The English language has more than 1 million words. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to find an exact translation for certain Russian words, especially if the meaning is related to the enigmatic "Russian soul."
Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov, who lectured on Slavic Studies to students in America, admitted that he couldn’t translate this word, which every Russian easily understands.
What is poshlost (пошлость)? Nabokov gives the following example: "Open any magazine and you’ll certainly find something like this - a family just bought a radio (a car, a refrigerator, silverware, it doesn't matter), and the mother is clapping her hands, mad with joy, the children gathered around her with their mouths agape; the baby and the dog are leaning towards the table on which the `idol’ has been hoisted… a bit to the side victoriously stands the father, the proud breadwinner. The intense "poshlosity" of such a scene comes not from the false exaggeration of the dignity of a particular useful object, but from the assumption that the greatest joy can be bought and that such a purchase ennobles the buyer."
"This word includes triviality, vulgarity, sexual promiscuity and soullessness," added the late Professor Svetlana Boym from Harvard University.
German Wikipedia has an entire article dedicated to the word nadryv (надрыв). This is a key concept in the writings of Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky. The word describes an uncontrollable emotional outburst, when a person releases intimate, deeply hidden feelings.
Moreover, Dostoevsky's nadryv implies a situation in which the protagonist indulges in the thought that he can find in his soul something that may not even exist. That's why the nadryv often expressed imaginary, excessively exaggerated and distorted feelings. One part of the novel, Brothers Karamazov, is called "Nadryvs."
In Dovlatov's view, it’s with impunity that khamstvo(хамство) outright kills us. It's impossible to fight it; you can only resign yourself to it. "I've lived in this mad, wonderful, horrifying New York for ten years and am amazed by the absence of khamstvo. Anything can happen to you here, but there’s no khamstvo. You can be robbed but no one will shut the door in your face," added the writer.
Some linguists believe stushevatsya (стушеваться) was introduced by Fyodor Dostoevsky, who used it for the first time in a figurative sense in his novella, The Double. This word means to be less noticeable, go to the background, lose an important role, noticeably leave the scene, become confused in an awkward or unexpected situation, become meek.
This Russian word can be translated as "emotional pain," or "melancholy," but this does not transmit all of its depth. Vladimir Nabokov wrote that, "Not one word in English can transmit all the nuances of toska (тоска). This is a feeling of spiritual suffering without any particular reason. On a less dolorous level, it’s the indistinct pain of the soul…vague anxiety, nostalgia, amorous longing."
This word comes from the Russian byt'(to exist). In Russian-English dictionaries this philosophical concept is translated as "being." However, bytie (бытие) is not just life or existence, it’s the existence of an objective reality that is independent of human consciousness (cosmos, nature, matter).
Eliot Borenstein, professor of Slavic Studies at New York University, explains that bespredel (беспредел) literally means "without restrictions or limits." Translators often use "lawlessness" (bezzakonie). In Russian, however, the meaning of bespredel is much broader, and refers to the behavior of a person who violates not only the law, but also moral and social norms.
It’s rather difficult to explain to people of other nationalities what this means. Interestingly, many people believe that avos' (авось) is the main Russian national trait. Hoping for the avos' means doing something without planning, without putting in much effort, counting on success.
This word is often translated into English as "feat" or "achievement," but it has other meanings. Podvig (подвиг) is not just a result, or the achievement of an objective; it’s a brave and heroic act, an action performed in difficult circumstances. Russian literature often mentions military, civilian podvigsand even scientific podvigs. Moreover, this word is a synonym for selfless acts, for example, a podvig in the name of love.
There’s no equivalent in other languages for the Spanish mañana, German doppelgänger, or English privacy. Russian language is definitely not an exception to the rule.
We have already written about some barely translatable words like ‘toska’ or ‘
bespredel.’ The article attracted much comment with readers suggesting other words they consider exist only in Russian. Let’s have a look at them.
This word comes from the old Slavic language and copies the Greek “
syneidesis” (conscience, sense of duty). However, in Russia the meaning of soviest’ is much broader and refers to the deep personal interpretation of good and evil and the feeling of responsibility not only before society, but before God and yourself.
soviest’ as a vivid notion, saying “ soviest’ tortures” («испытываю угрызения совести» - if you’ve done a bad thing), “done by soviest’” («сделано на совесть» - good-quality, well done).
There is a widespread belief that Russians are big drinkers. Undoubtedly, plenty of words connected to the Russian drinking culture can be found in the language.
For example, there is no direct translation for the word “
zapoy”. It’s not just a lengthy bender, but a recurrent condition sometimes lasting for more than a week. Some historians claim that merchants in tsarist Russia were legally prescribed taking a rest cure due to "soul illness".
Nowadays there are not many Russians who believe zapoy is a reboot required from time to time. There's also an expression "to do something by zapoy," (for example, to read by
zapoy – «читатьзапоем») which means to do something for a long time without interruption, to be fully immersed in the process.
The term pogrom has multiple meanings as a riot or massacre. However, mostly it describes the act of organized cruelty or killing that is done to a large group of people because of their race or religion. The act should be approved or condoned by the local authorities, too.
The term is usually applied to anti-Jewish violence in the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries according to Encyclopædia Britannica. The characteristics of a pogrom vary widely depending on the specific incidents, at times leading to, or culminating in massacres.
Later the term entered the English language in order to describe mass violence in other countries, for instance, in Germany (“Kristallnacht” also called Night of Broken Glass or November Pogroms).
Originally this word had a specific meaning – an old woman, a female witch doctor. Some linguists believe the combination of the sounds "
BA BA" is a child’s reaction to another woman who lives in the family home.
One version claims this word transformed into famous babushka (grandmother). In the 18th
century this term got another meaning: the wife of serf (peasant) and became a synonym for a plain, uneducated woman.
The embodiment of the Russian baba is well-known due to Nikolai Nekrasov’s poem Who Is Happy in Russia?: baba is a woman who can stop a horse at full tilt and enter a burning house!
Nowadays the word will sound offensive to a Russian woman.
Originally this word meant “a married peasant man”. After the Russian revolution in
1917 the status muzhik made their holder proud of being the opposite of bourgeois. It was at that time when the idiom "real muzhik" entered the Russian language and it remains well known to this day.
Who is a real muzhik? It's a man in possession of a wide range of qualities: he's not just strong, but patient, what you see is what you get, and he uses his smekalka (see next paragraph) every now and then.
However, the word is not so unequivocal: it may also signify an uneducated, boorish man.
Smekalka is one of the typical features of the "mysterious Russian soul": it’s not just being savvy, ingenious or inventive - it’s the skill to solve problems quickly and simply in imaginative ways.
In Russian folktales, good characters always have a lot of
smekalka. It helps them to overcome difficulties and win over bad characters.
Smekalka helped honored Russian commanders achieve great and miraculous victories. When military general Alexander Suvorov had to cross a broken bridge in the Alps, he made his soldiers knit the logs with their scarves, which enabled them to fix the bridge!
This Russian word can roughly be translated as hobo – a person who has no home and wanders constantly. But a
brodyaga is not homeless in the traditional sense. He just likes to live in different places, sort of a downshifter. As Russians say about brodyagas: he's a rolling stone, here today - and gone tomorrow.
This is a philosophical cornerstone of Russian literature and culture in general. According to religious beliefs, dukh is an immortal immaterial basis close to the word
Besides, dukh is related to the inner condition of the human – “the strength of
dukh” («сила духа») means the individual moral strength. “Dukh of freedom” («дух свободы») means a spirit.
This word is often used in the expression "
na khalyavu" which means to get something completely free, without any effort. This untranslatable concept, similar to the concepts of “freebie”, might help to get the philosophy of the Russian collective unconscious (Russians say: vinegar is sweet if you get it “ na khalyavu”).
Khalyava is the complete opposite of the typical American dream in which you become successful as a result of a hard work. Russian happiness includes wealth obtained by pure luck or a rich relative who suddenly appears, immediately dies and leaves you a fortune.
A day before exams, students who didn’t succeed in their studies try to attract "
khalyava" (which is supposed to help them) by opening their textbooks and shouting out of the window of their dorm " khalyava, come here!"
The word comes from prison slang, but today you can hear many Russians using it. It was derived from the word "
padla" which means a sneaky, bad man.
When Russians say zapadlo, it implies they don't want to be like this bad man. “Mne
zapadlo” (For me it’s zapadlo) means the person doesn't want to do something because he considers this action humiliating, beneath his dignity.
Keep in mind that the word has an expressive negative subtext. Being among decent people, you’d rather say “
nikak ne mogu, izvinite” (I would rather not do it, sorry).