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 Today, Marusya and Manya sound a bit outdated, but they are still in use, particularly within a family, say, parents can call their daughter Marusya.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.

If you are interested in learning Russian, I would suggest starting with the New Penguin Russian Course.

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?