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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Mystery of the Russian Soul

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??????? ??????? ????: the mystery of the Russian soul

The Russian soul is a mystery indeed. You start with a few soulful expressions of love and intimacy, and before you know it, you've moved into the realm of economics and murder.

That is to say, ???? (soul) has many shadings of meaning and is the source of a great many idiomatic expressions. When you love someone profoundly, you can say: ? ?????? ??? ????? ? ?????. (I loved him body and soul.) When you want to express your heartfelt generosity, you can say, ??? ??????? ???? ??????. (Eat to your heart's content, literally, eat as much as your soul wishes.) ???? can also be a stand-in for "conscience": ? ????????? ????? (I went against my conscience, or I went against my heart.) If you are feeling anxious and ill at ease, you can say, ? ???? ?? ???? ????? ???????, literally, "cats are scratching at my soul." And if you are terrified, you can say, ???? ? ????? ????! Out of fear, the soul departs the body through its homophone: The expression is literally "my soul left my body through the soles of my feet." In English we usually say, "I was scared to death!" or "I was scared stiff!"

When you want to describe a tear-jerker, "a weepie," or "a three-hankie movie," you call it ??????????????? ?????. When something is heartrending, in Russian it's "???????????????" as in the phrase, ?? ???????? ???? ???????????????. (Their parting was heartrending; their parting tore at my heartstrings.) Someone who is mentally ill in Russian is ??????????????, literally, "ailing in his soul," which has always seemed to me to be a profound and compassionate way to describe a troubled individual. However, when you say, ????? ????, (literally "my soul aches"), you mean that you are very disturbed by something, or, with the phrase ????? ???? ?? ????, you feel deep compassion ("my heart goes out to him").

???? also means "a soul" in the sense of "a living being." ??? ?? ???? ?? ????? ????. (There wasn't a soul there.) It can also be used in the economic sense of "per head" or "per capita": ?????? ?? ???? ????????? ??????. (Per capita income is growing.) In the old days, before the great emancipation, ???? could also refer to a serf. Gogol's ??????? ???? (Dead Souls) referred to a good old Russian scam of buying up dead serfs and somehow making a profit on the deal. (And once again I maintain that you needn't blame the Wicked West for post-Soviet scams and cons; all you have to do is open a few Russian classics to see where people got their ideas.)

If we go back even further in time, to when the Russian language was being codified, ???? and ??? (spirit) were one word that conveyed the sense of "spirit," "breath," or "life's breath." Over time, many concepts of breathing evolved along the ??? line, but some still remain in the ???? branch. ?????? is "to strangle" (to squeeze the breath out of someone), although it can also be translated as "smother" in the lovely phrase ?? ????? ???? ? ????????. (He smothered me with hugs.) Or it can have a more sinister meaning in the phrase ??? ????? ???? (he was choked with rage).

Perfume in Russian is ????, but to wear perfume is ????????. ??? ???? ?????? ???????? ?????? "??????? ??????." (My mother always wore Red Moscow perfume.) ????? means "stifling" or "stuffy" (i.e., when you can't breathe): ? ??????? ???? ??? ?????, ??? ? ???? ?? ????? ? ???????. (It was so stuffy in the tram, I almost fainted.) ????? can be a bad smell or a "tinge" of something in the figurative sense: ?? ????? ??? ?????? ? ?????? ??????. (He writes for a right-wing newspaper.)

Jumping from love to serfs to economics to asphyxiation can be wearying to us poor foreign souls, trying to make sense of Russia and Russians. Whenever you are totally at a loss, you can always say, ??? ??????? ??????? ????! (It's the mystery of the Russian soul.)

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator.