It’s time for a few a more musical, mountain-dwelling lobsters – and then we’re out. Frankly it’s a theme that could run on and on, such is the depth and richness of Russian language and culture. My personal favourite phrases and idioms convey their ancient, rustic origins. For instance:
“And the wolves are fed and the sheep are safe”
This is a Russian phrase that has parallels with the English “having your cake and eating it”. In other words; a situation that is too good to be true. It evokes images of a rural existence where situations regarding livestock and predators were prominent factors in daily life. For many, still living directly from the land in Siberia, they still are. In a similar vein:
“(To) share (the) skin (of a) not-killed bear”
Here is another evocative phrase that speaks of a time in Russian/Siberian history when pelts were Siberia’s main export. Over the centuries, the increasing modernisation of Russia happened principally in the Western, European extremity of the country until the Trans-Siberian Railway opened up the vast interior from 1891. A complete connection between Moscow and Vladivostok was finally achieved in 1904. Until that point, Siberia was principally a place for expelling undesirables to and importing furs and other trade items from. Polite Russia’s vast, wild, backyard (in other words). It’s incredible to think that the final rail connection was only nailed into place a mere 111 years ago. I digress.
Back to the phrase at hand. If you were already dividing up the pelt of a still-living bear, you would of course be “counting your chickens before they have hatched” in tamer, Western-speak.
This is another beauty:
“Prepare (the) sled in Summer and (the) cart in Winter”
Such a phrase could only originate from a society that once lived and died by the extremities of the seasons. It’s similar to our “make hay while the sun shines” – but stronger, and speaks of preparedness and obligations according to circumstance.
Superstition also plays its part. Seemingly inseparable from rustic cultures living close to the elements the world over. One man’s “superstition” can sometimes be another’s religion of course. No surprises then that in a country where the Orthodox Church is a major force and institution (Communism couldn’t destroy it), the following appears:
“In (a) quiet slough; devils (are) found”
That’s a fabulously creepy example. “Slough” is a word rarely used today – unless referring to the eponymous Berkshire town – but it essentially means a swamp, mire or wetland. The whole phrase is a darker twist on our “still waters run deep”, with the decided implication that whatever may lie underneath the deceptively calm surface – it isn’t good.
I’ll leave you with the most Siberian example I could find, and one worth dropping, obliquely whenever a colleague, politician or cringe-able pain-in-the-rear is expounding the virtues of his own worth:
“Every Sandpiper praises his (own) swamp”
Yes, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is a species of wetland bird indigenous to Eastern Siberia (I checked) and sadly; under threat of extinction. Unfortunately and by contrast: self-serving trumpet-blowers appear on this evidence to be a plague the world over!
Never mind; wry humour is a tool to continually assail them – as this example shows. It’s worth investigating the phrases and idioms of Russia (and other cultures) further; there’s a real treasure trove just waiting to be picked over. Enjoy.
(Photo by Paco Busteros)