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Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Sunday Culture: A Crash Course in Lofty Russian Civilization

Russian "president" Vladimir Putin insists foreigners are crazy if they think Russians are even a little bit "savage." The Moscow Times proves how very right he is:

Напиться до поросячьего визга (sl.): to drink so much that you squeal like a pig

'Tis the season to be jolly! In Russia, it is difficult to talk about the holiday season without talking about гулянка (gathering to drink alcohol) or its more acute version -- пьянка (drinking bout). But in Russia, drinking with your buddies or relatives is much more than a holiday thing; it is a national tradition and institution that has much deeper meaning than in other countries.

Russians have always treated the русская пьянка with humor, and it is the source of hundreds of jokes. Another way that drinking is popularized and культивируется (is cultivated) is through films -- remember, for example, the popular comedy Особенности национальной охоты ("Peculiarities of the National Hunt") or the colorful запой (binge-drinking) scene with General Radlov in Nikita Mikhalkov's "The Barber of Siberia."

Although it may be more legend than history, alcohol seemed to have played its own significant role in the formation of Russia's statehood. According to the Chronicles, one of the reasons that St. Vladimir, who baptized Kievan Rus in the late 980s, accepted Christianity was that it did not prohibit the use of alcohol -- in contrast to Islam, which was also being considered for the official state religion. The Chronicles quote Vladimir as having said, Веселие на Руси есть пити (Happiness in Rus means drinking), which remains as a popular saying to this day. (Even under the teetotal Putin, the link between national leaders and alcohol continues: The vodka loosely named after him, Putinka, has become the top-selling brand.)

More important, the large role that drinking plays in the Russian сознание (perception, consciousness) is directly reflected in the language. There are more Russian slang expressions regarding пьянка than perhaps any other subject. Every Russian muzhik seems to have his own set of favorite expressions for drinking and, what's more, drinking slang in the regions is often different from that spoken in Moscow or St. Petersburg.

There are many imperfective slang verbs for drinking regularly: бухать (to drink in large quantities); квасить (to describe an experienced drinker, a real "pro"); and кирять (to drink with your closest friends). There is also the popular поддавать (drink regularly to raise ones spirits but without getting overly drunk); from this word, the doggerel verse Что-то стало холодать -- не пора ли нам поддать (It has gotten cold outside -- it is about time to have a few drinks) is derived. When it is minus 10 degrees Celsius, you can also say to your friends: Ну что, согреемся? (Shall we get a little warm?), and everyone will understand that you don't mean turning up the thermostat, but rather opening up a bottle of vodka "для сугрева" (for a warmer-upper).

Among perfective slang verbs to reflect a one-off drinking action, опрокинуть is to knock back a shot glass of vodka залпом (in one swift, bottoms-up movement). In addition, вздрогнуть is to flinch or wince when you drink a shot of strong, burning vodka; based on this verb, a group of guys might say, Ну что, вздрогнем, мужики?! (So, what do you say, guys -- shall we "wince" one more time?!)

Other slangy perfective verbs to describe heavy drinking include: набраться, надраться, нажраться, окосеть, наклюкаться, назюзюкаться, нализаться and нарезаться, but three of the most colorful, in my opinion, are: напиться вусмерть (drinking to near-death); напиться вдрабадан (from the outdated word дроба, which, according to the Dal dictionary, at one time meant the waste from beer distillation that desperate alcoholics drank); and напиться до поросячьего визга (to drink to the point where you squeal like a pig).

When Russians buy a new car or apartment, it is common to обмывать (literally, wash off) the new purchase with a few drinks. Or you can say to your friends, Я купил новую иномарку -- давайте это отметим (I just bought a new foreign car -- let's mark the occasion), and everyone will understand that this necessarily involves alcohol.

In addition, if you are having trouble understanding your company's complicated offshore ownership structure, you can say, Без пол-литра не разберёшься (Without a half-liter [of vodka], you'll never make heads or tails of it.)

One way of saying someone is flat drunk is: Он пьян как зюзя or Он напился в зюзю. According to the Dal dictionary, the original meaning of зюзя meant someone who was drenched in water. At some point, this word took the meaning of someone drenched (internally) in alcohol. When someone is вдрызг пьян (completely smashed), you can say: он лыка не вяжет (he is too drunk to make sense; literally, he can't even tie a thin strip of wicker); он залил глаза (his eyes were flooded [with alcohol]); or он схватил белочку (he drank to the level of белая горячка, or the shakes.).

When you have had way too much to drink, there is a special word to help очухаться (come to one's senses) the morning after -- опохмелиться (to treat a hangover with more alcohol or by eating a lot of квашеная капуста, or sauerkraut, and by drinking огуречный рассол, the salty traditional concoction made from pickle brine that you see in glass jars stored in so many apartments and dachas).

There is another popular expression for drinking with your buddies: Давайте сообразим на троих (Let's have a few drinks; literally, let us three guys figure out the problem), but the origins of this expression date back to the peculiarities of Soviet reality. If a Soviet muzhik wanted to drink some vodka to relax after a long day at work but didn't have enough money to buy a whole bottle (under communism, prices were very low, of course, but so were the salaries), he would stand by the entrance to a liquor shop and hold three fingers to his lapel as a sign that he wants to split the bottle three ways. Within minutes, a тройка (threesome) was formed to скинуться (pitch in) to buy the vodka. They then went to the nearest двор (common area between apartment buildings), sat on a лавочка (bench) and began to распивать бутылку (share the vodka). This quickly led to a душевная беседа (warm-hearted chat), several toasts and to the traditional drinking question, Ты меня уважаешь? (Do you respect me?) The only way to show "respect" in this setting, of course, is to dutifully drink another round. In no time at all, the newly acquainted drinking buddies experienced genuine мужское братство (male bonding).

At some point in this process, an enterprising бабуля (granny) might approach the threesome to to offer them закуски (something to nibble on while drinking) -- usually in the form of dark bread or, even better, spring onions (good for hiding vodka breath from the wife). She also offered the guys an empty glass (after all, it was not considered very культурно, or civilized, to drink vodka right from the bottle!) As part of the deal, the babushka would get the empty vodka bottle, which she then brought to the nearest пункт приёма стеклотары (recycling center) to receive her honestly earned 12 kopeks.

The large role that alcohol plays in the Russian мировоззрение (world outlook, mindset) is also reflected in the dozens of sayings on the topic. One example: Красное вино полезно для здоровья, а здоровье нужно, чтобы пить водку (Red wine is good for your health, and good health is needed to drink vodka.) But my all-time favorite is the Soviet частушка (couplet): О деньгах мечтают янки, Ну а русские -- о пьянке (The Yankees dream of money, but Russians dream of a drinking bout.)

In the holiday spirit of New Year's, I hope that all of your dreams -- whatever they may be -- come true in 2008!

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