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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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 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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Юбилей первой женщины в космосе / Birthday Celebrations for the First Woman in Space

Valentina Tereshkova

Audio Content: On her eightieth birthday, Valentina Tereshkova reminisces about her groundbreaking flight into space. The post also includes a few examples of heartfelt, formal Russian birthday congratulations and an interesting exchange that shows what governing looks like in the Putin era.
Video Content: Great archival images of Tereshkova’s training and space flight and of her life today as a member of the Duma.

Links to two videos are below.

The Soviet Union was responsible for many of humanity’s space firsts, including the first artificial satellite put into orbit, the first man in space and the first woman in space. The first man in space, the beloved hero Yuri Gagarin, died in a jet crash while still in his 30s, but the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, has enjoyed a long public career in the space program and in politics. She is currently a deputy in the Duma representing her native region, Yaroslavl Oblast.

Tereshkova celebrated her 80th birthday on March 6th, 2017 and was prominently featured in news reports that day. The videos below remind viewers of her history: how she was a simple worker at a textile factory in Yaroslavl, participated avidly in a local aviation and parachuting group, was chosen as one of five finalists for the project of sending a woman into space and launched into orbit on June 16, 1963. Tereshkova’s reminiscences are interspersed with archival footage of her training and flight.

The videos are also of interest for a few other reasons. They include an excellent example of the sort of greeting that might be extended to someone in Russia on her birthday — typically very warm, even gushy, somewhat lengthy and formal (see the end of video one). Video two, in which Vladimir Putin offers gifts and congratulations to Tereshkova, offers an interesting view of the public image of governance in a more or less authoritarian, single-party-dominant political system: Tereshkova thanks Putin for sending Yaroslavl a great new governor, Putin thanks her for her support, and everyone ostensibly is working together for the good of the region with none of what Putin might view as the ineffective squabbling of a democracy. Finally, we also encounter some contradictory Russian views of gender, at least as they tend to be expressed on one of the mass-audience federal television channels. In the first video in the news report (actually video two below) the anchor early on refers to Tereshkova as a representative of the “отнюдь не слабый пол” “the definitely-not-weaker sex.” But later, in the second segment (video one below), the elaborate celebration of Tereshkova ends with a reference to women as “представителницы слабого пола” “representatives of the weaker sex”! The term is casually employed for variety and rhetorical flourish. The two uses manage, in the one instance, to acknowledge the derogatory implications of the term and, in the other instance, to present it as an innocuous reference to physical differences.

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Russian Transcript

Video One

Valentina Tereshkova

Watch the video at Первый канал

Ведущая: Добрые пожелания в адрес Валентины Терешковой сегодня звучат от ее коллег по парламенту, друзей и просто тех, кто помнит, как она вписала новую строчку в историю космонавтики. […]

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Крещенское купание в проруби / An Icy Swim for the Baptism Feast

Epiphany icy swimming hole

Audio Content: Comments from people who are marking Epiphany (Baptism of the Lord) with a purifying wintertime dip in icy water.
Visual Content: Images from across Russia of the baptism practice, including cross-shaped holes in the ice, the blessing of the water, church processions, threefold dips in the water and people in bathing suits.

Watch the video at Первый канал.

On January 19, the Russian Orthodox Church and other Christian churches in the eastern tradition mark the religious holiday Крещение Господне (Baptism of the Lord), also known as Богоявление (the Appearance of God). The holiday commemorates Jesus’s baptism as an adult in the River Jordan. The rite was performed by John the Baptist and is considered to mark the beginning of Jesus’s public life. The Gospels claim that during the baptism God spoke from heaven, proclaiming Jesus his son, and also that the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a dove; thus Jesus’s divine nature was revealed. This Orthodox holiday roughly corresponds to the Roman Catholic Epiphany, which similarly marks the appearance of God (“epiphany” comes from the Greek for “showing” or “appearance”), although the western holiday is primarily associated with the visit of the three wise men shortly after Jesus’s birth. Technically, Epiphany / Крещение falls on January 6th in both western and eastern Christian churches. However, since the Russian Orthodox Church follows the Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar, the celebration falls on January 19th in secular terms.

Water is believed to acquire extra purifying power on the feast of Крещение. Many believers mark the holiday by baptizing themselves in icy water, dipping three times successively in holes cut through the frozen surface of lakes and ponds. The hole in the ice is often cut in the shape of a large cross; the water is then blessed by members of the clergy. Warming stations with hot beverages are commonly set up to support the icy swimmers. Believers are convinced that their commemorative baptisms bring both spiritual and physical benefits: the holy and very cold water washes away sins, purifies the soul, gives the body a refreshing energetic shock and contributes to good health throughout the following year. Thus these icy baptisms illustrate the growth of Orthodox religious practice in today’s Russia as well as the longstanding popularity of folk medicine in Russian culture. One article I read reported that more than 1.8 million people marked Крещение with baptisms in 2017.

This post lets you listen in on a few of the comments believers make about their dips in the icy water. You can see several more pictures of the ritual in this article.

Заметки о языке: The hole in the ice is called a “прорубь” from the verb “прорубить”=”to chop through.” “Окунаться в проруби”=”to take a dip in a hole in the ice.” After 2:25, the priest appends the conversational suffix “-то” to a few words. This adds emphasis and in some ways is a replacement for the definite article that doesn’t exist in Russian. After 3:50, “обалденный” (from the verb “обалдеть,” to be stunned) is a fun slang word for “awesome, amazing.”

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Video Clip

young woman out for baptism dip

View the video clip at Первый канал.


Russian Transcript

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Путин высмеивает американскую политику / Putin Mocks American Politics

Putin at a forum with CNN journalist

Audio Content: At a forum with a CNN journalist, Putin clarifies his mistranslated description of Trump as “bright” and takes some shots at U.S. democracy.

Video clip embedded below or at RT’s YouTube channel.

Here is one more video on Putin, Trump, and American democracy, to wrap up what turned out to be a four-part series on elections both American and Russian. This excerpt offers a taste of Putin’s distinctive communication style, public persona and attitude toward the West. The clip also sheds light on an interesting Russian-English translation snafu that surfaced memorably in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The video featured in today’s post comes from the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum held in mid-June 2016. In the clip, Putin responds to a question from the CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria, who was moderating a forum that also included the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and the Prime Minister of Italy, Matteo Renzi.

The translation issue I mentioned above involves the word “яркий” (yarkii). At a December 2015 press conference, Putin responded to a question about Trump by describing him as a “яркий” person. Many U.S. news outlets translated this word as “brilliant,” which Trump interpreted in an intellectual sense, quickly exaggerating the incident into the claim that Putin called him a “genius.” But the word “яркий” never has this intellectual connotation; its range of meaning is closer to that of the word “vivid.” In a visual sense the word means “bright” or “colorful” and in a metaphorical sense it means “flashy” or “flamboyant.” Putin was describing Trump’s persona, not his intelligence. In this clip he lightly mocks the journalistic brouhaha over his offhand comment.

The video clip also displays Putin’s diplomatic and public relations skills. He starts and ends his comments with bits of disarming flattery, which bracket several biting criticisms delivered in an amiable tone. As I mentioned in the previous post, Putin is good at “trolling” the West. Here he reprises some of his usual complaints and criticisms: that our political system is not nearly as democratic as we claim, that the West tends to “lecture” Russia in a hypocritical and meddlesome manner, and that the West is unnecessarily hostile in spite of Russia’s desire for friendly relations. Putin makes all these comments with the demeanor that he usually displays to international audiences: he comes across as confident and charming, folksy yet mature, clever and reasonable, full of common sense and essentially benevolent intentions. He presents Russia as acting justly and honestly while being treated unfairly. This skilled rhetoric tends to make his interlocutors appear slightly ridiculous or foolish, although Putin masks the attack with his personal charm. Finally, in contrast to the previous post that featured a prewritten speech in a formal register, in this clip Putin speaks ad lib and reveals traces of the casual, folksy speaking style that appeals to his Russian listeners. Note the use of the conversational “чё” in place of “что” at one point, as well as the mildly combative phrase “а что” (“so what?” / “what the heck are you implying?” / “what’s wrong with what I’m saying?”).

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