Falling From 7th Heaven

Небо коптить: goof around, waste one's time

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When things get dark and dreary -- for example, when you spend 10 hours a day online watching your retirement fund turn into worthless paper -- you might do what humans everywhere have done throughout the ages. No, not curse, cry or drink a tumbler of vodka in one long gulp. You might instead поднять глаза к небу (cast your eyes heavenward).

Небо means both the physical sky and the metaphysical heaven, the latter often denoted by the plural небеса. In specialized contexts, it can mean the roof or top of something, like the roof of your mouth (usually spelled нёбо) or the top of an animal's den: Я лег на небо берлоги, поймал барсука и вытащил его (I lay down on the top of the den, caught the badger and pulled him out).

There are many heavenly expressions in Russian that are useful in times of both joy and despair. Let's say one of your friends, Vasya, has been playing the stock market and raking in the rubles. Получив дивиденды, он был на седьмом небе от счастья (When he saw his dividends, he was so happy, he was in seventh heaven). Vasya's success in picking the winners was noted by his coworkers. Все коллеги превозносили его до небес (All of his colleagues praised him to the skies).

To make so much money, Vasya had to keep his nose to the grindstone. Вася так пахал, что даже небу жарко стало (Vasya worked his fingers to the bone; literally, "He worked so hard that even heaven became hot"). This annoyed him because other people seemed to be making money with no effort at all. Ему показалось, что другим деньги просто сваливаются с неба (He thought that for other people money just fell from the sky). But all the same, he enjoyed his new wealth and thought it would last forever. He made plans to buy a new car, build a dacha and remodel his apartment.

But then disaster struck. В чёрный понедельник Вася спустился с небес на землю (On Black Monday, Vasya came down to earth with a jolt). He looked at his stock portfolio. Ему небо с овчинку показалось (He was scared out of his wits; literally, "It seemed to him that the sky was the size of a sheepskin" -- an image of his world shrinking).

He tried to make adjustments to his portfolio, but he could no longer pick a winner. Как ни старался, он постоянно попадал пальцем в небо (No matter how hard he tried, he kept missing by a long shot; literally, "He kept pointing his finger to the sky"). This expression comes from a game in which a blindfolded person points to where they think a person is standing. If they miss and point to empty air -- небо -- they lose.

His colleagues are unsympathetic. Ты что -- с неба свалился? Неужели ты не понимал, как рискуешь? (Were you born yesterday; literally, "Did you just fall from the sky?" Did you really not understand the risk?)

The market was so volatile that for a few days he couldn't figure out if he was up or down. Он пребывал между небом и землёй (He was up in the air; literally, "between heaven and earth").

And then it all became clear. He had lost everything. Жизнь до и после финансового краха -- как небо и земля (Life before and after his financial ruin was like night and day).

He didn't know what to do with himself. When his colleagues asked what he was up to, he just replied: Я почти ничего не делаю. Просто небо копчу (I don't do much of anything. I'm just goofing around; literally, "I'm smoking the sky").

The moral of this story? Все мы под небом ходим (Anything can happen; literally, "We all walk under heaven").

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.