volunteered to take my place. Then after, I moved to a thick-walled concrete private student’s room in Tübingen, where I could, I suppose now, whistle what and when I wished.

But you Russians… have a folk superstition against whistling – though it doesn’t seem to me that you are much the richer for it! In America we have no such lore against whistling. Indeed, to whistle to, say, call or locate a friend in a crowd, shop, or grove, would simply be considered normal. The culture and customs are not against it. In my family for example, whistling is sometimes done – in place of needing call out loudly – to determine the presence, absence or location of another person. Like birds, these whistles have their own unique character: a whistle which says: “Where are you?”, and another that says “Here!”. In fact there is something rather gentle, peaceful and quiet about such a way of communicating; instead of needing to call out aloud, a whistle is rather subtle and pleasant – at least to those Americans who are not raised, or worried, as Russians.

The first time I, to a Russian woman I was just getting to know, innocently whistled “Where are you?”…it took me at least half an hour to calm her down…explain…apologize (though I wasn’t then sure for what!). She was, in this situation, not anxious about my money disappearing, but about being treated, as she heard it: “like some dog” (though she loves her own dog a lot). (Do Russians whistle to their dogs, like Americans?) …Whew! I had had my first experience why not to whistle to, or near, Russians!

There are so many elements of the psychology of a person that makes them a “Russian”, an “American”, a “Japanese”, “Brazilian”, etc. Not only emotions, habits, manners and ideas, but even also movements of the face and gestures of the body. And cultures vary in many ways – even if American TV programs, serials, films and movies are more or less rapidly changing this in Russia and the world. In the homes of my Russian friends – where I sometimes try to relax and enjoy myself – I still often have to catch myself from having my, and by association it seems their, money “whistled away”. For my Russian friends, whistling is not verboten because it is decadent, unconscious and slovenly – but because of a customary superstition about whistling and money. How old, and whence, this folk (?) belief in Russia, I do not know. Are there pre-Revolutionary, Communist, and post-Soviet variations on the social anathema to whistling? Someone should write a multi-cultural history, sociology and philosophy of whistling. Was there a god or goddess of whistling in Egypt? Is whistling “evil” amongst Tibetan mountain villagers? And what about the every-present “bird whistle” in American “Westerns”, when the Indians are just about to attack the cowboys?

Whistling it seems to me is in itself neither good nor evil, impoverishing or enriching…“but thinking makes it so”. Indeed, whistling seems to be a sort of human achievement, a development, a capacity not unrelated to music (which itself admittedly has been thought both demonic and divine).

Snow White singing “Whistle While You Work” in Walt Disney’s 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Snow White singing “Whistle While You Work” in Walt Disney’s 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

As an American, and a moderately competent whistler, I “feel free” in my soul to whistle; but I was not born in Second or Third Reich Germany, nor amidst the traditions and customs of Old Holy or Communist Russia. So for me, I feel neither decadent nor destitute when I whistle. On the contrary, I once soothed my soul by whistling (and humming), for about three days and nights, some small portion of what I heard on a Moscow radio broadcast (and later learned was the Peter aria “Erbarme Dich” from Bach’s Matthew Passion.) They had music therapy in the ancient Greek mystery center of Epidaurus.

So, I say that a Russian who can whistle, is somehow superior to the power of culture, tradition and superstition; somewhat liberated as an individual – en route to someone more purely human. Though in saying so, I am well aware that any mass outbreak of free whistling in Russia, would mean not hearing more Rachmaninov, Beethoven or Bach, but the likes of Michael Jackson, Alla Pugachova, the Spice Girls (already pass??), etc.

So, come to think of it now, I am glad that Russians are afraid they will whistle their money away – and not be risky like those poor Americans who, as the American Disney cartoon played it, may “whistle while they work”! For I almost have the entirety of Moscow, maybe even entire regions of Russia, in which I am amongst the very few people not afraid to whistle! Indeed, when viewed in this way, I may be one of the very best whistlers on this and that side of the Urals! Hoorah!


First published in English, #37, 2000.