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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

There Is More to Sitting Than Sitting Around

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Ever since I learned that variations of the Russian verb "to finish" can indicate suicide or sexual satisfaction, I have been very, very careful about "finishing" anything.

Similarly, the seemingly straightforward sidet', or to sit, also gave me pause for reflection when I realized there is a whole lot more to this Russian verb than planting yourself on the sofa with the remote control.

How many times, for example, have you heard the expression, khorosho sidim when you are gathered with friends around a festive table or an outing in the country. Picture the scenario: Someone has just told a good joke and the laugh track has died down just long enough for someone to wipe away a tear of joy and say, "We're really sitting well."

Nope. A literal translation does not begin to do this expression justice.

But just as a direct translation can underestimate the best sides of sitting, so too can one paint a happier face on the less cheerful places to sit, such as tyur'ma, or prison. Many Russians will not even say ya sidel v tyur'me, or I was sitting in prison. They will simply say, I was sitting.

About one in four men, according to prison reform groups, spend some time "sitting," so this is likely to come up in conversation a lot more often than you think. For clarification, they often indicate how long they were sitting. So if someone tells you ya sidel dvadtsat' let, or I was sitting for twenty years, you can be fairly certain — unless you are speaking to some modern day Oblomov — that he was a zek, which is short for zaklyuchyonny, or prisoner.

Just as a zek sits, so does the government sazhayet, or plants.

Menya posadili na dvadtsat' let, or I was planted for twenty years, is another way of referring to your time behind bars. It is unclear what, exactly, the government reaps after these many years of sowing, but it did set up an entire system of camps, or gulags, for this very purpose.

Gulag, like zek, is now an accepted part of the English language (at least according to the Scrabble dictionary), but few know exactly where the word gulag comes from: it is short for glavnoye upravleniye lagerei, or government labor camp administration.

One of the many responsibilities of this administration was to keep finding new places fitting for exile. That is how, one friend told me, Omsk earned its name. Omsk, that Siberian city where the likes of Fyodor Dostoevsky sat, stands for otdalyonnoye mesto ssylki katorzhnykh, or distant place to banish prisoners. And Tomsk, I asked? He looked puzzled for a moment before replying: tozhe otdalyonnoye mesto ssylki katorzhnykh, or, also a distant place to banish prisoners.

Genine Babakian is on vacation. This is one of her favorite columns.