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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Language of Proverbs and Sayings

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На всякого Егорку есть поговорка: There's a saying for every occasion

It seems like the main theme of every op-ed piece for the last two weeks is: What's up with those Russians? Is it their history, their climate or their genes that makes them so puzzling and so, well, not like us?

After Churchill's enigmas, mysteries and riddles are rolled out and historical analogies are plumbed, someone usually gets around to culture. The pundits say that Russians just don't trust the messiness of democracy and that they crave a strong hand. And they prove it with a folk saying or two. Без царя
— земля вдова. (Without the tsar, the land is widowed.) Грозно, страшно, а без царя нельзя. (However terrible and horrible, we can't be without a tsar.) Or they dig out a quote from the Primary Chronicle in which the ancient Russians begged the Varangians to come rule them: Земля наша велика и обильна, но порядка в ней нет. (Our land is great and abundant, but there is no order.)

Sounds good. But if you leaf through your pocket guide to Russian folks sayings, you'll discover that this undemocratic, order-loving nation has about 50 pithy sayings expressing deep distrust for order, like, От великих порядков бывают великие беспорядки. (Great order may beget great disorder.) So which is it?

Well, judging by Russian folk sayings, it's both, neither and 300 other truisms. Пословицы and поговорки (proverbs and sayings) in Russian express every aspect of life and every possible attitude. They are totally useless for proving much of anything about the Russian soul. But they are a very handy way of conversing. In fact, with a bit of memorization, you don't have to know Russian grammar at all. You can just rattle off a saying to fit the occasion.

Scene: Moscow apartment. Cast: Expat (E) and Russian Significant Other (RSO). Time: Noon Saturday.

RSO: Когда ты наконец встанешь? Ты же обещал починить сегодня кран! (When are you getting up? You promised to fix the faucet today!)

E: Работа не волк — в лес не убежит! (Work isn't a wolf; it won't run away into the woods!)

RSO: Молодец. Выучил пословицу. А слышал другую — труд человека кормит, а лень портит? (Good boy. You learned a proverb. Have you heard this one: Work feeds a man, while sloth ruins him?)

E: Больше спишь — меньше грешишь! (The more you sleep, the less you sin!)

RSO: Ах так?! Кто много лежит, у того и бок болит! (So that's the way you're going to be! He who lies long gets a pain in the side!)

E: (proudly) От работы не будешь богат, а будешь горбат! (Work won't make you rich, but it will break your back!)

RSO: Слушай — почини кран и потом валяйся сколько хочешь. Сделал дело — гуляй смело! (Listen, just fix the faucet and then you can lie around all you want. When the work is done, go have your fun!)

E: (resolve weakening) Мешай дело с бездельем, проживёшь век с весельем? (If you mix work with relaxation, will you live your life in jubilation?)


E: (resigned) Жена в доме голова. (The wife is the head of the house.)

RSO: Вот это точно. (You got that right.)

You get the idea. Your friend comments on how terrible an acquaintance looks after her husband discovered her affair and left her. Не годы старят, а горе. (Years don't age you -- sorrow does.) But on the other hand: Есть слёзы — есть и совесть. (If there are tears, there's a conscience.) If another friend shows up with a shiner: Кто кого любит, тот того и бьёт. (If he loves her, he shoves her.) But on the other hand: Насильно мил не будешь. (You can't win love by force.)

На всякого Егорку есть поговорка! (There's a saying for every occasion!) But please don't use them to define the Russian soul.

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