When you arrive at the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow (did you notice how Russian passengers applauded the pilot for landing the plane without killing anyone?) and survive the passport control by the openly hostile female junior lieutenant of the Border and Customs Service, you are immediately greeted by two signs. One of them says the following:
“TOVAROV, PODLEZHASHCHIKH OBYAZATEL’NOMU TAMOZHENNOMU DEKLARIROVANIYU, NYET.”
Can you say all of this ten times fast? Or, really, fuck it, just say it one time slow.
Luckily, there is the second sign. It is the accurate, literal English translation of the above. It says:
“NOTHING TO DECLARE.”
That is it. This is what it is. The English phrase signalling the absence of anything in your baggage that needs to be declared to the Motherland is three words. Five syllables. Nothing more.
Its Russian equivalent, as you may have noticed, contains six words, 26 syllables and two motherfucking commas. Translated word for word it means, “There are no goods subject to mandatory customs declaration.”
Why do we do this? Why can’t we just say what you guys say? Because we can’t. Our language isn’t equipped to be this succinct. It doesn’t possess the English tongue’s talents for contracting, packaging and swiftly delivering information. And our culture positively shuns any attempts at informality in official verbiage. We need to make it dry, verbose and as negative and prohibitive as possible. “Nothing to declare” sounds way too carefree and flower-child to our ears. Our version properly conveys the burden of mandatory procedures, the looming threat of a long list of items subject to such and the involuntary regret of being bereft of such possessions, burdensome as they might be.
Violations of Composition
This is the thing with languages. As anyone who has ever tried to run a foreign text through Google Translate knows, languages are not congruent or interchangeable. Languages, much like people, have their strengths and weaknesses, which reflect cultural and historic peculiarities in which they developed. The strength of the English language is, undoubtedly, its efficiency in relaying information. It’s compact, straightforward, ungendered and well suited for technical lingo and abbreviations.
Russian, though, is not compact or dense at all. At least not when it comes to relaying factual data. The airport sign above is but one example. An even better one is our attempts at adapting the terminology of ice hockey, one of our favorite sports. Unfortunately, hockey is extremely rich in very technical terminology, all of it invented by the worst kind of English speakers, North Americans. “Worst” here simply means that Americans and Canadians are even more efficient and direct, speaking the kind of English-on-steroids which we have extreme issues with. In fact, Russians are slowly giving up on translating Yankeespeak and are simply adopting your terms as is. Such that Russian schoolchildren are currently busy “bulling” of the “geys” who are brave enough to attempt a “kammingaut.”
Anyway, consider for instance the Russian hockey term “ataka igroka, ne vladeyushchego shayboy.” It translates as “attacking a player not in possession of the puck.” That’s five words, a comma, a whole mess of sh and ch sounds, all to say “interference.” A simple, descriptive term we cannot manage to recreate in Russian.
How about “zaderzhka sopernika klyushkoy”? In English, it’s called hooking. We have to roll with “holding an opponent with a stick.” Or “igra vysokopodnyatoy klyushkoy”, or “playing with a highly raised stick” is what you guys refer to as high-sticking.
But things get even worse! The Russian language doesn’t have a good word for “a catch.” We have verbs for it, plenty of verbs (lovit, poymat, skhvatit, stsapat, to name but a few) but somehow not the noun. We just can’t say “a great catch.” It’s the same situation with the word “save.” A thousand ways to use it in the verb form, but not as a noun. Not possible. So, Russian goalies don’t really make saves. They repel shots. They deflect them. They pull them out. They liquidate danger. They neutralize chances. They parry. They bar the puck’s route. They steer the menace away from the goal. But none of this is expressible as a noun.
And then, consider a veritable Frankenstein of a word such as forechecking. We are utterly flabbergasted by it. There’s just no way to translate it adequately. We are stuck with “zhestkaya opeka v zone sopernika” or “rough guardianship in the opponent’s zone.” Yup.
Also, we can’t say “blocker”, so it’s a “blin” (pancake). Gloves are “kragi” (gauntlets), the stick is “klyushka” (little cane) and power play is “realizing the majority.” Also, “too many men on the ice” is “violation of the numerical composition.” Bow to us.
The Mother’s Lot
But, as already hinted above, one area in which English can never compare to us is in relaying emotions and nuances of feelings. This is a task that Russian, with its myriad of suffixes, its glut of diminutives, its gender sensitivity and its poetic verbosity is uniquely suited to, leaving the directness and punctuality of English at a loss.
Wanna see how this works?
So, let’s consider the phrase “Yob tvoyu mat, kak zhe khuyovo-to, blya!”, uttered by pretty much every Russian male upon waking up hung over. It’s seven words, plus an emphasis word “to” (pronounced “toh”), which carry almost zero relevant information, while expressing rich layers of emotion that English is not equipped to relay.
This phrase contains three profanities, all of them of carnal nature (the only type of profanities that exist in Russian). The first (yob tvoyu mat) literally translates as “[I have] fucked your mother.”
The speaker, however, is not addressing anyone in particular. In this sense, it’s similar to the English phrase “Fuck me!” in that the speaker is not actually requesting a particular person to have sex with them, but merely expresses surprise, frustration or irritation. In Russian, though, the phrase is inherently male as any implication of willingness to perform submissive sex is taboo. Therefore, a mother, the most sacred of females, is the subject of this verbal aggression, serving to amplify its impact. The phrase is in past tense (Russian has only one past tense), which signifies that the fucking of the mother is fait accompli and cannot be reversed. It is a statement of absolute fact. The “mother” in this case is the overall state of being, life in general and Mother Earth and the Motherland by extension.
Of course, the underlying sense of frustration and despair seems to imply that the mother has actually fucked the speaker. It’s a logical paradox that relays the feeling of hopelessness and Dostoyevskian dread that the rather optimistic English “Fuck me!” never reaches. Let’s go on…
The next profanity (kak zhe khuyovo-to) offers a lot to unpack. The core word, khuyovo, translates as “having the function or carrying qualities of a penis” or, more to the point, “dickly.” It is almost universally used to mean “horribly wrong”, which tells you much about Russian men’s relationship with their manly parts. Interestingly, the corresponding word pizdato (“pussy-like”) almost always means “wonderfully great”, though it’s not to be confused with the word “pizdets”, or “the state of pussy”, which can go either way. More on that below. Anyway, the whole phrase can be roughly translated as “Oh how dick-like!” Note that the words “it is”, grammatically necessary in English, are not required here. Simply because there isn’t any particular “it” that “is” dick-like. In Russian, it is understood that the entire state of being is dick-like, as are, again, the Universe, the Motherland as a whole and the Siberian Federal District in particular.
In fact, one of the most telling characteristics of the Russian language is that its adjectives and adverbs absolutely don’t need to be personal. There is no need for identifier phrases such as “it is”, “that’s” or “there is.” You can enter a room screaming “Pizdato!” and nobody would feel the need to ask you what exactly is “pussy-like” (which, again, in this context means “terrific, great, wonderful”). Everyone will just instantly understand that you are referring to the current existential status of humanity, thanks to something that has unexpectedly happened to you.
We thrive on this detached, impersonal quality of our language which makes exclamations of joy or anguish wonderfully all-encompassing and adds gravity to the most pedestrian of phrases. But it can also suck every single ounce of humanity from the everyday interaction between citizen and state, which is exactly how the Russian state likes it.
Consider, for instance, a completely unremarkable warning sign, such as “DON’T LEAN ON DOORS.” Even without the word “please”, it’s still a personal address. Reading it, you feel like the people in charge are reaching out to you and personally delivering a piece of kindly advice which might protect you from grievous injury. Now, compare it to the Russian equivalent: “NE PRISLONYATSYA.” This directly translates to as “NOT TO LEAN.” Nobody is reaching out to you here, friend. Nobody is expressing concern with your well-being. The country just throws out a blanket prohibition on all its nameless subjects, complete with an implied threat, and it doesn’t even feel obligated to explain what it is you can’t lean upon. It knows you know. And, frankly, it doesn’t care if you don’t. It knows you will just avoid leaning on anything forthwith, for the phrase itself condemns the very concept of leaning. The entire idea of distributing your body weight across a stationary inanimate object is now firmly established as an act of sedition. Your personal choices, feelings and even cognition never enter the equation. Your entire state of being is now in the service of not committing the act of leaning.
“NOT TO WALK ON GRASS”, “NOT TO TOUCH WITH HANDS”, “NOT TO STAND UNDER CRANE”… Generations upon generations of Russian-speakers grew up with these unaddressed, all-encompassing, stern proscriptions on action and the merest idea of it. Yet, despite the Motherland’s brusqueness in its interactions with its masses, or more likely precisely because of it, Russians have also become quite famous for their flippant disregard of all of these impersonally worded and vaguely threatening prohibitions.
As one of my old newspaper bosses once wryly observed, the best way to make a Russian jump off a bridge is to equip it with a sign “NOT TO JUMP.” Russians are contrarians down to the core, and the seeming impersonal detachment of our language only masks the deep, often destructive, sometimes wonderfully creative desires that constantly tug at our mysterious souls. Also, as the saying goes, “the strictness of our laws is greatly compensated by the lack of necessity to follow them.”
The Way of Penis
Russians love to take pride in their obscene vocabulary, occasionally boasting that it’s the richest in the world. This isn’t quite true, to be sure. English probably has just as many words for the body parts unmentioned in polite society as Russian does. What is different is not the size of our vocabulary, but how we use it. This is indeed where Russian plays in the big leagues while English is forced to compete in double A.
What takes Russian to the next level is our abundance of suffixes that can easily turn any word into a linguistic Swiss Army knife as nouns mutate into verbs, verbs into adjectives, adjectives into adverbs, and the all of the above can be changed to express the size, age, gender, mood, relationship to the speaker and moral standing of the person, object or action being described.
So, let’s examine that famed obscene vocabulary of ours. As mentioned above, most of it is of the carnal nature, utterly dominated by the words for penis (khuy) and vagina (pizda). Though, of course, a lot of mileage is given to the two obscene words for “a woman of loose morals”, namely bitch (suka) and whore (blyad), which are often combined into a single obscene superword sukablyad. It mostly serves the same purpose as the English “motherfucker.”
As for the reproductive organs, their usage is insanely complex and deliciously confusing. Let’s start with the penis, Russia being a patriarchal society and all.
Khuy, literally translated as “dick”, is generally considered the king of obscenities and is given a multitude of meanings. Just to drive this point home, consider the phrase often heard at Russian construction sites: “Khuli khuynyu zakhuyarili? Raskhuyarivayte nakhuy!” It is something clearly uttered by a person in charge to his underlings as he inquires why they have performed a task with a thing that was not supposed to be performed and implores them to undo it immediately. Every single word in these two sentences is derived from the Russian word for “dick.” Let’s see English try that!
The phrase khuy s gory (“a penis from a mountain”) is used, for instance, to denote “some random dude.” In this instance, calling a person a penis indicates his lack of importance or standing. Why would said penis descend from a mountain, specifically, is forever a mystery, yet the phrase succeeds in portraying the dick in question as obscure, provincial and lacking status.
When someone says khuy morzhovyi (“a walrus’s penis”), they are usually trying to relay a lack or a dire deficit of something, as in: “How much did I make? A walrus’s penis, that’s how much!” So, here the penis is a symbol of worthlessness. When someone is dealing with one of life’s mysteries for which one has no readily available answer, one would be expected to utter the phrase khuy znayet (“Penis knows!”). Needless to say, the actual meaning here is “nobody knows” because penises, self-evidently, know nothing.
The latter phrase, in fact, has become, thanks to the general sense of bafflement ever-present in the Russian endeavor, so ubiquitous that it is very often replaced by the acronym “ХЗ” or KhZ. “How long will the water outage last this time?”, you may ask your neighbor one summer day. “Penis knows”, he will inevitably reply, and you will instantly understand that neither his nor your reproductive organ is in a position to help you with the situation.
By far the most common usage of khuy, though, is as a directional noun. Poshol na khuy is Russia’s favorite putdown and translates as “go [sit] on a penis.” While it is pretty equivalent in meaning to “go fuck yourself”, the Russian phrase is more directly insulting, as it invites you to sit on, presumably, somebody else’s penis. Thusly, the penis is established as the Earth’s least desirable place to be.
Stemming from this, the phrase na khuy (“to the dick”) has come to be used as an emphasis when trying to relay an exceptionally strong negative feeling. Ubyu na khuy is a very strong threat that can be equivalently translated as “I will fucking kill [you/him/her/them]” but literally, once again, means “I will kill [you/him/her/them] to the dick.” Here we see penis as the ultimate state of demise, the event horizon of death. It can also signify the termination point of pretty much anything. “How much did I lose? Vsyo na khuy!“, a Russian gambler or investor may bemoan, informing you that he has indeed lost all there was to lose. All of it, to the very dick, as it were.
But while na khuy is an expression that amplifies bad feelings, the almost identical po khuy (“onto the dick”) serves the entirely opposite purpose of showcasing one’s indifference. “What does the boss think about this? You know, it’s po khuy to me”, you may hear uttered quite often at a Russian workplace, because our corporate culture is one of a never-ending slow-boiling class warfare.
But consider also this. Where na khuy is super-negative and po khuy is pointedly neutral, yet another phrase with almost the same meaning, do khuya (“up to the dick”), occasionally has a very positive meaning. It is usually used to denote an overabundance of something. Which can indeed be good, when you are talking about, let’s say, money (which, you must agree, provides a much better mental image that its “coming out of the wazoo”). But can also be bad, since life’s problems can also be expressed as being “up to the dick.”
A suffix comes into play to change the word khuy, which, you must agree, is the most male of all words, into a female khuynya, which literally means “some dickish thing.” It denotes a thing of little importance but perhaps great annoyance, at which point, I hope, you are beginning to see a pattern in the Russian language’s treatment of the male reproductive organ.
These, you may have noted, are all nouns. But more suffixes and prefixes can be added to turn the penis into a multitude of verbs and adjectives, all of decidedly negative virtue. Okhuyet is a verb that expresses the feeling of absolute bafflement and surprise, somewhat equivalent to the English “Holy fuck!”, but, of course, without the religious element. Literally it translates as “[One could] get dicked!”
Then, there is the word nakhuyachitsya, one of the multitude of Russian verbs that describe the state of being spectacularly drunk. In this case, the figurative meaning is “To get shitfaced”, while the literal translation is “to anoint oneself with penises.”
The adjective khuyuovo, as already mentioned, means “being dick-like”, or, less literally “fucked up”, all while meaning the general unsatisfactory state of a thing, a deed or of being in general. “How is life, Viktor?”, you may ask your typically downcast compatriot. “Khuyovo, brother”, he will reply, because Russians most pointedly believe in replying to such questions honestly.
No, Russia obviously does not view the penis very favorably at all. For a society that can be extremely macho and downright misogynistic, Russians surely don’t consider their ding-dongs a force of objective good. There is, however, one exception. There is one unambiguously positive penis derivative, but even it, characteristically, stems from a mostly negative one.
The word okhuyet literally means “[I could just] become akin to a dick” and is used as an expression of extreme surprise or bewilderment, in both positive and negative contexts. It is an extremely profane equivalent of “I’ll be damned.” You will hear it screamed at soccer matches after particularly spectacular plays or in heated arguments as a reply to something outrageously ridiculous. As such, this verb is indicative of an event that defies belief and makes one go rigid with incredulity.
A related past-tense verb okhuyel (“has become akin to a dick”), however, means that the person in question has lost all connections with norms and morals of civilized society and is behaving in a way completely unbecoming of a normal, non-dick-adjacent individual. “Have you completely okhuyel?” is an effective way to let someone know they are well outside the boundaries of propriety.
However, another derivative, okhuyenno (“conducive to becoming akin to a dick”), has come to mean “unbelievably good” and is widely regarded as one of the most laudatory adjectives in the Russian language. The great Alexander Pushkin himself, were he living now, would be flattered to have it applied to his timeless verses. Especially considering that khuy was by far his favorite cuss word, if his early works are any indication.
But the most sublime, indeed the most Russian of all the linguistic incarnations of penis is the word khuli.
It uses a suffix that does not otherwise exist and forms a word class otherwise unknown. It’s not a noun, a verb or an adjective. And indeed its actual meaning is to relay the sense of uselessness, of utter lack of hope, of the absolute futility of action or desires. It may as well be the entirety of our national anthem.
“Khuli?“, your Russian friend will ask rhetorically, encompassing the meanings of “The fuck do I need this for?”, “So fucking what?” and “Fuck this!” all at once, but also going so much deeper. It’s probably the most common answer given by Russian defendants to the question “Do you have any final words?” before their sentence is read.
Two syllables. That is all we need to express an array of emotions that English needs several complete sentences to replicate. This is how amazingly ninja our language is in the area of abstract feelings. And that’s only the penis part of it!
The Permutations of Vagina
In yet another crazy turn of our linguistic culture, the Russian obscene term for vagina, pizda, can easily swing both ways, positive and negative. Its positive incarnation is the previously mentioned word pizdato, an adverb (“pussily”?) that is the counterpart of khuyovo. Whereas “dickly” in Russian describes the state of being that is unambiguously horrible, “pussily” always refers to something that is entirely great. Your soccer team is playing pizdato if it’s on a winning streak. Your work is going pizdato if the boss isn’t being such a khuylo (hey, there is another penis-derived word, in this case a perfect equivalent to the English “being a dick”). Your health is pizdato if you are not suffering from debilitating illnesses or addictions. And your family life is pizdato if your mother-in-law has died.
All other vagina-related words, however, trend heavily negative, burying any hopes that our language was invented by secret feminists. As mentioned above, the noun pizdets (“pussiness”, maybe?), for instance, can be either positive or negative, but its positive meaning is mostly ironic.
“Pizdets kak horosho!”, you might hear a vagrant drunkard screaming in the twilight, as he will try to let the world know that his feelings can be described a “cuntily good.”
The more common meaning of pizdets, though, is “the absolute worst outcome imaginable.” When something ends terribly badly, people will say that “Pizdets has come.” When you want to threaten someone with deadly violence, saying “Tebe pizdets!” (“Pussiness for you!”) is an incredibly efficient way to relay the intent. When you lack adequate vocabulary to describe the breadth of your amazement or bemusement with something, you will almost inevitably utter: “This is simply some kind of pizdets!”
Pizdyozh (“pussying”) is a sister word to khuynya, but whereas the latter is usually meant for something not worthy of serious consideration, the former is more narrowly defined as “a bare-faced lie” or “obnoxiously obvious empty boasting.” The corresponding verb is pizdet, similar in meaning to “to spin a yarn.” When saying “Ne pizdi” to someone, you are effectively telling them to “stop shitting me”, but in a much more succinct, brusque and uncompromising manner.
Add to this the fact that the word spizdit (“to pussy something away”) means “to steal or appropriate”, white the word pizdanut (“to pussy up”) has a multitude of meanings none of which is related to human anatomy: from “to smack someone” to “to quickly drink a large amount of alcohol”, and you might begin to understand the levels of mental dexterity required to passably converse in Russian.
All of this is nothing more than a meek attempt to scratch at the surface of the peculiarities, the riches and the insanity of our language. The language in which a direct yes or no question can be unironically answered with “Da nyet, navernoye” (“Yes no maybe”) and everyone will know that the meaning is actually “probably not.” The language whose most famous novelist once described “a round table, oval in shape”, and whose most cherished poet was fond of musing on how, upon his girlfriend’s visit, “we, with God’s help, have fucked.” The language peculiarly ill-equipped to let you order a hamburger or describe a hockey play but unsurpassed in its ability to accurately and completely describe the utmost depths of existential shittiness of our daily struggle.
This is a topic that most assuredly needs further exploration, but let us take a break right now, as more culinary matters await.
So, join me next time as we discuss the wonderful and bizarre world of our desserts. If I am any good at stringing words into sentences, you will never want another piece of apple pie ever again.
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