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.)

SUBSCRIBE and you’ll get an email every time there’s a new post, or like the FACEBOOK page to see updates in your news feed.



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

Read more…

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.

SUBSCRIBE and you’ll get an email every time there’s a new post. Like the FACEBOOK PAGE in order to see more frequent, casual posts of interesting news and videos.


paratrooper by fountain

Watch the video at Телеканал Дождь.

Russian Transcript

Part One

Read more…

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

Read more…

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.”

SUBSCRIBE and you’ll get an email every time there’s a new post. Or, you can keep in touch by liking the site’s Facebook page.


Video Clip

young woman out for baptism dip

View the video clip at Первый канал.


Russian Transcript

Read more…

Пасхальный Благодатный огонь / The Easter Holy Fire

Russian language practice from the contemporary Russian media / holy fire in Jerusalem

Audio content: Orthodox believers discussing their experiences and feelings as they meet the Easter “Holy Fire” at a Moscow airport
Visual content: Liturgical candle lighting and lanterns

Easter in the Eastern Orthodox Church doesn’t arrive until May 1 this year. (The date is calculated according to the phases of the moon, and also tends to fall later in the year because the Orthodox Church operates on the Julian calendar.) That means that Orthodox believers are still in the middle of the Великий пост (Great Fast or Lent), the 40-day period that involves the denial of certain worldly pleasures in preparation for the joyous celebration of the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday.

One event that Orthodox believers can look forward to is the yearly arrival of the “Благодатный огонь.” This phrase can be translated as “Holy Fire” but actually indicates something along the lines of “the fire that provides abundant blessings.” This fire appears on the evening of Holy Saturday, the night before Easter, at the храм Гроба Господня (Church of the Lord’s Tomb) in Jerusalem. This church is located at the site where Jesus is thought to have been buried after his crucifixion and where he subsequently rose from the dead. Many believers assert that the fire arises miraculously each year, although there has long been disagreement on this point even among members of the Church. In any case, the fire is distributed from the inner sanctum out to the worshipers in the church; it is also transported on special airline flights from Jerusalem to multiple centers of Orthodox belief around the world.

In the below videos we see

Read more…