Saturday, December 24, 2011

Magic Winter

Do you like snow? If you drive, and your car spends nights in the open air, you probably don't. Indeed, who likes shovelling, cleaning front and rear windows and having no control over the car on an icy road? Yet winter is a beautiful and magical season.

In Russia, people mostly like snow, and drivers are not an exception. The first snow (in my hometown in Siberia, it normally happens in mid October) puts people in the festive spirit. In late autumn, the sky in northern countries is grey, and the sun is a rare guest. White snowflakes reflecting pale winter sunlight give a city the new, lighter look. Snow hides dirty and ugly things and decorates streets and houses.

Sometimes, when it is humid enough, there is “иней” (ee-ney, a hoar frost) in the trees: they are tiny ice crystals that glitter in the sunlight.

Frozen oak tree
Photo by Tatiana Gerus

Icy pictures that suddenly appear in the windows are another natural winter decor. When the frost is relatively mild, about -5C/23F, snowflakes are large and fluffy. They look very beautiful at night, in the warm light of street lamps and neon signs. After a blizzard, when it gets really cold, a view of a bloody red frosty sun and even bluish snow cover catches your breath. Snow, like a sea, looks different in different weather, but it is always beautiful.

Photo by ezioman

Besides the aesthetics, there is a pragmatic reason to like snow. Poor road pavement in Russia is an everlasting problem everywhere, except perhaps Moscow. When the thick snow covers roads, they become more even, without pits. Driving in winter in Russia is easier than in summer; just do not press your brakes when a car slides.

People in Russia love winter also because it is a season of holidays. New Year is a time when magic comes to life. The common belief is that the way you spend a New Year Eve is the way you will live the upcoming year. For example, it's a bad omen to argue during the New Year's Eve – it means you will be arguing for the next 12 months. People enjoy the New Year's Eve as much as possible: they cook a lot of food, dress up nicely and try to attract good luck by doing “right” things. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chinese calendar became very popular in Russia, mostly among ladies, so many women check what colour of their party dress should be, what kind of food is “proper” and so on (I'm not sure if people in China believe all this stuff). There is also a belief that if you put some money in your pocket at midnight, you will have a sufficient amount of money during the year.

I wish you the Merry Christmas and the best of luck in 2012!

Новогодняя инсталляция
Photo by Евгений Антонов

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

If You Want To Speak A(ny) Language Don't Learn It

From time to time I feel great temptation to share my own learning and teaching experience with other people. The way we learn something is critically important to the final outcome.

How do we learn languages? Normally, we memorize some basic words and phrases, then we learn some grammar rules and try to compose phrases using wrong words and making predictable mistakes since the interference from the native language is so strong. Why is it that after years of studies many still fail speaking fluently? Do they fail because they are stupid and lazy? Definitely not. At the very beginning of our lives we learnt our native languages perfectly well, so we are capable of learning languages. Probably, the way we acquire a new language is not the most efficient. Most likely, it is quite inefficient. We didn't learn the native language as a sum of vocabulary and grammar rules. We never thought about the grammar at all, and yet we succeeded.

How do kids acquire their first language? They use it from the very first minute. They hear voices of people around and react to them. Meanwhile their brains collect statistics of the word usage, grammar structures and pronunciation (neurologists believe every healthy human brain has a capability to collect and analyze the language statistics by nature). Then kids try to express their emotions, needs and wants with sounds mimicking the speech of other people and adjusting their grammar and word usage according to our reaction to their speech. So the more a kid speaks the better he gets at it. We have to learn from our own childhood experience how to acquire a language; after all, it was successful once.

Photo by Nina

Of course, it is impossible to recreate the circumstances of our early pre-language childhood, but what we can do is to change our learning strategy. Stop learning and start using seems to be a more efficient way to acquire a new language, and this is not so hard to do.

First of all, it is useful to remember that there is a difference between using a language passively (listening and reading) and actively (speaking and writing). When learning a new language, one should develop both active and passive language skills. It is relatively easy to improve reading and listening in our age of the Internet. Passive skills are all about consuming language. For developing listening skill, you can watch movies, listen to online radio broadcasting and the music you like, memorize lyrics with no efforts (this is, actually, how I learnt English). It is not a big deal to find a good book to read (please note that this should be the book you really want to read) and/or to subscribe to blogs on topics that are interesting to you.

Active language skills means that you produce some text (oral or written) and address it to your audience. Finding an audience that is ready to help a non-native speaker with corrections is not so easy, but again, there is the Internet with its powerful resources like Lang-8 or iTalki. I would also suggest a website that is a social pronunciation dictionary. I use it each time when I hesitate how to pronounce this or that word.

So why not use the advantage of the Internet epoch? Why be so persistent in methods that rarely lead to success instead of trying a natural way of acquiring a language? If you want to learn dancing you go to the dancing studio, pick up a partner and dance, improving gradually. Buying a book “Waltz and Tango course” instead would be ridiculous, wouldn't it? Language is a practical skill too, just like dancing, however, nobody has found learning a language from books absurd. Let us be like children, forget that learning is hard work (it is!) and enjoy discovering a new language, tinkering with it, exactly like we tinkered with our first language many years ago.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Lowercase This

The first thing I learned about German language was that all nouns in German are written with a capital letter. This rule puzzled me a lot, but nobody could tell me why is that. Probably, old Germans respected objects more than actions and attributes for some reason. The difference in capitalization between English and Russian languages was not so obvious, so I noticed it relatively late, only when I started corresponding with native speakers via email a lot. Here are some examples when English requires a capital letter, but Russian doesn't.

1. I = я. I don't like any speculations about whether it is good or bad to put “I” in the first place and thus always capitalize this pronoun. That is not a question of linguistics, after all. I feel quite comfortable writing “I”, however, writing “я” with the capital letter in Russian would disturb me. I would feel like I'm trying to attract too much attention to myself.
Please note, that in Russian, when (officially) writing to a person who you don't know well enough, or who is (significantly) older than you, or who is at a higher position than you, write “you” from the capital letter – “Вы”.

2. Names of the months are written with a lower-case letter in Russian. “January”, but “январь”. I find it is more convenient to write months with a capital letter, but in Russian you have to use lower-case.

3. Names of days of the week are lowercase as well. "Sunday" is "воскресенье", even if it is a special Sunday.

4. In titles, only the first word is written with a capital letter. English/American Titles Look Too Dramatic To Russian Eye.

5. In names of organizations consisting of more than one word, only the first word is capitalized. For example: “Altai State University” in Russian is “Алтайский государственный университет”, “Ministry of Truth” is “Министерство правды”.

6. Nations and languages in Russian are also written in lowercase. “Russia” is “Россия”, but “Russian” is “русский”. “Europe” is “Европа”, but “European” is “европейский”. The logic is that a name is a name, it is unique, but the words derived from the name are not unique and they refer to many things. There is one and the only Russia, but a lot of things that are Russian, so Russian is not about a unique object. The same is true for possessive words: Sasha (Саша) is a name, it is unique, while Sasha's (сашин) refers to a bunch of objects, so it is lowercase.

At school, I was taught to write the word “motherland” with a capital letter (Родина). I don't know if the tradition to of capitalizing this word is still alive. Do you write “motherland” with a capital letter?

Capitalization Rules
Photo by Thomas R. Stegelmann

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Is The Bolshoi a Brand?

Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow
The Bolshoy Theatre Under Reconstruction, Photo By Andrew Griffith

The Bolshoi Theater reopened with a grand gala concert after a six years closure for renovation. Hundreds of millions of dollars was spent on the reconstruction, but who counts pennies when the talk is about the main landmarks of the Russian capital and a symbol of Russian culture? Journalists argue if there was an improvement in terms of acoustics, stage light and so on. I am not going to concern myself with
these topics, since I don't have a professional or informed opinion. What really caught my eye was the word “brand” referring to the Bolshoi.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said, 'the Bolshoi is one of our greatest national brands.' Some journalists considered the word that comes from marketing offensive for the Bolshoi, which is supposed to be the temple of culture. Others argued that the president is probably right and the Bolshoi is nowadays nothing but a brand, like Vodka, Matrioshka, Perestroika and other stereotypical things that are associated with Russia in the mass media.

A reader may wonder why the stylistically neutral word was such a big deal for journalists? Are they just criticizing the president?

Most likely, they are not. There are two reasons why even loyal Russians may dislike the word “brand” when speaking about the Bolshoi. The first reason is that the word “brand” came to the Russian language from English just recently and refers mostly to consumer goods. As examples, Nike is a brand, as well as Kleenex. Therefore, to the Russian ear, saying “Bolshoi is a brand” is like putting the theater in one row with popular footwear and toilet paper.

Another reason lies deeper. In Russian culture, merchants and traders were generally considered (and sometimes still are) as people who could not understand art. Being a merchant is somewhat seen as being absolutely opposite to the artists in the common mind in Russia. This is nothing but an unfair prejudice. Many successful merchants in Russia were among the greatest patrons of fine arts and supported artists generously. Anyway, making money is dirty work, while dancing and painting pictures is something spiritual, noble and lofty. The word “brand” obviously belongs to the world of money and profit and is an offense when referred to in the realms of art.

I'm not a native English speaker. I do not feel a deep background for each English word I know, so I can not be an unbiased judge here. What do you think, is Bolshoi a brand? Is it Ok to call a theater a “brand”?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Russian Dragon

If folkloric tales hold even a fraction of truth, then dragons lived everywhere on Earth. Chinese dragons are known world-wide. European knights were saving princesses from dragons for centuries during the early Medieval age. Aboriginal Americans had huge snake-like creatures that greatly resembled dragons. Even Russians had their own dragon called Zmey Gorynych (Змей Горыныч).

The first name "Zmey" means "a snake". There are two interpretations as to what the second name, Gorynych, means. From a formal point of view, the name is a patronym. Some linguists believe that Gorynysh is derived from "gora", which in Russian is "a mountain". Other linguists think that the name is derived from the verb 'to burn' (гореть). Both versions seem convincing, since Zmey Gorynych lived in mountains and caves and spat fire, burning everything in sight.

Zmey Gorynych is a male creature with three heads and wings. We don't know much about his wings, but somehow he flies. In some folklore stories (bylinas), when a hero cut one of Zmey's three heads off, another three immediately sprout in its place. Some dragons (probably Zmey Gorynych's distant relatives) had 5, 7, 9 or even 12 heads.

However, the main problem with Zmey Gorynych was not his fire-breathing ability. The dragon demanded for young virgins every year and committed mass destructions if his demand was not satisfied. Once, he kidnapped a niece of Kiev's king, which later proved to be a fatal mistake. A superhero ('bogatyr' in Russian, 'богатырь') named Dobrynya Nikitich promised the king to rescue his niece and, like any superhero, he was very persistent with his intentions. He killed Zmey Gorynych in a three-day, three-night uninterrupted battle and brought the girl safely back to Kiev.

There is a common belief that Zmey Gorynych was a personification of the steppe tribes that were terrifying Russia for centuries. What puzzles me is that in many bylinas, the steppe tribes are referred to as “pagan force”, so why would one tale use a mythical creature while another directly name the source of danger? Also, we should keep in mind that the idea of fighting a snake or a dragon is common for many European folklores, both Eastern and Western, could still be seen as a symbol, but of something more abstract, like evil itself.

A few weeks ago, I found a ceramic Gzel-style statuette of Zmey Gorynych on the Internet and couldn't resist buying it. The little dragon is now guarding my home from evil spirits.

Russian Dragon

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Russian Accent

Mr.John Well wrote an interesting observation of Russian pronunciation errors in English. This article is helpful to me, because I am eager to get rid of my Russian accent. However, this post could help English speakers who are learning Russian to figure out what proper Russian pronunciation is, because all Russian pronunciation mistakes in English are nothing but the interference of Russian. Here are my comments:
  • “Occasional slipups in the contrast between iː and ɪ”. In Russian, there are long and short vowels. Since the XIV century or so, Russians have stopped distinguishing short and long vowels, so the habit of pronouncing all vowels equally long is hard to quit, since it counts centuries of language practice.
  • “No distinction between the DRESS and TRAP vowels”. True. I can hear the difference only if I try to hear it. In Russian, both sounds are alike. Actually, Russian simply doesn't have sounds that could fit them completely.
  • “No distinction between the LOT and THOUGHT vowels”. In Russian, there's no sound ʊɔ. This sound is easy to pronounce, but I forget which word has which [ɔ]-like sound. Since my brain is sure that there's no difference between the two, it memorizes words as if they have [ɔː]. By the way, the American accent is easy to recognize by this ʊɔ-sound. When Russians are mocking Americans, they start pronouncing words with ʊɔ, like Vʊɔdka
  • “The GOAT vowel was pronounced by one of our guides (female, perhaps in her late 50s) as ɛu”. Again, in Russian, we do not have diphthongs like these, our vowel sounds are always one pure sound. My teachers taught me to pronounce this sound exactly like this.
  • “Excessive prevocalic vowel reduction, à la russe, e.g. kəmpaˈzɪʃn̩ composition instead of ˌkɒmpəˈzɪʃn̩.”. In fact, this is how non-native speakers should treat any prevocalic vowels in Russian. The rule of vowel reduction is the basic one.
  • “Voicing assimilation, also à la russe, e.g. ˈbɫɛɡ ˈbɔːks black box.” Another very important pronunciation rule: in Russian, always voice the final consonant if the next one is voiced. Unfortunately, I follow this rule automatically when speaking English.
  • “Failure to use compound stress in open compounds, e.g. parking lot with the main stress on lot.” This mistake reveal a deep conceptual difference between Russian and English. For English speaking people, it is OK to say “parking” instead of a parking lot, “contacts” instead of contact lenses and “rentals” instead of rental apartments. In Russian, the first words are adjectives. Sometimes we do use adjectives as nouns (i.e. столовая – dining – is initially an adjective), but not as often as in English. From the Russian point of view, “lot” is more important than parking, this is why lot is stressed.
  • “Failure to deaccent function words, e.g. There is not enough space for all of us instead of There’s not enough space for all of us.” It's an interference of the Russian intonation. In Russian, we would stress “us”. When speaking foreign language, you load your mental CPU with finding the right words instead of pronunciation, so the intonation that is natural comes first.
  • “ in our country repeatedly rather than in Russia” — Yes, we do love words “we”, “us”, “our”. This is how we feel, this is how we used to think about our life in this country. “We” is much bigger than I here.
  • “today in the afternoon”. In Russian, we first state the date (today) and then the time (afternoon).

I enjoyed these accurate and profound observations greatly. I highly recommend it to Russians who learn English and to all the people who learn Russian.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Russian Not-Questions

Have you noticed that grammatically correct phrases are sometimes not quite natural for native speakers? I'm sure you have. Vice versa, real communication can sometimes generate grammatical nonsense, but this nonsense is more adequate to the situation that any other grammatically irreproachable phrase. Here is my favorite example from the real Russian communicative practice.

In Russian, we often ask questions with negative particles; however, the meaning of such questions is positive. These questions are actually not of the “don't you?” kind. They are something different. When your Russian friend asks you “Ты не видел мою книгу?”, you should not be confused with the mention of “не”(don't) here. In English, this question is just “Did you see my book (anywhere here)?” Another example: “У тебя есть эта книга?” and “У тебя нет этой книги?” are absolutely equal questions (Do you have the book?) despite the obvious grammatical fact that the first is positive and the latter is negative. “Не” here is closer translation of “by any chance” than to “not”.

So why “не” (not)? Here, the negative particle does not negate anything. Russians use it to make their questions a bit more polite; so as to be not so pushy. It's like saying “I'm sorry for disturbing you with my question” or “I'm asking you about this just because I suppose you could be helpful, but you are not obliged to help me, so please feel free to say no”, but way shorter. The negative particle in the questions like these leaves you room to refuse or deny something in a non-offensive way.

How to form not-questions? Just add “не” before the verb, or use “нет” instead of “есть” when asking about having or not having something.

When to use “не”? Well, it is not necessary. You may ask questions in direct way. But if you want to improve your speaking skills to the level of a native speaker, you may add “не” any time you feel unsure if your interlocutor can answer your question or when you want to show that you wouldn't mind a refusal in the response. Please note an intonation here. The pitch increases on verbs; same intonation as any other simple questions.

Question mark sign
Photo by Colin Kinner

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Imperfective Verbs of Motion

walking man too
Photo by Billy Liar

I want to be frank with you, Russian verbal aspects are very hard to master for non-native speakers. Even students whose Russian is fluent, confuse imperfective and perfective verbs. Normally, Russian grammar books explain the difference between the two aspects as continuous connotation vs completed action. This is a correct, but not a complete explanation.

Let's take a look at the English grammar. English verbs have continuous, indefinite, and perfect groups of tenses, which means that any action could be considered as something actually happening at this very moment, something that happens (normally and regularly) or something that has already happened and we all see the results. The very same range of meanings could be expressed in Russian, but via different means. The Russian perfective aspect is close to the English perfect tenses. Perfective verbs always describe something that has happened. The action has been completed, it has resulted in something. Perfective verbs contain latently or implicitly the idea of a limit — the end or the beginning of the action, its finish or its start.

Example: Она начала есть — She started eating. Начала (started) is perfective here, because the action of “starting” had being completed, there is a limit for this action.

In contrast, Imperfective verbs describe the actions that have no limits. Imperfective verbs describe either the action that is happening or the action that happens regularly. So the Imperfective aspect unites continuous tenses and indefinite tenses, and quite often the same verb could be used for expressing both continuous and regular action. However, sometimes, the Russian language has two different imperfective verbs — one for continuous and another for indefinite. This is true mostly for verbs of motion. For example, there are two verbs идти and ходить, which mean “to go”, but the first is for continuous action and the latter is for indefinite. The difference between ехать and ездить (to go by a vehicle) is the same.

Examples: Я иду на работу (I'm going to my office, I'm on my way to the office). Я хожу на работу каждый день (I go to work every day).
Я еду на автобусе. (I'm riding the bus). Я езжу на автобусе каждый день (I ride the bus every day).

Another difference between the verbs in these pairs is that the first verbs (иду, еду) have the only one direction — they are about moving toward something. But, хожу and eзжу are multi-directional, they mean that you visit some place and then return or go to some other place. If you think about it a bit longer, you'll see that English verbs of motions when put into the present/past continuous tense also describe the action of movement in one direction, otherwise, it would be something other than a continuous tense.

This article was intended as some encouragement for those who are learning Russian. As you may conclude from the post, there are no hard or easy languages. Most languages operate with identical meanings and ideas. It's only the means or methods by which these meanings are expressed that are different.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


Let's face it: Russia is not the right country for white collars. And white jeans. And white t-shirts. And any white clothes at all. Because Russia is freaking dusty. If you don't mind washing your white clothes every day, then OK, put your white jeans on and go for a walk, but don't complain that I haven't warned you. When you come back home you'll see stripes of dirt in your favourite Levi's. I don't mean that Russians are dirty or that you don't have to wear white stuff when visiting Russia. Dust is a real problem here, and this is a by-product of the infrastructure — bad roads, lagging technology and, quite often, poor city management.

In Summer, if it is dry and hot, dust is everywhere — on roads and grass, on cars and buses, on benches and shop windows. When it rains, dust becomes mud. Why it is so dusty here? In Russia, it is partly there is a large gap between road and grass, and the soil becomes dust easily. I don't know why, but Russian cities lack good lawns. Even cultivated lawns have a lot of bare soil. The biggest surprise to me was to see thick grass or wheat fields right near roads in Europe, with no centimeter of deserted land. The next shocking experience was to see snow-white trucks with oily-black tires. In Russia, the normal color of trucks is … yes, dusty-grey.

In 2000-2008, Russia was experiencing a construction boom. Unfortunately, construction technologies in this country leave a lot to be desired, so construction sites are another major source of dust. In Toronto, Canada, I saw pouring trucks cleaning roads while workers were maintaining the pavement. One guy was demolishing the old pavement, and the special truck poured water in order to keep the area clean. I hope, one day this technology will be adapted in Russia too.

What amuses Russian tourists in Europe and North America is that people there often sit right on the ground. Even in white jeans. “It is so clean there, that people sit right on the ground, can you imagine that?” is one of the most common phrases Russian tourists say to their friends when coming back home. Please never try to sit on grass in Russia. First, people may think, you are a homeless and antisocial person. Second, you'll hopelessly dirty your pants. This is kind of an acquired instinct here to not sit on the ground. I live in a very clean town. We have large flowerbeds here, no garbage in bushes, and very rarely there are dog feces on the ground, but still my shoes get covered with dust after every walk.

Once my Russian habit of taking my shoes off when entering somebody's home surprised my European hosts. “Are you from Japan?” they asked me, smiling widely. Oh, this habit has nothing to do with etiquette or spiritual traditions. Russians put shoes off because we believe deeply in our hearts that home is clean and the outside is dirty. When I was to very clean, nearly sterile Germany, I still put my shoes off every time I entered my guest apartment, though I knew well that the outside there was as clean as the inside.

And yet, I love wearing white clothes in Summer. It is stylish, it reflects sun rays and keeps the skin cool. I just know that I need to wash it every time I wear it, which is not a big problem.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Life Stories

The golden age of the Russian literature is over, but it doesn't mean that nothing was written in Russian since Tolstoevsky. There are many new talented writers in the modern Russia, who are pondering over the past, the present and the future of the country. Literature in Russia is been used to do the job of philosophy and sociology.

A good way to get to know the modern Russian literature and familiarize yourself with writers' names is to find a book, where most of them are united under one cover. And this book already exists! This book is Life Stories: Original Works by Russian Writers

In Russian (I've bought the book in Russian), it is titled This book united writers, if it hadn't they would never have been published under one cover". There is a good reason for such a long and clumsy title. The book has a special purpose: 100% of the profits from the sale of this book will go to benefit Russian hospice, it is a not-for-profit organization that helps fellow human beings who are nearing the end of their own life stories. This was the key idea that has united very different writers like Eduard Limonov, Victor Erofeev, Boris Grebenshchikov, and Evgeniy Grishkovets. The nineteen stories has no common topics other than life. The publisher said, “They are life-affirming stories of love, family, hope, rebirth, mystery and imagination. Masterfully translated by some of the best Russian-English translators working today, these tales reassert the power of Russian literature to affect readers of all cultures in profound and lasting ways.”

Among 19 writers who published their short stories here, are prominent names, almost classics, i.e. Vladimir Voinovich and Boris Akunin, Vlasimir Sorokin and Victor Pelevin, however, some of the writers were absolutely new to me. So far, my most pleasant discovery is Marina Moskvina. Her style is adourable, and I'm very likely to buy more of her books. I love Boris Grebenshchikov as a musician, but he turned out to be a great writer too, he has specific dead serious and absurd humor.

Since the book is kind of a patchwork, some stories are better than others. Some writers went to the “favorites” shelf, and others were labeled with the “never more” tag. Here is what a reader said in the review at, “ There is much sadness in this collection, but there is humor and joy too, and all presented in the rich Russian tradition. It's a great way to discover Russian writers of today. A gem, not to be missed!” I use this book as a guide to the modern literature and it is definitely worth its price.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Russian Phone Numbers

Old Bakelit phone
Photo by Louise Docker

Each country has its own tradition of writing phone numbers. Some countries prefer dots and some use dashes, in Europe, people add a double zero before the country code, while Americans tend not to add a country code at all. Sometimes, it is really hard to understand how to deal with a row of numbers which seems to be a phone number.

In Russia, we use the plus sign before the country code, so the companies who work globally (and have good manners) write their phone numbers starting with +7, where seven is the code of Russia. A city code follows the country code, usually in parentheses. The code of Moscow is 495 and sometimes 499, the code for Saint Petersburg is 812. City codes can be longer, if a city is smaller. For example, a code for Novosibirsk, whose population is above 1 million, is 383, while Barnaul with its population over 600 thousand has the code 3852. The place where I live now has the code 38595, that means that it is a relatively small town in the Altay territory (all Altay cities have codes started with 385-)

Normally, Russians split the phone number into three groups with dashes like this: ххх-хх-хх or, if the city is not big enough to have 7 digit numbers, its numbers look like this: xx-xx-xx. Together with the country code and city code, it would look like +7 (495) xxx-xx-xx or +7(3852) xx-xx-xx. For advertising purpose, some companies buy “easy” numbers, so these numbers may be regrouped. For example, a taxi service number consisting of triple 7 and triple 9 would be written in this way: 777-999.

Companies and people who have no international relations may write their phone number starting with 8. Why 8? For a long time, there was the only one long distance carrier in Russia — Rostelecom. If you wanted to place a call to another city, you would first press 8 in order to connect a long-distance carrier. Today, there are a few companies in Russia that offer long-distance calls, but 8 is still the first number you should press for a long-distance call. If you are in Russia and want to place an international call via a fix line, you should first press 8 and then 10 and then a code of a country of destination. If you use a mobile phone, you may just start typing + and a country code. Read more about placing long-distance and international calls from Russia here. Please note that long-distance calls as well as international calls are quite expensive in Russia, so Skype is a better choice in most cases. I use Skype and other VoIP solutions very often, and I'm satisfied with the connection quality.

You should also press 8 first (or +7, if you call from another country) if you want to call to a mobile phone number. Mobile numbers normally starts with 9. Usually mobile numbers look like: 8 (9хх) ххх-хх-хх or +7 (9хх) ххх-хх-хх. When the mobile network had just hit the Russian market, people could easily tell what carrier the number owner subscribed to. The first three numbers were a “carrier code”. So, numbers started with 903 or 905 were for Beeline numbers, 912 or 913 were for MTS. It was quite convenient, because calls within one network were significantly cheaper than calls to another carrier. Today, there are many new prefixes, like 928 and 916, so I do not always know what numbers are for what carrier. Luckily, I don't have to care about it any more, since mobile connection is relatively cheap in Russia, even between two different carriers, as long as I place a call within my domestic area.

Monday, June 20, 2011

What Is Language Like?

When I was graduating from school, I dreamed of learning a language and becoming a linguist. I thought about language as if it were an engine or machine and wanted to understand how it worked. It was my helping metaphor for approaching language.

Indeed, during the first two or three years at university, I was studying the structure of the Russian language (phonetic, morphologic, lexical level and so on), what interconnections language levels have and what are the rules of language system. The systemic-structural approach in linguistics depicts language quite mechanically. The more I thought about it, the more dissatisfied I became with the mechanical metaphor. If a language were a closed system with a structure determined once and forever, it wouldn't change through the  times. Its rules wouldn't have innumerable exceptions. The logic “If – then” doesn't work in language, because in most cases, language offers a dozen options for each “if”.

After learning cognitive linguistics and psycholinguistics, I started thinking about language as about a living creature. Indeed, language is more like an organism, and its structure is more like a body than like a machine. Language's DNAs are morphs, which form cells-words, which forms organs – morphological entities (nouns, verbs, adjectives etc), which forms working systems (syntax, a level of sentences or maybe texts). Language is living, it replaces dead cells with new ones, it changes when conditions change, it has its evolution and it never stops changing until there exists a society that speaks this language. Like any living organism, language is an open system. It has different reactions to different inputs. It is balancing between sustainability and mutations. If it were too sustainable, it could never adapt to ever-changing reality, if it mutated too quickly, it would have a sort of cancer and die too, because people wouldn't understand each other.

Why it is important to understand that language is an open system, a living system? Well, first, it may help you to accept the fact that in language, most rules have exceptions. Second, it may help you to gain a deeper view on the language you are studying, since you'll stop learning it mechanically and start asking “why?” Why doesn't this verb go with this noun? Perhaps they are from different “systems”? How does this word work? What are the reasons for changing word order here and there? These are very helpful questions. Last but not least, you'll see that practice (= life of language) is more important than rules, and start talking, writing, and communicating more, which is, in fact, the only way to learn language.

Old romanian woman in Cisnadie
Photo by Husky

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why Word By Word Translation Sucks

My English teacher always suggested that students read the whole paragraph first and only then open a dictionary and look up unfamiliar words. This was very wise advice, because it helped me to quit a bad habit of word by word translating. I don't like the question “what does this word mean?”. I prefer “What does this phrase mean”, because a phrase has a solid, concrete meaning, while a word may have dozens of meanings.

Strange as it may seem, but the majority of words have multiple meanings. This means that almost every word with the exception of specific professional terms, has more than one meaning. These meanings form a kind of a field (the so called semantic field) with some integrative feature in its core. If you see a word as a field of meanings, you will notice that these fields are different in different languages. Here is my favorite example. In late 1990s, a nice Russian lady visited her friends in the United States. She knew English quite well and could read Shakespeare, but, like many other people who studied English behind the Iron Curtain, she didn't know basic everyday words. One day during her visit to America, she felt bad and went to a drugstore. She asked a pharmacist: “Do you have anal candles?” You can imagine the pharmacist's feelings. After the emotional conversation, which I'd rather skip here, the pharmacist figured out that she meant just suppositories. In Russian, a candle and a suppository is one word “свеча”. What made possible to unite these two very different in terms of functionality words into one word is the shape. Something long and thing, like a pencil staying on its tip, may be called “a candle” in Russian. For example, when I see a skyscraper, I may say “What a candle!” (Ну и свечка!). So if you try to translate “анальные свечи”word by word, you'll get exactly what the lady asked for in a drug store — anal candles.

The English word “pretty” confuses many Russians, because in our school classes, we've learned the only meaning “beautiful” for it. You know, “Pretty woman”, Roy Orbison, Julia Roberts and so on. The phrase “She is pretty ugly” blew my mind when I had read it for the first time.

Being combined in a sentence and being placed into the context, each word realizes only one of its possible meaning, and we can figure out by the context which of the meaning was realized. Like chemical elements, words have different valence, and in different languages nearly same words may have different valence, i.e. different sets of words to be combined with. For example, a word “глубокий” (deep, late) can be applied to winter and fall, but never to spring and summer. For the latter pair you'd rather use “поздний” (late).

Beside the meaning, each word has its specific area of usage. In Russian, there are two words for brown — one is a general word “коричневый”, which may be applied for everything of a brown color, and another is “карий” which is used only to name a color of eyes.

So, the smart way to translate a text is working with larger units like phrases and paragraphs and base your translation on the context. Maybe, you feel a great temptation to say “thank you, cap”, in response to my article, maybe, I'm telling obvious things, but believe me, I've seen too many funny translations which are the result of the wrong approach. By the way, the title of this article translated word by word would be the best example why word by word translation sucks.

Photo by Dave Edens

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Hard And Soft

Scientists discovered that during the first few months of our lives, we hear all the sounds of human speech as they are, while our brain collects some kind of statistic information. When we are 8 to 10 months old, we begin sorting important sounds and nuances out from unimportant ones, so your brain starts filtering out nuances of pronunciation that are considered to be unimportant in your native language. If there are no nasal sounds in your language, you most likely won't hear the difference between nasal and non-nasal sounds in a language where such sounds are typical and important. We have to train our ears to hear the nuances that our brain used to filter out and need a lot of practice in pronouncing unusual sounds correctly. For example, it took me about three weeks of intensive training to start pronouncing French nasal sounds in a more or less French fashion.

Russian hard and soft consonants are what many non-native speakers are struggling with because many other languages do not have hard or soft sounds. The idea of hardness ans softness of consonants looks weird to people who have never dealt with the phonetic system like in Russian.

Almost every Russian consonant letter is for two sounds, or, better to say, for the hard and soft variants of a sound. In transcription [which is normally written in the square brackets], the softness is marked with a [ ' ] sign. In English, all consonants are somewhat in between hard and soft, so it doesn't really matter whether you pronounce a sound a bit harder or a bit softer. In Russian, pronouncing a sound clearly hard or clearly softly is critically important, because often the softness or hardness of the consonant is the only difference between two words. For example, “мать” [ma:t'] means mother and мять [m'a:t'] means to wrinkle; брат [bra:t] means brother and брать [bra:t'] means to take.

In order to determine whether a consonant is hard or soft, look at the letter that follows the consonant. Vowels А, О, У, Ы, and Э follow hard consonants, while vowels Я, Ё, Ю, И, Е and the soft sign Ь follow soft consonants, they “palatalize” the consonant before.

Some consonants are always hard, so it doesn't matter what vowel comes next. They are: Ж, Ш and Ц. On the other hand, sounds Ч and Щ are always soft.

So how should to pronounce hard and soft consonants? Have you ever watched any Hollywood's movies where actors mimic the Russian accent? Then you know how to pronounce Russian hard consonants. Just try to mock the Russian accent, when pronouncing hard sounds, and that's it.

Soft sounds are a little bit softer than normal English consonants. Here are some examples:
— Russian soft П sounds like English P in “pure”
— Russian soft В is like V in “view”
— Russian soft Д is like D in “due”
— Russian soft М is like M in “mute”
— Russian soft Л is like L in “Lewis”

I think, you've got the idea.

Psycholinguistic studies show that Russian speakers associate soft sounds with cute, nice, small things. Maybe this is why many Russian affectionate words and
names contain soft sounds.

Here is my presentation on Russian consonants:

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Man Who Created the Russian Language As We Know It

Outside Russia, Russian literature is associated with names of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. No doubt, these writers deserve to represent Russia in the global culture. But if you ask any Russian whom he or she thinks about when talking about classic Russian literature, you'll most probably get the answer “Pushkin”. During last two centuries, Alexander Pushkin has remained extremely popular and beloved by Russian readers. Even now, with youngsters reading less and less, Pushkin's tales and poems are known literally by everyone.

A Russian reader lives with Pushkin's poems and prose all his or her life. In early childhood, our parents read us Pushkin's tales. I don't know anybody who hasn't heard about The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish. At the age of 13 or 14, we read “Eugene Onegin”, noticing mostly the love story and skipping the brilliant description of the Russian high-society life. When we grow older and become smarter, we re-read Pushkin's historical novels, and every time we read them, we wonder how could he knew so much about the Russian mentality at the epoch, when the word “mentality” was unknown, and how could he articulate it so accurately. Quotes from Pushkin's poems run through our everyday life. It seems that during his short life (he died at 37) he had thought about and felt everything that a man could.

Due to Pushkin, Russia had a literary boom in the 19th century. Before Pushkin, the written Russian language differed much from the spoken one. The written language was considered to be more “privileged”, so it was very conservative with tons of outdated words and ridiculous syntax. On the contrary, the spoken language was more flexible and lively, but it was considered as the “low” language. In fact, reading Russian writers of the pre-Pushkin epoch is torture. The word “ponderous” fits to that literature best. Pushkin made a linguistic revolution in Russia. His poems were like natural speech. When you read it aloud, they sound like you just talk in rhymes. It was a real cultural rebel, and many of Pushkin's contemporaries hated him for that. However, we don't remember the names of those who refused Pushkin's inventions, their fiction was swept away. Nobody after Pushkin returned to the old school writing, and the boom of the Russian literature was possible only because Pushkin prepared the language to be used for creative writing.

It happened so, that Pushkin was surrounded by brilliant writers. They were, probably, the most unlucky writers in the world and the happiest ones. They were talented, but Pushkin was a genius, so their poems and novels are undeservedly forgotten. They knew that the star of Pushkin would eclipse their names. And they appreciated it, and helped Pushkin to re-arrange Russian language. They supported his experiments with the language, so it was their contribution to our culture.

To those who are studying Russian literature and Russian culture, I would suggest to read at least the key Pushkin writings. They are the following:
Happy reading to everyone and happy 212th birthday to Alxexander Pushkin!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Why Russians Are Not Smiling

A German friend once asked me,"Why are Russian people so gloomy? Nobody smiles here”. I looked around and noticed that indeed, almost nobody in the Moscow subway was smiling. I said, "Why should they?” My friend raised his eyebrow in astonishment and changed the subject.

I remembered our conversation and started searching for the answer to why Russians are seldom found smiling. A few months later I found a very solid and thorough explanation in the article A Smile in Russian Communicative Behavior by Dr. Iosif A. Sternin. Dr. Sternin explained that in Europe or North America, smiling is a sign of politeness. When you see people smiling at you in the USA or Germany, it doesn't mean anything other than an overall neutral attitude toward you. A smile is a “level zero” in communication. By contrast, in Russia, no smile is a sign of a neutral politeness, and a smile is always informative. A Russian smile is always personal. When a Russian smiles to you, he or she wants to say that he or she likes you sincerely. When Russians visit Europe or North America for the first time, they enjoy looking at smiling faces, because they (we, Russians) take it personally. We really believe that everybody abroad is very kind. After a few days, Russian tourists learn that a smile here actually means nothing and start blaming locals for insincere smiles. “They smile at you all the time. You think they love you, but in fact, they love your money”, my friend complained to me bitterly. I tried to explain to her, “You don't have to take it personally, they just want to be polite with you”. Her reply was, “I'd rather them be sincere,”. Every time I cross the Russian border, I remind myself to smile in order not to have that gloomy Russian look.

In Russia, it is not common to smile at strangers. When you smile at a stranger in Russia, you may get the question “Have we met?” in return, because Russians normally smile only to people they know. Also, this is not common to smile when dealing with more serious issues. You wouldn't see many smiling faces in business meetings, because business is serious, and by smiling, you show that you either don't take it seriously or you distrust your partners' words. Russian shop assistants are trained to smile, because smiling while serving people is unnatural for Russians. “I'm taking you seriously, you are important to me, so I don't smile” is the natural Russian approach to a smile.

Russians don't use a smile to cheer up anybody. When visiting somebody, who is experiencing hard times or deep sorrow from a loss, Russians don't smile. A smile would be considered offensive. If you smile, you show that you don't respect the person, you don't care about his or her feelings, and that you find the situation funny.

Quite often, Russians smile not “at”, but "about" something. For example, if I walk down the street and notice that people start smiling when looking at me, I'd think that there is something wrong with my appearance, then stop and check whether everything is fine with my clothes.

Russians need a particular reason to smile. You've heard good news and you smile to show that you consider this news as good. You feel really great and you wear a big smile, so everybody understands you have something really good happening in your life. You have to have a special reason for laughter too. There is a popular Russian saying, “A laughter without a reason is a sign of stupidity” meaning that you might be very stupid or crazy if you laugh at nothing.

Photo by benjaminasmith

Saturday, May 21, 2011

What Colors Are There In Your Rainbow?

Some languages have names for more colours than others. In my English classes at school, I learned that the word “red” means both orange and red and blue means both dark blue and light blue, however, in Russian, there are two words, “синий” for dark blue, and “голубой” for light blue.

Scientists say that how languages deal with the names of colors doesn’t correlate with people's ability to distinguish colours. Most likely, language have words only for these colours that matter, that are practically important.

At the university, I learned that the old Russian language had a few different names for the colour that we call grey today. In the old times, people not only named colours but also marked the texture. Grey when referred to hair differed from grey when referred to a fur or to a wood. Later, grey became a general word for a colour, and now another word is needed to describe a texture. The only exception are colour names for animals' coat and for hair. So a person with red hair is “ryzhiy” (рыжий), but, say, an umbrella is orange (oranzheviy, оранжевый).

In Russian, there are seven basic colours: in the rainbow
red — красный [krahsnyi]
orange — оранжевый [arahnzhevyi]
yellow — жёлтый [zhohltyi]
green — зелёный [zelyonyi]
light blue — голубой [galuboi]
blue — синий [siniy]
violet — фиолетовый [fialehtovyi]

In English, there are seven colours in the rainbow too, however, they are slightly different. As you may see, the Russian rainbow has no indigo color.

Through the rainbow

Sometimes, a colour is more than just a colour. For example, since 1917, red has been a symbol of communism.

Like in English, “yellow” press in Russian means a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news. I have heard an expression, “this news paper is so yellow that it is more like orange”, that meant that the news paper was well-known for treating news in an unprofessional and unethical fashion. Orange follows yellow in the spectrum, so when the press becomes extremely yellow, it moves toward the next colour.

Light blue, when referred to a man, means gay. By the funny coincidence, police' licence plates in Russia are of light blue, that was the reason for endless jokes.

The word “green”, besides its newest meaning “environmental-friendly”, has some negative connotations. Thus, melancholy щк depression is of a green colour in Russian (тоска зелёная). There is also an expression “to get green with envy” (позеленеть от зависти).

Monday, May 9, 2011

From Russia with Cash

So two out of the three richest people in UK are actually from Russia. Does it mean that all Russians are fabulously rich? Of course not. Then who are they, those Russians, who bought exclusive real estate in the heart of London, football clubs and yachts that cost more than the budget of a small European country?

Once my colleague from London, let's call her Mary, told me a story about how her niece was scared by a crazy man in a cafe. Mary and her niece were buying their coffee and cakes when they saw a man entering the cafe – unshaven, wearing a sport suit, surrounded by armed securities. The girl was about to start screaming, but Mary recognized that the strange-looking guy was the man who is currently in the third position on the top richest list. Yes, it was an owner of Chelsea. This was back in 2006, when not many people in Russia were aware of the scale of the Russian "elite" emigration toward Britain. However, I wasn't surprised by the fact that Russian oligarchs were flooding the capital of the United Kingdom. hat amused me was that ordinary Brits found Russia's financial elite so strange and scary.

Indeed, the oligarchic emigration from Russia of 1990-2008 was so significant that journalist and author Mark Hollingsworth wrote a book with the telling title, "Londongrad." The book starts like a tough detective story — the nervous atmosphere of the over-secured office, untraceable phone calls and exploding helicopters. The only difference between pulp fiction and this book is that "Londongrad" depicts real life. All things that you can learn from "Londongrad" are true and neatly documented. Being a good journalist, Mark Hollingsworth supported his story with quotes and sources, so a reader can easily check everything that is stated in the book.

The author investigates who are those Russians who now own the most prestigious buildings in the United Kingdom and many other European countries, depicts vividly the tastes of Russian oligarchs, their endless Bentleys, castles, parties and shopping tours to Christie's. He tries to describe their personalities and figures out what drives their anxiety for luxury, opulence and splendour. But this book is absolutely not about the glamorous life of the super-riches. This is about politics, ethics and the source of wealth. This is about Russia in its after-empire-collapse stage and the world that is changing dramatically. The author talks about the impact that the Russian expansion has on British and global economy, politics, safety and culture. He doesn't judge, but asks questions and provokes thoughts.

Though many facts and names in this book were familiar to me, it provided great cultural insight and let me look at Russians through British eyes. I found many new documents there that proved connections between people and facts, and it was eye-opening reading. I started seeing many things in Russia differently. Actually, I have more questions now than when I started reading, but this is how every good book should work.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Two Words Missing in Russian

Experienced translators say, the most mistakes made in translation are caused not by insufficient knowledge of language, but by insufficient knowledge of culture. Why is it so? If we imagined culture as an onion, its core would be values shared consciously and unconsciously by a society, and the verbal language would be somewhere in the outer circle. One of the most important functions of a language is to reveal the cultural content, to explicate meanings with words. So translating is transferring the whole cultural background, including implicit values, to another culture. Sometimes it is as hard and hopeless as convincing tropical birds to survive in tundra.

When a culture has a concept, it inevitably has a word for it. The best situation for a translator and a language student is when the target culture has nearly the same values and concepts, so the target language has corresponding words for them. Unfortunately, situations like these are exceptionally rare when cultures are as distant as, say, English (both, British and American) and Russian. There are two English words that permanently give me a headache. They are tolerance and privacy. Both words are hard to translate accurately, because both concepts are somewhat strange to the Russian culture at this historical moment.

The verb "to tolerate" is often translated into Russian like “терпеть” [tirpeht'], which actually means to endure, to suffer, to bear in Russian. So when an English-speaking host says “I can not tolerate smoking in my house”, his Russian guest understands it in the following way: the host is suffering from some awful disease, probably allergy or asthma, so smoke is somewhat lethal for him. Well, the misconception is tolerable here, since it resulted in non-smoking behaviour. It turns worse when we are talking about tolerance to something more abstract, like religion, sexuality, cultural differences. Here is an example from a guide for immigrants: “Canadians are tolerant to gays”. Does it mean that Canadians, being actually morally suffered from the fact of, say, alternative sexuality of some other people, learned to bear this fact? It hurts them, but they try to bear it? Why not simply ignore who sleeps with whom and stop making buzz about it? Wouldn't it be more polite just to treat people equally and not to tell them “hey, I know that you are different, but I can tolerate it”? Probably, these questions are the result of lacking the concept of tolerance in the Russian culture.

The direct translation of “tolerance” is Russian is “терпимость”, and this word was widely used as an euphemism for bordello in the past. “A house of tolerance” means brothel in Russian. I suppose, this is one of the reasons why today, people in Russia use the calked word “толерантность” [tolerantnost'] instead of its Russian analogue.

The word “privacy” is even worse. The phrase “May I have some privacy?” is normally translated into Russian like “Could you leave me alone” (Я могу побыть один/одна), which is not exactly the same. In the juristic vocabulary, privacy can be translated as “private life” (частная жизнь), but in everyday conversation, it is rarely used. The phrase “I care about my privacy” most probably would be translated as “I worry about my security/safety”. In early Perestroika times, Russian market was flooded with psychological books translated from English, and from those books Russians learned about private area, personal distance and all such things.

Do Russians care about privacy? Of course, like every human being, we need sometimes to stay alone with our thoughts, but in the hierarchy of values it stays below socializing. Russian values are all about collaboration and cooperation, living in a society, sharing aims and goals of your community and fitting your personality into the community. There is a saying in Russian, “Even death is beautiful when it is public/ when the public benefits from it” (На миру и смерть красна), which sounds strange to me, but still it reflects the values that are very old and that are in the very deep core of the culture.

Photo by Alan Cleaver

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Russian Diminutive Names

Like in many other languages, Russian names have two forms — a full name for official communication and a diminutive or affectionate name for family and close friends. Usually, it is easy to form a diminutive form out of the full name. Thus, when you get into a person's intimate circle, Elena turns to Lena, Natalia to Natasha, Maria to Masha, Tatyana to Tanya, Dmitriy to Dima, Pyotr (Peter) to Petya, Vasiliy to Vasya, and so on. However, some names have more than one diminutive form.

I think, I won't be too wrong if I say that the absolute champion is Georgiy (George). There are a few variants for the full form for Georgiy, like Igor, Yuriy and Egor, and a number of diminutives — Gosha, Zhora, Garik, Goga, Yura... I'm afraid, I can not even recall all possible variants of this name.

Alexander (Александр) may also choose a short name from Sasha or Shura (Шура) or Sanya (quite informal) or Alex (if he wants to sound cool).

Though the short name for Maria is Masha, it can also be Marusya or Manya. Today, Marusya and Manya sound a bit outdated, but they are still in use, particularly within a family, say, parents can call their daughter Marusya. Lyudmila can be Lyuda, Lyucia or Mila.

Slavonic names ending in -slav make a great mess. When you meet a guy named Slava, you never know if he is Vyacheslav, Yaroslav, Vladislav or any other -slav. The ending -slav means “glory” and the first part of these names indicates the subject of the glory — Vyacheslav means a great glory, Yaroslav means a glory to the Sun (to a Slavonic pagan god Yarilo, personifying the Sun) and so on.

Sometimes, diminutives have little or nothing in common with their full forms:

Aleksey — Lyosha, Lyokha
Anastasiya — Nastya
Andrey — Dyusha
Evgeniy, Evgeniya — Zhenya
Nikolay — Kolya
Pavel — Pasha
Vladimir — Vova

When to use short/diminutive names? This is very similar to Вы/ты (you formal and you informal) problem. Maybe it's OK to call a boss of Microsoft Bill, but it is definitely not OK in Russia to call a boss or just an unfamiliar person by a short name. Using the short name means voluntary equality. Often a person may offer to let you call him or her by a short name. This is a sign that your social distance is shortening. If you feel that you have developed friendship with somebody, you may ask if this person wouldn't mind being called by a short name. Some of my English-speaking and German-speaking colleagues have become my very good friends, but they call me Eugenia, and every time I feel like they are keeping their distance instead of getting closer. Well, maybe I just should tell them that they may call me Zhenya.

A Russian online shop sells badges with popular names

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Caution: Animals

Once I received a group email from my American colleague. She invited me and many other people from all around the world to a conference call. In the end of the letter she wrote, “Be like an elephant!”. This phrase puzzled me a lot. What did she mean? Did she mean that we had to be big, grey and clumsy? In Russia, elephants are rare guests, so Russian people know only a few things about elephants. We have a saying “Like an elephant in a China shop” (Как слон в посудной лавке). Later, my American friends explained to me that elephants are believed to have a very good memory. Well, maybe there's nothing special about the elephant's memory, but the saying means only “Please, don't forget this”.

People tend to give human features to animals. This is why you should be very cautious mentioning any animal when communicating with people from other countries.

A moose (лось) in Russian is an ignorant person

Different nations give different features to the same animals. For example, “you, chicken” means “you, coward” in English. Meanwhile in Russian, a chicken is not more cowardly than any other bird, but a little bit dull. A phrase “you have a chicken brain” means “you are desperately stupid”. The synonym of cowardice in the Russian culture is a hare. One may say about somebody, “He is as cowardly as a hare”.

Some more examples. A phrase “what a pig” in Russian not necessarily refers to a fat person. Usually, it refers to an untidy and muddy person. A horse is a very beautiful creature, however, if you compared a girl to a horse, you would get the worst enemy to death (probably, yours). A horse when referring to a human being is about a woman with a massive shape and ugly face. A cow is almost the same, however, cows also lack good posture. Yes, cows eyes are very nice, but you'd rather never say to your lady “your eyes are as beautiful as cow's”, she wouldn't be pleased.

Like in English, a sheep is a synonym of a stupidity. There is a saying, “to look at something like a sheep to a new gate” (смотреть на что-то, как баран на новые ворота), which means not recognize a familiar thing under new conditions, to reveal idiocy.

In many Russian tales, foxes are extremely clever and cunning, while wolves are aggressive, but a little bit naive and stupid. Normally, foxes defeat wolves with cunning. This is quite telling that foxes in most Russian tales are female and wolves are male. A bear is traditionally the strongest animal in the forest, however, it is just a brute force, with no intelligence and ingenuity. To say “you are like a bear” in Russian would mean “you are not too elegant and diplomatic”. A saying “a bear service” (медвежья услуга) means that somebody who tries to help causes damage instead.

In the jail slang that is now widely spread in everyday Russian language the words “goat” and “rooster” mean a passive homosexual, and both are extremely offensive. A goat also means a sexually over-active person (same is true for a male dog, кобель).

A rat is the one who leaks information. Another rodent, a mouse, particularly with an adjective “grey” means a very shy and unattractive woman.

Dogs are known for their devotion to their masters, this is why there is a saying “dog's devotion” (собачья преданность) in Russian.

What animals mean what in your language? Your comments are appreciated!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Island of Crimea By Vasiliy Aksenov

Language, myths, legends and fairy tales are good sources of information for those who study collective unconscious archetypes. There is a very Russian word “тоска” [taskAh] that means a melancholy and longing for something incomprehensible at the same time. And there is an old myth about the Buyan island, where there are a lot of magic things, eternal glory and, what is most important, absolute justice for all. This island was the exact opposite to the misery that is life actually is. So for centuries, Russian people have planted in their hearts a longing for this ideal place. The Soviet Union was separated from the rest of the world by the iron curtain, so many Soviet people imagined their Buyan island is abroad, in the inaccessible capitalistic countries. My grandfather dreamed about visiting Paris one day, knowing pretty well that he would never cross the boarders of the Soviet Union. My parents, like many other Soviet people, used to think about the “Western world” as about the land where everything is much better than in Russia, where even the poorest guy has good clothes and tasty food, where houses are large and people are friendly and honest. The “Western world” was their Buyan island. My generation has to find a new place to project our image of a dream land on, because what is accessible, is no longer ideal.

The Russian novelist Vasily Aksenov (Василий Павлович Аксёнов) wrote the Island of Crimea in 1979. It was a time when Russian society lived in the world of double standards. The difference between the official propaganda and the real situation was schizoid-like. On the one hand, Soviet people condemned the capitalistic world for racism, exploitation and wrong moral principles, but on the other hand, many people dreamed about traveling abroad and buying all those symbols of the bright life like jeans and tape recorders. Nowadays, we have everything available in our supermarkets, so my niece would hardly understand what it means — to dream about a pair of jeans.

Aksyonov built his "Island of Crimea" on an interesting premise. What if Crimea were an island, instead of a peninsula. Further more, what if Crimea were the only area of Greater Russia to hold out against the Reds, and become a multi-ethnic "free" zone? It is not a novel of the alternative history, but a novel of alternative geography instead. The mythical Buyan Island became the Island of Crimea. So some limited number of people got an opportunity to live in the conditions that they were dreaming about. Are they happy finally? Not at all. The Island enjoys capitalism (like Hong Kong), but many want to rejoin Russia. The brightest and the smartest Crimean people share the idea of the so called “Common Fate”. Their hearts are longing for “the Big Motherland”, they regard their wealth and happiness as false values and want to suffer as much as the people behind the iron curtain. Also, there is a group of youngsters who want to have their own identity, a Russian-Tatar mix called Yaki. The society is splitting into conflicting groups, so instead of the Eden, they get Hell one day.

The Island of Crimea is a perfect guideline to the deceitful and seducing ideology of the Soviet Union. The book also contains a bitter and merciless portrait of a cast of almighty bureaucrats. Though the novel is more than thirty years old, a reader can find shocking similarities with modern Russia, which is no longer under the iron curtain and no longer governed by communists, but is still playing with dangerous ideas and making the same crucial mistakes time after time.

I should add that the novel is very well written, its style is rich and its plot is intriguing. It is impossible to close the book once you start reading it. I would suggest this book to everybody who wants to learn more about Russia and its mysterious soul, but also I would suggest this book to my Russian friends, because history forgotten is history repeated.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

RuNet: Russian-Speaking Segment of the Internet

The Internet is a world without borders, this is true. However, like in the real world, people from different countries have different preferences regarding websites and online services. it is not rare for a local website or service to compete successfully with global giants. Normally, it happens due to better localization of domestic websites. The Russian segment of the Internet, often called RuNet, includes local services and global portals which for various reasons have become very popular among Russian-speaking users. I hope this brief observation will help you become more informed and establish more contacts among Russian native speakers.

Search Engine

According to numerous studies, the leading search engine in Russia is Despite the growing popularity of Google, Yandex is more popular due to very well implemented morphology analysis. In other words, Yandex knows Russian grammar and can recognize that different forms of a word are actually one word. Yandex is really good for searching documents in Russian.

Social Networking
There are two extremely popular Russian networks: and
The first,, is a network for class reunion (odnoklassniki means classmates). Users can upload photos and videos, chat and post small status updates. Nothing special, however, the network boasts 10 million visitors per day. is a Russian Facebook clone. Like Facebook, VK allows users to message contacts publicly or privately, create groups and events, share and tag images and videos, and play browser-based games. One distinction of VK is its integration of torrent filesharing technology which allows users share larger files. There are lots of pirate audio and video files at VK, and, from time to time, the questionable legal status of VK content is widely discussed in the respective law enforcement agencies.

Some studies have reported that Facebook is gaining popularity among Russian users.

Since the beginning of the Era of Blogging, LiveJournal has been the leading blogging platform in Russia. LiveJournal is also the largest online community on RuNet, containing about 45% of all entries in the Russian blogosphere. It unites Russian celebrities, politicians, immigrants and thousands of ordinary people.

Why LJ? Why not stand-alone blogs? First, LJ does not require any knowledge of HTML. You don't have to set up domain names and mess with hosting issues either. The second reason is that LJ is a community, and Russians are fond of communities. When you have a stand-alone blog, you have to make some serious effort to build a community around your content. With LJ, you already have a community all set and ready to go.

E-Mail service
I wouldn't be too wrong if I called the most popular mail service in Russia. Back in 1998, it was among the first free email services available in Russia. Users tend to get stuck with their email addresses, so today hosts many business and personal emails despite tough competition from GMail and other mail services.

News portals
I could name two online news portals that are purely virtual: and These are the two websites that report about global and local news fast and more or less unbiased.
For business and economic news, I would suggest the online versions of two respected newspapers: and

Miscellanious — free online library that contains lots of Russian books, both fiction and non-fiction, and books translated into Russian. — collaborative blog discussing predominantly IT-related topics. Community moderation with karma score and rating system makes this website very useful. — one of the most popular online shops. It started with selling books, but today it offers many other things like electronics, air tickets and much more.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

April Is Coming to Siberia

Everybody knows that Siberia has a lot of snow. Everybody knows that snow melts when temperatures rise above 0C. So we can logically come to the conclusion that, when it gets warmer, tons of snow in Siberia turn to mega-litres of water.

Usually, springs in Siberia are short. After a few warm days in April all the snow starts melting at once and flooding hits city streets. It doesn't matter how well the sewage system works, it seems just nearly impossible to avoid flooding these days. In two or three weeks, the water runs away, roads become dry and life goes to normal, but these few weeks put people and urban infrastructure on trial.

Imagine that, one day, you step away from your home and find that everything around is under 20 cm of water. Your feet get wet in a few minutes and you have to go back home to find boots that are more suitable for these circumstances. If you are lucky or practical enough, you might have a pair of elegant rubber boots in your locker. So you think you are now ready for flooding. Well, no. In the nearest crossroad, a truck makes a dirt shower for you, so your $XXX coat now has a look like you are homeless and has spent the last night under the bridge. Trucks and cars have no fun splashing pedestrians with mud. Just roads in Russia are so awful, that drivers can not see pits hidden under water. So you decide to come back and change your business suit for jeans and a leather jacket. At least, they are easy to clean with a piece of cloth. After putting on proper boots and clothes, you are really ready for spring adventurous life in Siberia.

Drivers have a hard time during spring flooding too. First, they are in permanent danger of catching a pit on the road and break tires. Second, cars get muddy in a few minutes, so you have to choose between continuing driving your smudgy baby or paying for a car wash every day. Getting out of the car is a trick that requires you to be in good shape — water is under your feet, the nearest available dry spot is one meter away, and the outside of your car is
covered with mud here and there.

What amazes me most is that Siberian ladies wear high heels even during the spring flooding. They flit from one dry piece of surface to another like butterflies making physics laws blush.

And yet, April is my favorite month.After a long winter, when life seems frozen, April promises changes. April is a time of optimism and smiles. When the sky is so blue, and the Sun shines so brightly, and the intoxicating scent of a wet ground is in the air, who cares about temporary inconveniences like flooding?

Thursday, March 31, 2011

April Fool's Day

In the Soviet Union, all schools were alike. There was the so-called “educational standard”, an identical curriculum for every student. All schools shared the same textbooks, which evolved slowly, and circumvented any scientific achievements. All students wore uniforms, and the only choice was for color, between blue, brown or black. I know that many people feel nostalgic for those days and despise today's diversity, what they consider as lack of taste in students' clothing, but I recall well that I hated school uniforms and rebelled when I was twelve. There was a sort of insurmountable barrier between students and teachers in Soviet schools,giving impression of teachers as superior beings, and students as subhuman.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, educational system started changing. It was in the early 1990s when many experimental gymnasiums started appearing in post-Soviet Russia. I entered the first experimental gymnasium in my hometown, because the new school differed greatly from other schools. There was set curriculum, instead students were offered to choose what they wanted to study — mathematics, humanities or natural science. It didn't mean that linguists did not need to learn mathematics. This just meant that mathematicians had more math classes than humanitarians, and linguists had more literature and language classes. However, both math and linguist majors had fewer classes in chemistry than those who planned to enter medical school after graduation. The gymnasium abolished uniforms. We were free to wear whatever we desired. Many teachers in our gymnasium developed their own unique courses, so we didn't have to rely on outdated Soviet textbooks. The revolutionary idea of the gymnasium was that students were equal to teachers. We were taught to respect equality among all human beings, and the best part was April Fools' Day.

There was a great tradition of celebrating April Fool's Day in our gymnasium. April First was very special, a day when everyone went bananas. The teachers covered all the walls with paper, so that everyone could draw or write something there. In the evening, the were awards given for the best drawings and jokes. There were balloons and funny decorations everywhere. Both students and teachers, including our principal, arrived in carnival gown. Once, my favourite teacher put on astronaut suit and flippers. My best costume was a ghost-like cloak and heavy make-up (my friend and I found a box of a stage makeup, so my face was death-white, and I had violet lips with blood all around my mouth).

Like any other day, we had classes on April First, but they were all zany. Our teachers made parodies, joked and made us the butt of their jokes. April Fool's Day normally ended with the KVN, a Russian abbreviation for Club of the Funny and Inventive, when a team of teachers competed with a team of students by giving funny answers to questions and showing prepared sketches. It was a fair competition, and teachers were not afraid to lose to students.

Like any carnival, April Fools' Day in our gymnasium was an expression of spiritual and intellectual freedom. By breaking down conventions, we learned to enjoy independence and responsibility. It was perhaps the most important lesson we've studied in our school.

Monday, March 28, 2011

How to deal with long Russian words

Often enough, my students get frightened by long Russian words. A student, who normally reads fluently, stops in terror upon seeing a four-syllable word, and approaches it like a horse face-to-face with a tall hurdle. I found that explaining what the long word consists of helps to disassemble or lower the hurdle.

Horse 5
Photo by Stefano Losardo

Compare two words: “reincarnation” in English and “перевоплощение” in Russian (reincarnation is перевоплощение in Russian). In English, it has an suffix — (a)tion that is common for many abstract nouns derived from a verb. The prefix re- is not a problem either, as it shows that a certain action has occurred repeatedly or at least one more time. Next to re- is a prefix -in, which indicates the direction of an action, namely, moving inside. The rest is the root -carn-, which means flesh (see carnal, carnivore etc). The six syllable word in fact, is nothing but a root with a few affixes.

You may perform the same operation with the Russian word “перевоплощение”. If you are a student, your first thought might be “oh no, it has the whole seven syllables”. But take a closer look at it. Put aside the ending -e, which is nothing more but the indication of the neuter gender of the noun. The suffix -ени- is common for many abstract nouns formed from the verb, similar to -(a)tion in English. A prefix пере- is similar to re- in English, and it shows that the action was performed one more time. Another prefix -во- is the exact translation of -in- in re-in-carnation. The only difficult thing is recognizing the root, which is -площ- and which is, in fact, -плот(ь), flesh. For some words in Russian, consonant sound -т- changes into -щ- because in the olden days, our ancestors had trouble pronouncing soft т (like T in Tuesday), so they changed to щ (like Ch- in Chicago).

Now that we've anatomized the word, it looks like “пере-во-площ-ени-е”. Most long words in Russian may be decomposed into affixes and a root, and the actual number of affixes is quite limited, so they recur in different words. The technique “Decompose a complex thing into many simple particles” works well for memorizing words, too. Next time, when you feel anxiety over an extremely long word in Russian, take your imaginary scissors and cut off endings and affixes until you get a bare root. You will notice your fear will have disappeared during the engaging process.

Please note that I have tried this technique with advanced students only. I'm not sure if it works for beginners, since it requires some vocabulary.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Siberian Wooden Houses

Local history is what makes the place unique. Europe is known for keeping its spirit of history.
The past surrounds you everywhere in Europe, you can see history, and feel it in your skin. Ancient cobblestone roads that recall Hannibal, castles built by knights, countless domes that store books written by monks' very own hands — all this helps us realize that the "past" was once the "present" and it was real for many people who lived before us.

Unlike Europe, Siberia can not boast of a rich historical heritage. People have inhabited in Siberia since prehistoric times, but not much remained from its early history. Archaeologists found primitive burial places of tribes that occupied the Altai mountains about a million years ago. Scythian burial mounds — this is almost all that can remind you about the ancient civilizations here. For a long time, Siberia was terra incognita for Russia. The history of Russian colonization of Siberia starts in XVI century, when Yermak began his voyage into the depth of Siberia. Russian cities in Siberia have a relatively short history of about 350-300 years. One of the tenuous clues that still connect modern Siberia with its past is Siberian wooden houses.

Wooden House

When I was a child, I enjoyed walking through old Barnaul. There were many old wooden houses that survived the great fire in 1917 and kept preserved the unique spirit of the old town. Those houses were richly decorated with fine lace-like patterns, and I thought that in the old times, dukes and tsars lived there. I believed that only members of elite society could enjoy that beauty. I think, I owe my aesthetic taste to the old Siberian craftsmen.

Time went by. The old town, located right in the modern-day downtown, became a target for greedy developers. When my husband and I came back to Siberia after living in Europe for a few years, we couldn't recognize our hometown. The old wooden houses had been demolished almost everywhere. High rise apartments and offices stood in their place. Each of the wooden house was unique. All high rise buildings are alike. The city lost its face. The thread that bound us to the history of the place was cut. Our ancestors created beauty with nearly bare hands. Nowadays, we have technologies and produce ugly cubicles. Who can evaluate what we've lost? Childern that walk on the streets today only see unified buildings. They will think that this is a normal view of a typical city. Their imagination will never be inspired by the beauty of craftsmanship.

Fortunately, not all cities share the destiny of my hometown. A few days ago I found a website with marvellous HDR photo gallery of the Siberian wooden houses.

I wish the houses could stay for centuries, so that our descendants could enjoy them, but let's be realistic. Wood is not the material that can resist time. Most likely, in a few years, these houses will be lost forever too, and this makes the photos even more valuable.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Women's Rights In Russia

On March 8th Russia celebrates International Women's Day. Started as a political and feminist event, the holiday turned into an occasion for men to express their love and admiration to women. Flowers, chocolate, nice gifts are the usual attributes of the holiday.

Why there's so little about feminism in the holiday and in the modern Russia on the whole? Indeed, Russian women very rarely go to the streets with any gender-related manifestations. Russian women do not demand to be treated equally. I think, they just don't need to.

Starting with the great social reforms of Peter the Great back in the XVIII century, women, particularly of the high society, were normally treated with respect and never considered to be intellectually unequal. The time when Russia was reigned by tzarinas, is considered by some historians as the most successful and productive years throughout the Russian history. Since the Revolution in 1917, all Russian women got full access to education, job and political life.

To my mom, being a woman meant being a wife, a mother and a professional all in one. She worked full time all her life, and it was normal in the Soviet Union. She was so well-organized that she combined her professional life with her duty as a mother easily. Almost every Soviet woman was so. To be just a housewife would be somewhat bourgeois and amoral in the Soviet times. It was never questioned that my elder sister and I would get high-school education. We took it for granted.

When I was a child, we played in what we would like to be when grown up. What is noticeable, none of my friends planned to be a housewife. We all preferred professional carriers. Back in 1980s, we wanted to be doctors and teachers. I grew up in a society, where gender was never an obstacle.

I couldn't understand feminism as a social and political movement until the last year, when I had a shocking experience of discovering cultural differences. I was in a subway of a large North American city. While waiting for a train, I was reading social advertising in order to entertain myself. The printed advertisement said, “Being a girl means when your brother goes to school and you don't, when your brother get the best food and you eat what he's left for you...” The list of what being a girl means was quite long. I was invited to join a society for equal women rights. I have never been treated like these poor girls. I thought the approach of this kind was usual only for countries where religious fanatics are in power. Well, if feminists fight against this, I could understand them.

In terms of rights or access to social benefits, Russian women are equal to men, or even privileged. I noticed, that in the modern office life, women can get promotion easier due to their social skills. However, Russian women do not demand to be treated like men. Russian women like to be feminine. We like to attract the attention of the opposite sex, we consider to look good mandatory, we like flowers and sweets and enjoy being fragile and tender. March the 8th is the day when our men help us to feel beloved and admired. Since during the rest 364 days a year we enjoy our equality.

Photo by Kirill Kondratyev

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Russian Vision of a Healthy Lifestyle

While the Western world is counting calories in everything including toothpaste, Russian women say half-jokingly: what could I eat to lose weight? The Russian vision of a healthy lifestyle and the idea of healthy living in, say, North America have very little in common. People from the United States wonder how Russians can be so careless with their health, and Russians are shocked by how marketing-based and advertising-addicted the American lifestyle is.

Healthy food

For the average American, healthy food is what is sold under the label “low fat”, “diet”, “salt-free” and so on. If you want to eat healthy food, just buy diet cola instead of normal cola. In Russia, food is still all about cooking fresh products at home. Many Russians (well, at least, those who are not incarcerated in the office cubicles) prefer hot dishes for lunch. Lunch always means a hot, freshly cooked meal, like soup, and/or a piece of meat with vegetables. Many Russian women still feel uneasy about microwaved food, since freshly cooked food is considered much more healthy.

Photo by Artem Goncharyuk

In the USA, fruits and vegetables are available in the supermarkets all year round. In Russia you too can buy fruit and vegetables in supermarkets in any season, however, people prefer to buy seasonal fruits and vegetables in farm markets or to plant them themselves in their dachas. For Russians, healthy food is home-grown. The less intermediaries are between potato and me the better: the best potato is what I planted myself, bought from other farmers is still ok, bought in the supermarket is much worse and the frozen potato chips are almost unacceptable. Potato chips with the label “fat free” doesn't make them any better either.


Like many Americans, Russians love different kinds of diet. However, I don't know anybody who would really keep the diet for longer than a week. The Russian social life is such that any holiday is arranged with lavish meals (and Russia has a lot of holidays throughout the year). Traditionally, Russians drink a lot. I don't mean vodka, I mean just any alcohol. And alcohol doesn't fit with the idea of healthy lifestyle. When I was devoted to fitness and visited the gym 5 times a week, I often came back to my office after my workouts or went to my friends and joined in their parties. As you may guess, what I drank was not water or juice. And what I ate was not a spinach.


In the North America, I saw ladies and nearly apoplectic gents jogging along highways during hot summer afternoons. Many people visit gyms or play team games like football. Though gyms and sport games are fine, I don't think that jogging along highways and inhaling car exhaust fumes is a healthy habit. In Russia, jogging is not popular. There are gyms in almost every Russian city, and these gyms are quite popular among people with a high income, since membership cards are relatively expensive. Winters in Russia are harsh, but winter outdoor activities like skiing and skating are very popular too.

Though Russians are on average less into sports than Americans, Russians move more in routine activities for the very simple reason that there are significantly less cars in Russia. In Russia, it is absolutely normal to take 20-25 minute walk from the bus station to your home. Everyday walks work as well as one hour workout at the gym on Sunday. Besides, many Russians have dachas (summer houses) and spend all their spare time planting vegetables and fruit.In my experience, working at a dacha is comparable with a good advanced workout. Actually, workouts are easier, since they only last only an hour or so, whereas working at a dacha can take any length of time at all. You work until the task is done and there are always new tasks waiting for you. I saw quite aged ladies on Russian suburban trains carrying heavy 20 litre buckets in both hands and a backpack full of potatoes or tomatoes. I very much doubt that you could convince them to buy a gym membership.