Love, Sex and the Color of the Russian Soul

"My golub." This is what my grandmother used to call me. Or sometimes, even more affectionately, golubok. Golub means pigeon or dove -- the gentle, softly cooing bird of peace.

The most authoritative dictionary of the Russian language, compiled by Vladimir Dal more than 150 years ago, lists some other, related forms of this word. Golubit means "to pet," "to be tender," "to caress." Golubatsya means "to ride on a swing." There is also a type of berry that grows in Russia's northern marshes called golubika, which is dark blue with a gray-bluish coating. Finally, there is a dish that consists of ground beef rolled up in cabbage leaves which are called golubtsy (perhaps because of some resemblance to sleeping doves?).

All of the words listed above are formed from a single root, the word goluboi, which is just one shade of a group of colors that in English is all lumped together as "blue." Dal says that goluboi is light blue, azure, the color of the sky. Modern science defines it as the color halfway between green and dark blue.

For some reason, goluboi has become the basic color of Russian poetry and painting. "Beneath the azure heavens," writes Pushkin, capturing in these few words all the shades of meaning listed above (with the exception, perhaps, of the dish made of cabbage and ground beef). Goluben is the name of the first book of poems by Sergei Yesenin, perhaps the most Russian of poets and certainly one of the most beloved. Goluboi was one of his favorite words, which he applied seemingly indiscriminantly to describe his native country, a grove of trees, eyes, youth, happiness ... Basically, Yesenin used this word to describe everything that was most dear and precious in life. Also, goluboi was the favorite color of the artist Marc Chagall and, more recently, of Viktor Popkov.

How can we explain the attraction between Russians and this particular color? The famous Russian geographer Veniamin Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky was the first to juxtapose and combine geographic and artistic concepts. He believed that art was an attempt to convey the synthetic particularities of a given country. In 1928, he wrote that "the concept 'orange' is alien to the average Russian, but he makes a distinction between 'dark blue' and 'goluboi,' something that the French and Germans do not do." He argued that the colors of landscapes are always "geographical" and therefore express the national/natural way of perceiving color.

Without doubt, one can see this color in the snow drifts that cover the Russian land, in the washed-out skies over the steppes, in the beautiful cornflowers (the flower most prominent in Russian folklore) and forget-me-nots that peek out from vast fields of rye.

Foreigners living in Russia often fail to appreciate these nuances. They think that they can understand Russians without learning Russian. But volcanic German, hysterical French, indifferent English -- they have little in common with tender Russian. The Russian character closely combines the masculine and the feminine: Russian men, brutish in appearance but tender within, are complimented by fragile, but strong-willed Russian women.

I read recently in a handout given to foreign students on a study program in Moscow the warning that Russians often try to turn friendly relations into sexual relationships. Experience shows, however, that in many cases it is foreigners who are only interested in Russians as sexual partners. They are enchanted by the ease with which many Russians, both men and women, enter into sexual relationships with foreigners and the willingness with which they share not only their passions, but part of their souls as well.

"Golubok," a woman whispers, "My golubchik." And in her heartfelt sigh, one hears the combination "o-lu-o-lu" and an echo of the word lyubov, love. One hears a mournful lamentation and the desire to prigolubit, to caress, to sooth, to comfort. The Russian language is the voice of the Russian character and the key to the Russian soul.

Now, one more meaning of the word goluboi: This is the word Russians most commonly use to refer to homosexuals. None of the more "European" terms for referring to this sexual minority have caught on in Russia. In normal speech, Russians have bestowed their most beloved color on these "moonlight people" (to borrow the title of philosopher Vasily Rozanov's study of homosexuality). Of course there are other, ruder terms for gays -- Russian is rich in rude terms in general -- but goluboi is the word that has become most widely accepted, and in it, one can feel tenderness, sadness, even sympathy. In Russian, the word stretches out and expresses affection in its interweaving of vowels and consonants. It sounds beautiful.

Surveys show that over the last year, the percentage of Russians with positive attitudes toward gays has increased from 9 percent to 24 percent. And this has occurred despite the negative activity that has been carried out in this subculture by many Americans, "fighting for the rights of sexual minorities," whose aggressive inclinations are often offensive to Russian sensibilities. They are used to "fighting" for their rights in America, and they have carried the fight here, often provoking negative reactions among Russians. Many American gay activists are simply trying to confirm their own worth at the expense of Russian golubye, whom they mistakenly perceive as mute and ashamed.

Russians have a wonderful expression: "Don't bring your own rules into someone else's house." But these American activists haven't bothered to learn Russian well enough to understand this wisdom. This is just one of the reasons why anti-American sentiments are more and more often finding their way into Russian newspapers and magazines.

Nonetheless, Russia continues to attract foreigners from all cultures largely through the strength of the warm personal relations that the Russian people offer. To these foreigners, I would say that this word -- goluboi -- may be a key to understanding the Russian character.

As early as the 15th century, this color became a standard characteristic of Russian icons. The Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ and the apostles were usually draped in azure robes, symbolizing the purity of their thoughts and the depth and sincerity of their feelings. Russian churches were decorated with light-blue cupolas dotted with golden stars in an effort to make people appreciate the joy of the Orthodox faith and the intimacy of genuine religious feeling.

Deeply embedded in the Russian language, this word may explain the responsiveness and attentiveness of Russians in love. Both homosexuals and heterosexuals, entering into sexual relations, seek not merely to fornicate, but to golubit, to caress. And the spirituality contained within the two words goluboi and lyubov, azure and love, infuses human interrelations with an inexpressibly rich content.

Alexander Shatalov is a poet, journalist and editor in chief of the publishing house Glagol. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.