Новогодние пожелания и урок географии / New Year’s Wishes and a Geography Lesson

people dancing outdoors in front of lights and tree

Audio content: Lots of New Year’s wishes and hopes.
Visual content: Images from the Far East to the westernmost regions of Russia of all varieties of public New Year’s celebrations.

New Year’s Eve (Новый год) is probably Russia’s most important and beloved holiday, the centerpiece of a long work- and school-break that extends until after the Orthodox Christmas on January 7. Most students of Russian know that this holiday features a fir tree (ёлка), Grandfather Frost (Дед Мороз) bringing gifts and families gathered around a well-laden table until the wee hours of the morning. And no Russian celebration would be complete without lots of warm wishes for all the good things in life! In the videos below you’ll hear many examples.

Today’s post offers what could be considered the “official” image of Russia’s New Year’s Eve festivities. Our source for the videos is Channel One (Первый канал), a widely watched federal channel that presents the Kremlin’s preferred spin on domestic and international events in a polished production style. People want to feel good about themselves and their country on the New Year and they want to mix a festive spirit with the warmth and familiarity of tradition. In Channel One’s news reports they see an idealized, wholesome, ethnically Slavic version of themselves and their holiday celebrations — with several “useful” official messages thrown in.

Geography features prominently in today’s videos. Russia’s vast size is a source of national pride and the nation’s huge extent is highlighted every year by the eleven different time zones that ring in the new year (see this useful infographic). Excitement builds as the nation watches the celebration march from the Kamchatka peninsula in the Far East to Kaliningrad. Be sure to find all the locations mentioned in today’s videos on a map.

Here are a few other themes you’ll see in the videos.

  • Demographic crisis: Russian’s birth rate fell sharply in the 1990s, and although it has since partially recovered to near replacement rate, the state is still intent on encouraging childbearing. It’s probably no accident that the videos include several people happily anticipating the birth of children.
  • Chiming bells (куранты) and fireworks (фейерверк, салют): Two key elements of civic celebrations. The most famous of these is the Kremlin’s Spasskaya Tower (Спасская башня). Its midnight chimes are featured in the president’s annual new year’s address to the nation.
  • Year of the Dog / Год собаки: Many Russians take note of the Chinese zodiac. Much of Russia of course lies in Asia, and fortune-telling of many kinds has deep roots in Slavic folk culture, so it’s no surprise that some Russians are happy to borrow the rich horoscope system of their Chinese neighbors.
  • Public decorations: Lavish public decorations seem to have become the standard for major holidays in Moscow lately. They draw on Russia’s abundance of creative talent. Not everyone is happy with the huge sums of money spent on these projects. Photos of impressive light-studded arches and hanging garlands can be seen here.
  • Nationality: Video two features some foreigners who are very excited to be visiting Russia, but the actual Russians presented in the videos appear to be of mostly Slavic ethnicity. About 20 percent of Russia’s population is made up of Turkic, Uralic, Caucasian and other non-Slavic groups.
  • Other elements of Russia’s winter holiday culture as seen in these videos are the ice skating rink (каток), the sauna (баня) and dips through a hole in the ice (проруб), sparklers (Бенгальские огни) and street theater.

Немного о языке

  • The verb “желать” means “to desire, to wish” and is most commonly used in the sense of wishing something for someone else, as in a birthday or holiday greeting. In this meaning its governance pattern is: желать кому (dat.) чего (gen.). That is, the thing (noun phrase) you are wishing goes in the genitive case. (This makes some sense because the genitive case is associated with absence, and if you are wishing something to someone the implication is that it is not yet immediately present.) This fact explains the numerous genitive case forms we see in the comments featured below. Even if the speaker does not explicitly say “желаю вам…” / “I wish you…” the verb “желать” is implied, so we see the genitive forms “здоровья” (nom. здоровье), мира (nom. мир), доброты (nom. доброта), любви (nom. любовь), счастья (nom. счастье), etc.
  • But what if you want to wish someone something more complicated that requires a whole clause with a verb? These sorts of wishes use the conjunction “чтобы” followed by a verb in the subjunctive mood (the subjunctive looks just like the past tense in Russian). You’ll see a construction like this at least twice below. Remember that the verb in this case is not in the past tense. E.g. “[Я хочу / я желаю,] чтобы каждый ощущал себя нужным” = “[I want / wish] that every person would feel wanted/needed.”
  • Holiday greetings are expressed with “с” + instr., as in the ubiquitous “С новым годом!” = “Happy New Year!” Remember that phrases like this are a truncated form of the full construction “Я вас [acc.] поздравляю с… (праздником, новым годом, днём рождения).” There is no natural-sounding literal translation of this construction into English, but the idea is something like “I greet/congratulate you on the occasion of (the holiday, the new year, your birthday).” It all sounds very normal in Russian, at least!
  • Although the usual verbs for “marking” or “celebrating” a holiday are “отмечать” or “праздновать,” the expression for celebrating the New Year is “встречать / встретить Новый год,” lit. “to meet the New Year.” Note how at the start of video one the anchor lets slip the more natural-sounding word “встретят” before correcting herself to follow the script with the word “отметят.” (News language often aims for expressive variation rather than colloquial style.)

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Video one has the most cohesive language practice and is fully transcribed, video two combines a visual tour across Russia with my transcriptions of several interesting comments that are scattered throughout the video and video three is included just for the visual and cultural interest.

(Scroll down for transcripts)


Video One: This report came out just as the New Year was passing through Russia’s Far East. Residents of Владивосток and Хабаровск share their wishes and hopes for the new year.


Video Two: This video is from New Year’s Day and shows images of the prior night’s celebration from across Russia. We start in Moscow

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Гуляния за Навального в день рождения Путина / Marching for Aleksei Navalny on Putin’s Birthday

Navalny march participant

Audio content: Young people in Moscow explaining why they came out to support Navalny at a demonstration.
Visual content: Young protesters and some of the protest memes (ducks).

Video available at TV Rain.

The anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny is running for president of Russia in the election scheduled for March 2018. His campaign is a quixotic one: Putin remains very popular across the country and is expected to run for another six-year term (although he has not yet made an announcement as of mid-November 2017); genuine opposition campaigns are suppressed with legal harassment and state control of the mass media; and Navalny is probably legally barred from appearing on the ballot because of embezzlement convictions in 2013 and 2017. The convictions appear to be politically motivated — the European Court of Human Rights declared the 2013 trial unfair and, in a sort of dark comedy, the Russian Supreme Court obligingly overturned the conviction, only for Navalny to be re-tried and re-convicted in 2017.

Nevertheless, Navalny is running an energetic American-style campaign. Starting in September 2017, he began travelling to weekend rallies in cities all over Russia, organizing them through his network of regional campaign offices. In Russia rallies in public spaces must be approved by the local government. The campaign’s opening series of rallies received this administrative approval, albeit usually for sites on the outskirts of town rather than in the preferred easy-to-reach central locations. Crowds of over 1,000 people came to hear Navalny speak and answer questions in Murmansk, Yekaterinburg, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, so that over two weeks the politician criss-crossed Russia from the far north to the far east.

On the morning of September 29, however, just as Navalny was headed to catch a train from Moscow to a planned rally in Nizhny Novgorod, he was detained and charged with repetitive violation of the procedure for organizing public meetings. On October 2nd he was sentenced to 20 days in prison. He has since been released and the battle between Navalny’s campaign and its many opponents continues. As local authorities have been more frequently denying outright permits for public meetings, the campaign has taken to to organizing rallies on private property. When such a meeting occurred in Tambov in late October, several local campaign workers were arrested and given short sentences for violating administrative procedures. After a meeting in Irkutsk, the businessman who had offered his privately owned retail space for the rally was arrested. In Kemerovo, the boyfriend of Navalny’s local campaign coordinator was expelled from his university and her mother was fired from her job. Because Navalny is particularly popular among high school and university students, local leaders will sometimes conduct “prophylactic talks” (профилактическая беседа) with young people in advance of rallies, urging them not to be tempted by Navalny’s rhetoric.

The event featured in this post occurred on October 7 in Moscow while Navalny was serving his short sentence in prison. October 7th happened to be Putin’s 65th birthday and Navalny’s supporters ironically marked this event with a number of protest events in major cities. The TV Rain correspondent Vladimir Romensky interviews a few of the Moscow demonstrators. You will see that two of the interviewees are holding duck-shaped balloons, which, as they explain, have become a symbol of opposition and anti-corruption politics as a result of Navalny’s investigations of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, who was found to have a special house for ducks on a pond on one of his vacation properties. The Moscow march was not officially approved, so participants presented themselves as simply being out for a walk along Moscow’s central Tverskaia Street. Only one person was arrested, unlike some of the summer protest rallies where well over 1,000 young people were detained.

For more great language practice related to Aleksei Navalny and his movement, see this post on his speech at an opposition rally in 2015 and this post on nationwide anti-corruption demonstrations in March 2017.


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Navalny march participant 2

Watch the video at TV Rain.


Russian Transcript


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Московский велопарад / Moscow Bike Parade

Bicyclist in Moscow

Audio content: Moscow residents describe their experience cycling in the city.
Visual content: Members of Moscow’s cycling community, some in festive costumes.

Video available at Певрый канал.

Moscow’s aggressive traffic and capricious weather are no barrier to the bicyclists featured in this post’s video! Although the Moscow Metro is, quite rightly, the most famous means of transportation associated with the city, the bicycling movement has also been making a mark in Moscow over the past several years. The bicycle sharing program Велобайк began in 2013 and has grown to include 380 automated rental points around the city. Bicycle paths and marked lanes (велодорожки, велополосы) have appeared in a few places, as you can see in this map provided by the advocacy group Веломосква. The people in the video featured here are taking part in a nighttime bike parade in July 2017. These organized rides, featuring roads closed to traffic and a festive, casual atmosphere, appear to take place about four times a year — so you might be able to join a parade yourself if you end up in Moscow at some point! The transcript below highlights some of the more easily understandable comments by parade participants.

Заметки о языке: Some of the richness of Russian verbs of motion is visible in the transcribed passage. We see the multidirectional imperfective verb “ездить,” the unidirectional imperfective verb “ехать” and the perfective verb “поехать.” “Ездить” comes up when one of the speakers is referring to his commute in general, both to and from work; “ехать” (conj. еду, едешь) appears as soon as he wishes to refer specifically to one leg of the trip, i.e. describing the literal process of motion in a single direction; and “поехать” appears when the correspondent wants to say “let’s set off!”.

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День ВДВ в парке Горького / Paratrooper Day in Gorky Park

paratrooper celebrating in Gorky Park

Audio content: Former paratroopers talking about how they celebrate their famous annual holiday.
Visual content: Paratroopers young and old in their “telniashka” shirts, Gorky Park, people swimming in fountains, paratrooper banners.

Watch the video at Телеканал Дождь.

One late summer event that always gets a fair amount of media attention in Russia is День ВДВ, i.e. “Paratrooper” or “Airborne Forces Day,” marked annually on August 2. “ВДВ” stands for “Воздушно-десантные войска” (“Air descent forces”) — soldiers trained to parachute from airplanes into enemy territory. August 2 is the anniversary of the first jump by airborne forces in 1930, and it’s now the day that both current and retired paratroopers — often called “десантники” — gather together to express pride in their organization, have a good time and reminisce with former comrades. Anything related to aviation had a special cachet starting in the early days of the Soviet Union, which may be one reason this particular segment of the military is so celebrated. Or maybe it’s just the paratroopers’ holiday flair that has drawn attention. In any case, two key elements are always associated with this celebration: watermelons and swimming in fountains. Neither element is necessarily officially supported, as a certain irrepressible lawlessness is part of the cultural image of the holiday. In recent years watermelons have not actually been supplied. (If I understand correctly, paratroopers paying for the watermelons was never part of the tradition.) Many men do end up in public fountains regardless of whether park administrators have decided to officially allow this activity. In Moscow, paratroopers traditionally gather in Gorky Park (Парк Горького). They wear blue berets and тельняшки, the iconic blue-and-white striped shirts that are part of their uniform (they are also part of the Navy uniform, and are fairly commonly worn by men outside the military as well). Many of them drink alcohol. In 2017 revelers reported that security allowed alcohol into the park as long as it was in plastic containers. A common exclamation is “Слава ВДВ!” (Glory to VDV!), which you can hear shouted at 9:55 in the video for this post. The paratrooper motto is “Никто кроме нас!” (“No one but us!”). Although the holiday has a reputation for rowdiness, it can also be a family event, and reports indicate that in recent years more and more men are bringing their wives and children for a picnic in the park.

In 2017 a reporter for НТВ reporting on this event was unfortunately punched live on air by a drunk man yelling about Ukraine — but it was reported that he was just a bystander, not actually a paratrooper (he was wearing neither a telniashka nor a beret). Nevertheless, perhaps in that spirit, the reporter from TV Rain who went to Gorky Park in 2017 ended up talking mostly to paratroopers who were too inebriated or too profane in their speech to provide good material for language practice (the profanity is bleeped out, so there is no learning potential there). So I went back to the segment for 2016, when TV Rain’s intrepid Vladimir Romensky managed to interview quite a few men who had interesting things to say about their military service and the holiday traditions. All of the segments were enjoyable to watch so I included them all below — pick what you like. In the first segment, a relentlessly optimistic and pleasant young paratrooper manages to fend off Romensky’s somewhat challenging questions in his determination to give the holiday a positive and appealing face and downplay all the wars happening in the world right now. In the second segment, a middle-aged man shares some interesting information about traditions of paratrooper service and the ways the army has changed over the past few decades. And in the third segment, a man who is a bit more profane and drunk than the first two puts an interesting spin on the question of whether or not to swim in fountains on this day.

Here’s a photo gallery from the 2017 celebration in Gorky Park.

Заметки о языке:
– A common nonstandard or regional variation of Russian is to use the preposition “с” in place of “из.” For example, referring to a city, a  person who does not speak standard Russian might say “с ростовской области” or “с Пензы” (the city) instead of “из ростовской области” or “из Пензы.”
– The third speaker uses “ё-моё” several times as a euphemism for obscene language. Obscene phrases and their euphemisms can be tossed into speech almost as a filler, to express mild surprise or irritation.

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paratrooper by fountain

Watch the video at Телеканал Дождь.


Russian Transcript

Part One

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Путин о “вмешательстве” в выборы / Putin’s Comments on “Interference” in Elections

Russian language practice. Putin speaking at Petersburg Economic Forum, seated

Audio content: Putin responds to questions about Russian interference in the US presidential election. Includes many examples of his trademark folksy-aggressive communicative style.

Video embedded below and available on Youtube. [UPDATED 7/23/2017 after the previous video was taken down]

I thought Luch sveta readers and Russian language learners would find it interesting to check in on what President Vladimir Putin has been saying about claims of Russian interference in foreign elections. The video featured in this post is also an excellent example of Putin’s distinctive speech style (see comments below). To get a real feel for who Putin is, you need to hear him speaking in Russian in a non-scripted, combative setting like this one.

In the clip below, Putin responds to questions from NBC News journalist Megyn Kelly during an event at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (Петербургский международный экономический форум) in early June 2017. (Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is sitting between the two of them.) The Forum is an annual event intended to build connections between Russian and foreign business and political leaders. The event has become quite prestigious since Putin began promoting and attending it regularly in the mid-2000s.

Keep some background information in mind as you listen to Putin’s comments. In October 2016 the U.S. Intelligence Community announced that it was confident the Russian government was behind the hacking of Democratic National Committee emails. In January 2017 the CIA and FBI expressed “high confidence” that Putin had personally ordered a broad influence campaign meant to improve Trump’s election prospects and also undermine faith in the U.S. democratic process regardless of which candidate would win. The same report found that Russian hackers had gained access to voter information from several U.S. state election systems, but it did not find that actual vote tallies were altered. The Russian government’s influence campaign also involved the spreading of false information on social media channels. Russia’s influence campaigns are not limited to the U.S.; Russian media outlets also spread false information during the spring 2017 French presidential campaign, and the eventual victor, French President Emmanuel Macron, said that his campaign experienced many hacking attempts.

The Russian government’s response, as you’ll see in the video, is to deny the allegations, labeling them as hysterical or irrational Russophobia. Putin suggests that

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День победы 2017 / Victory Day 2017

boy holding portrait of veteran

Audio content: Participants in Moscow’s Victory Day celebration tell the story of their family’s connection to the war.
Video content: Images of the “Immortal Regiment” Victory Day event in Moscow.

Links to two videos below.

My first blog post concerned the remarkable “Immortal Regiment” event that has become a popular part of Russia’s annual Victory Day (День победы) celebration on May 9. Two years later, the event has only grown in scale, and so I thought I’d offer some fresh material drawn from the most recent iteration of this popular parade. While many people associate Russia’s Victory Day celebration with the traditional Soviet military parade (the military parade still occurs; for images, see this video), the “Immortal Regiment” is a very different event, one based on the mass participation of regular citizens. The point is that people walk while carrying portraits of family members — parents, grandparents and great-grandparents — who participated in the “Great Patriotic War” (or, “Great Fatherland War,” Великая Отечественная Война), as World War II is known in Russian. The event allows even those ancestors who did not live to see the end of the war, or who were far away from major cities when Germany surrendered, to symbolically participate in a victory parade. The event mixes happiness and sorrow as Russians celebrate a historical moment of great national pride while preserving the memory of the immense sacrifices made to defeat the Nazis.

The “Immortal Regiment” is a new phenomenon in Russia. The first Immortal Regiment was spontaneously organized by journalists at an independent TV station in Tomsk in 2011. (The station, ТВ2, no longer broadcasts — like most other non-government-affiliated media outlets, it was gradually shut down in 2014.) The Tomsk event was soon picked up at the federal level and began to receive government support. “Immortal Regiment” marches now occur in cities across Russia and in former Soviet republics or nations with significant Russian populations. Vladimir Putin joined the event in Moscow for the first time in 2015 and this year once again walked at the head of the Immortal Regiment. Official estimates are that 850,000 participated in this year’s event in Russia’s capital, where the route runs down Tverskaia Street to Red Square, and that eight million people marched across the country.

The main symbol of Victory Day in Russia is

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