Vladimir Vysotsky: The greatest singer-songwriter you've never heard of

Pushkin House blog editor Rafy Hay dives into the world of Russia’s gravel-voiced bard

A Russian stamp from 1999 celebrating Vysotsky.

A Russian stamp from 1999 celebrating Vysotsky.

When you ask the average person who the greatest singer-songwriters are, the answers will be along these lines: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, John Lennon, maybe Carole King. If they’re more internationally-oriented than usual, you might get Jacques Brel, Victor Jara or Georges Brassens. But there’s a name missing from this list, hugely acclaimed in his home country but almost entirely unknown in the West: Vladimir Vysotsky.

Within the Russophone world he is far and away the most famous “bard” — half-poet, half-singer. His songs are standard repertoire in Russian bars and around family gatherings, and though formed in the specific conditions of the post-Stalinist Thaw and Brezhnev’s Stagnation, they carry special meaning for Russians to this day.

Vysotsky’s songs, with their mix of allegory, archetype and anecdote, appeal to the Russian sense of “Что делать?/ What can you do?” — endurance in the face of the indignities and demands of life. Paired with this, though, is the bard’s fiercely rebellious streak, as he spoke out in a cutting and lyrical way about living under an authoritarian regime. It’s perhaps for this reason that Vysotsky’s music has found some of its most ardent fans in formerly and currently oppressed countries, where his wry but humanistic commentaries ring true to people’s experiences.

Though many have likened Vladimir Vysotsky to Bob Dylan, Vadim Astrakhan, who sings translations of Vysotsky’s songs in English, argues that his style and tendencies lean more towards “a Russian blend of John Lennon, Johnny Cash, and Tom Waits” than Bob Dylan’s literary style.

Vladimir Semyonovich Vysotsky was born in Moscow on January 25, 1938, to a Jewish Red Army colonel from Kiev and his Russian wife. His childhood was spent evacuated during WW2 and then between his divorced parents’ homes. As a young adult he tried to make his way in the official Soviet acting schools but his rebelliousness (and sometimes drunkenness) worked against him.

During his time as a student Vysotsky started performing in the underground music scene, singing first about the criminal underworld. His self-recorded tapes circulated among the unofficial artists and intelligentsia, but it was starring in the film The Vertical in 1967 which brought Vysotsky real fame. His songs, produced concurrently with his prolific career as an actor, became part of the mainstream Soviet culture.

A photo of Vysotsky from 1979 at the Taganka theatre, playing his signature 7-string Russian guitar.

A photo of Vysotsky from 1979 at the Taganka theatre, playing his signature 7-string Russian guitar.

With such immense fame, naturally Vysotsky worried the Soviet authorities. His incisive and critical songs were heard by millions as he toured the country and released records, and his (third) marriage to French actress Marina Vlady meant he was spending more and more time in the West. He walked the tightrope between officialdom and dissidence, but the authorities never pushed Vysotsky into open rebellion, preferring to keep him manageable and legal than ban him and face a riot. It is testament to his touring schedule and his songs’ power that he managed to attract so many fans despite never being allowed on Soviet television.

During his meteoric rise in the 70s Vysotsky’s problems with drink and drugs deteriorated. His wife describes the strain that his substance abuse had on their relationship in her bestselling memoir, and though details of Vysotsky’s personal life were often obscure, this is one area where the facts are more known. His work was certainly influenced by his drinking, with darker themes emerging during the late 70s, and from about 1977 he was also self-medicating with amphetamines and prescription drugs. As 1980 rolled in, and the Soviet authorities made drugs harder to acquire during the Olympic games, Vysotsky went back to hard drinking. Drug withdrawal was gruelling, though, and over a four-day period from 21st July, he went into medical supervision at his home in Moscow. On the morning of the 25th, he was found dead.

No official notice was made of his death, but tens of thousands of fans mourned him at the Taganka theatre where he had been playing Hamlet. The Soviet authorities sent the army in, fearing a riot. Vysotsky’s legend only grew in the years following his death. By 1989 his legacy was so firm that, when the Berlin Wall fell, memorials and statues to Vysotsky sprung up across Russia and the Eastern Bloc.

Vysotsky memorial in Samara, Russia. Image credit: Yuri Vantsev.

Vysotsky memorial in Samara, Russia. Image credit: Yuri Vantsev.

Vysotsky’s output was so prodigious that to narrow it down to a few “greatest hits” would be folly, but here is a selection to help get you into the poet’s music.

  1. Song about a friend / Песня о Друге

This was the first that many Russians heard of Vysotsky, as it was featured in the film The Vertical. It encapsulates Vysotsky’s grasp of idiom and metaphor, describing how hardship and opposition are the keys to telling when a friend is a true one.

2. I Don’t Like / Я не люблю

Vysotsky’s songs often build up, verse by verse, until the ironic meaning is clear. This is one such song, where the narrator’s boredom and annoyance with life are layered into a critique of Soviet society at large.

3. Wolf hunt / Охота на волков

This is one of Vysotsky’s most searing songs, and probably my favourite — the extended metaphor of the way a hunt traps wolves reflects Vysotsky’s rejection of authoritarianism and desire for new, liberated ways of thinking. His voice, like whiskey over gravel, crackles and snarls with righteous fury until it’s hard to believe you’re only hearing one man and his guitar, and not a whole symphony at full tilt.

4. Capricious Horses / Kони привередливые

The interpretation of many of Vysotsky’s songs is entirely personal — many see in this song a message of political anguish and contradiction. Personally, this song makes more sense to me as being about Vysotsky’s experiences of addiction and self-destruction, the inescapable galloping horses leading him over a cliff. Listen, and decide for yourself what it means:

Bonus: Be Grateful You’re Alive / Скажи еще спасибо, что живой

This is another wry commentary on life and its indignities, with a trademark twist at the end. The staying power of Vysotsky as a cultural icon can be put down at least in part to the way his songs can be covered by almost anyone. This video is from Vadim Astrakhan, who’ll be performing his English versions of Vysotsky’s songs (with a few Russian ones thrown in) on Thursday 18th April at Pushkin House. Tickets and further details are available here.

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Rafy Hay is Events Manager at Pushkin House, and edits the Pushkin House blog. If you have an idea for a blog submission, please feel free to email him at rafy.hay@pushkinhouse.org.uk.

From Glasgow to Marseille: the story of Russian football hooliganism

Avram Liebenau delves into the backstory behind the violence against England fans at the 2016 European Championship

Image credit: Piotr Drabik

Image credit: Piotr Drabik

In June 2016, around 150 Russian hooligans charged a group of England fans in a square of Marseille. In a savage and brutal rampage, multiple Brits were left injured. Shortly after, Feduk, a Russian rapper and a notorious fan of football hooliganism, which Russians somewhat ironically call okolofutbola (literally, “around/surrounding football”), released a track entitled ‘Tour de France’ glorifying the event. The British press, in contrast, lambasted the football authorities for allowing this to happen and expressed concern about the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The Telegraph even interviewed some members of the attackers, who saw themselves as the counter-force to the English, whom they perceived as their natural enemy in the football hooligan world. Understanding this view requires an understanding of Russian football hooliganism’s complex history which is tied to our own (now nigh-on taboo) past of sporting violence.

To trace this tale, we need to go back to the early Brezhnev era, when the young stilyagi (basically hipsters) were listening to punk, and footballers who travelled abroad were smuggling vinyl back to Russia in their suitcases to make an extra rouble or two. Particularly relevant and impressive in describing this period is Vladimir Kozlov’s book Fanaty, tracing the history of hooliganism through interviews with former participants in hooligan acts. We learn that these were youths, in some cases who also identified with stilyagi culture, and were drawn to football for a complex set of reasons.

Crucial to this was the USSR top league’s accessibility to the average citizen, due to the increase in televised games after the spread of TV from the mid-1960s. Despite television ownership being limited and mainly confined to the major cities, it provided a window to enjoy professional football and was a contributing factor in football’s growth in popularity, shown by the trend of rising attendances at matches from 1965-1980.

Russian hooliganism had a framework through which to spread rapidly, and clear lines along which fans divided

Unintentionally, however, watching football exposed Soviet citizens to the hooliganism already present in the European game, culminating in the 1972 Cup Winners’ Cup final between Glasgow Rangers and Dynamo Moscow. Soviet fans witnessed a pitch invasion and violence on the part of the Rangers fans, which halted the game and swung the momentum in favour of the Scottish side as Dynamo pressed for an equaliser in the dying moments of the encounter. The club, fans and players never got over the injustice of nearly completing one of the greatest comebacks in European footballing history. But, as the underbelly of European football beamed into Soviet living rooms, Russian youths saw rebellion, escapism and camaraderie in creating their own.

The early hooligan gangs sprung up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Dynamo Moscow were early on the scene, officially organising in 1972, while Spartak’s supporters coalesced in 1979. These fans styled themselves as hooligans through banners at matches, synchronised chanting and clothing, dominating particular areas of stadia, and violence and intimidation towards opposition fans, players and match officials. By the end of the 1970s, riots on matchdays – particularly on the common Moscow derby-days between CSKA, Dynamo, Spartak and Lokomotiv – were common. Kozlov’s interviewees proudly describe the carnage they wrought as their numbers swelled into an uncontrollable mob down Pushkinskaya ulitsa.

The appeal of hooliganism wasn’t limited to the big clubs at the pinnacle of Russian and European football. A local club, Avtomobilst, had fans who on one occasion in 1972, caused a match to be abandoned because of a pitch invasion and vicious attacks on the referee and opposition coach. A unique feature of Russian football has always been the irrelevance of geography to football fans’ chosen clubs. Where in Western Europe we associate football with a distinct community drawn primarily along geographic lines, in the USSR and modern Russia fans congregated based on profession, the most obvious case being Lokomotiv, the club of the railway workers, whose fans still refer to the team as ‘the railwaymen’. There were many affiliated ‘Lokomotiv’ clubs across the USSR, and remnants of it exist today: Lokomotiv Minsk are one of many Lokomotivs still competing. This meant that Russian hooliganism had a framework through which to spread rapidly, and clear lines along which fans divided.

In their style and intent, the hooligans individually and collectively modelled themselves along British hooligan lines. Kozlov’s interviewees attest to their dress being taken from British punk fashion and their chants and paraphernalia deliberately resembling British teams. Like the British hooligans of the 1970s, the Russians created a sense of ‘honour’ associated with their club, which incorporated elements of masculine aggression and veneration of bravery, expressed by violence towards, overwhelmingly, other hooligan gangs. The reasons for this were clear: British football hooligans were the most feared, and therefore respected, hooligans. The Russian fans were acutely aware of the foreign influence on their activities, as many Soviet youth subcultures were, and this placed them in a broader European arena for their actions and style.

Russian riot police in Moscow. Image credit: Aleksey Toritsyn

Russian riot police in Moscow. Image credit: Aleksey Toritsyn

The Soviet hooligans weren’t blind copycats, however: their acts occurred in an entirely different political context from the British. Successive Soviet leaders suppressed dissent and disorder, in different ways and to different extents. Surprisingly, however, the authorities were slow to react to the violence and antisocial behaviour of the football fans. According to one of Kozlov’s interviewees, ‘Batya’, the police were often outnumbered, shocked and didn’t possess the required capabilities to manage the crowds. They ended up being on the receiving end of as much violence as the opposition hooligans, although the reasons for this were less political and more incidental – few hooligans, at least according to Kozlov’s book, intended to make a political message by attacking the police.

British hooliganism, surprisingly, was more directed at the authorities than in Russia. Possibly for this reason, accusations of hooliganism made an effective scapegoat in the cover-up of the catastrophic handling of football crowds in the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. The case remains close to footballing hearts due to the public blame-game against the deceased and their families, which implicated members of the police force and the media.

The growth of Russian football hooligan gangs was inspired by their British counterparts, whose escapades during the 1960s and 70s began to come under the microscope of Soviet fans. Over time, Russian football hooliganism developed its own distinct iconography and identity. Violence in any capacity is not tolerable, but the increasing infiltration of right-wing and racist ideologies into much of Russian football hooliganism has lent it an even more sinister image. As the balaclava-ed Russian “ultras” charged at the Brits in 2016, what was happening was not just a group of crazed criminals going on a rampage, but the culmination of forty years of Russian hooligan history: finally, the English were dethroned, and there were new hooligans to admire. The Russian hooligan’s mission was complete.


I'm Avram Altay Liebenau, I've been studying Russian since I was 15 and am in my final year studying BA Russian and History at University College London. I enjoy writing about varying topics, from financial history to football hooliganism.

Avram can be reached at avram.liebenau@gmail.com.

Art Under Siege: The Leningrad Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich and 'The Conductor'

Joseph Skelton, one of the actors in the company performing The Conductor, explains the history and journey behind the concert-play.

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The conductor 1.jpg

In 1942, conductor Karl Eliasberg wrote in his log:

"Rehearsal did not take place. Srabian is dead. Petrov is sick. Borishev is dead. Orchestra not working."

Left in the devastation of the Leningrad Siege, the music stopped. Starvation gnawed at the city. Surrounded by the Nazis for over two years, the siege would claim the lives of more than one million men, women, and children.

Some months after Eliasberg wrote this entry, a plane carrying supplies from Kuybyshev airlifted a composer's 252-page score into Leningrad. It was the seventh symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich; his 'Leningrad Symphony'.

The first rehearsal in March 1942 was intended to be three hours long, but had to be stopped after 15 minutes because the 30 musicians present were too weak to play their instruments. Eliasberg himself had to be dragged to rehearsals on a sledge. Over the next weeks, three performers died in the room.

Before the performance, Eliasberg announced on the radio that "this performance is witness to our spirit, courage, and readiness to fight. Listen, Comrades!" He uses the vocabulary of war and the tone is rallying for resistance. Presumably the motives behind the Soviet government's decision to perform the symphony were more about psychological warfare than art — indeed speakers were put up around the city, and the piece was played out to the Germans and across the front lines.

However, we wonder what the motives were for these starving musicians and the conductor who dragged them through. The higher food rations could have been an incentive; some perhaps felt intimidated by government pressure; some perhaps were ideologically indoctrinated to believe in sacrificing themselves for their country. And yet it seems there must have been another motive; the one which provided the fire and the heat and the light — the true dignity of their endeavour. The burning belief in performer and audience, which meant that the concert received an hour long ovation. The belief that they were reaching towards something beyond themselves, beyond their situation. Beyond war.

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Right now we are immersed in battles. We are immersed in wars across the globe, wars that are driving people from their homelands to travel treacherous journeys to uncertain refuge. We are engaged in battles of politics, race, and gender as an old world dies to a new one, and as old ideologies of violence and scapegoat tactics have another go at gaining public popularity.

Sometimes I question art in a time like ours. As an actor I question the value of my place in society and whether I'm not just engaged in a mercenary, self-serving, and egotistical industry.

To the people of Leningrad, music didn't feel like a futile response to their situation. It wasn't a solution, but it was a response — and one which perhaps carried with it something that reached beyond a solution. A solution would have been rooted in context; their statement reached past their context. It needed to be more foundational. Because any solution to the context would be flawed. In a world where truth is written by the powerful, then as now, when solutions are so often compromised and corrupted, art returns us to the bedrock, to the heart.

Our concert play The Conductor contains two actors and a pianist, and with words and music and silence we have been sharing this story for the past three years. It has been a journey of wonder for us in our company to live with this story as we developed the piece, travelled with it, played it to people across Europe, in different languages and with different scripts and scenes and energies and technology and moods. We've played in Gothenburg to three people, and under the open Roman sky, speaking out in Italian over ambulances and aeroplanes. Now we're bringing it back to London, where we first did a ten-minute extract in a cafe three years ago.  

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I am deeply grateful to have been able to walk with this story and be allied with it; to share it in our way and to bring our own desire to share a message into contact with the desire of these musicians almost eighty years ago. And to realise, that although the contexts are incomparable, the adversity incomparable, the road incomparable; the fire is the same fire, the light the same light. It is inspiring to consider that the same power of the human spirit, the same impulse to create and perform and share what we feel most sacred and potent about life, is within us, as it was in them, and is in all people.

Although art may feel futile in the face of war, or in the face of multi-billion dollar companies, or maverick presidents, it allies itself with the greatest power there is — the power which has cradled us for millennia and will continue to pulse long after we are gone — the creative power of life itself. For me, to ally ourselves with this is to be allied with a true power which cannot be silenced. Because it dwells in silence itself. In Shostakovich's words, ‘something that cannot die’.

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The Conductor is taking place at The Space Arts Centre,  London.

March 26 - April 13, 2019


Tickets can be found here.

Obscure History: The 1906 loan that paved the way for the Entente Cordiale

Avram Liebenau recounts an unorthodox financial deal that decisively shifted European geopolitics

Sergei Yulyevich Witte in 1905

Sergei Yulyevich Witte in 1905

Entente Cordiale, Russian poster, 1914

Entente Cordiale, Russian poster, 1914

In April 1906, with the Tsarist state buckling under the fiscal strain of maintaining the gold standard, mounting political turmoil after the ‘revolution’ of 1905 and defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, Sergei Witte, Chairman of the Council of Ministers, secured funds in the form of a bond issue from a group of French and British banks which kept alive the ailing regime. Witte passed away just weeks later, but his loan came at the end of a masterclass in international diplomacy and manipulation. British interests, French desires and German grand plans were played off against each other to secure Russia as good a deal as they could get: 2.25 billion Francs, approximately 900 million roubles or £90 million given in bonds with rates of between 4 and 5% (just less than £11 billion in today’s money).

Witte had realised from the start of the war that European credit was the surest route to sustaining the military effort. He travelled to Paris in 1904, securing a bond issue which, despite the French foreign minister insisting on Russia buying French armaments, was favourable to Witte. After successive Russian defeats to the Japanese, Witte decided more funds were needed. He travelled to Berlin in early 1905, leveraging his favourable standing with the French financial elite against the competing German bankers to secure another bond issue of 231 million roubles.

Vladimir Kokovtsov, the assistant Finance Minister at the time, accompanied Witte but went on to Paris since, as the war reached its unpleasant conclusion for the Russian Empire, the Parisian markets had to prop up Russian bonds which had lost 15% of their value in the space of a few months. Suddenly, with the war lost, close to a hundred thousand soldiers dead or injured, the navy obliterated, and unrest in the capital, Witte sent Kokovtsov back to Paris to secure, by any means necessary, the funds that would sustain the regime. Kokovtsov lobbied the French bankers and harried and bribed the press while Witte went to London, trying to find a bank which would issue the bonds on the London Stock Exchange.

Of particular interest in the formation of the 1906 bond issue is the involvement of British banks. French banks’ relations with Russia had a long history, with various loans given to the Tsar’s coffers and close historical ties between the Russian Empire’s francophone aristocracy and Parisian high-society. Britain, however, was a rival. In the Middle East, British supremacy in Baluchistan (modern-day Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan) was at odds with Russian interests in northern Afghanistan and Central Asia. Britain was an aggressor in the Crimean War and London, the world’s financial centre until the First World War, was a happy hunting ground for Japanese loans during their war with Russia.

“British strategic gain seems to be the most compelling explanation for their participation”

The impact of these political events on the course of financial history cannot be understated. Much literature revolves around the questions of where British capital went and why it went there - few scholars disagree that the influence of politics was always present. This loan presents us with an interesting puzzle. To what extent was politics driving the world of finance, or vice versa? Why did Britain help an unfriendly state, to paraphrase historian Olga Crisp, stave off the financial collapse of their government?

The possible explanations include pressure from the French and indeed Russians. Witte is known to have gone to London multiple times to try to secure loans, and the French wanted their Russian and British allies to reconcile, tempting Britain with the opportunity of suppressing the growing threat of Germany. When it comes to finance, profit is never far from the equation. The French media, taking bribes from Russian officials, consistently exaggerated the performance of Russian bonds, but, even before this, French loans to Russia had performed well in the markets.

British strategic gain, however, seems to be the most compelling explanation. Months later, Britain and Russia signed a treaty protecting the status quo in Persia, and two years later the Entente Cordiale was codified between Russia, France and Britain. In their involvement in the seemingly unprofitable loan, the British banks paved the way for the thaw between the two empires. The Foreign Secretaries of the period, Sir Edward Grey and his predecessor Charles Hardinge were well aware of the opportunity presented by the loan. Grey even personally promised that British banks would participate in the 1906 bond issue, presumably sensing the political and economic possibilities of the loan.

A 1904 cartoon of the Russo-Japanese war, by American cartoonist Bob Satterfield

A 1904 cartoon of the Russo-Japanese war, by American cartoonist Bob Satterfield

At the time, however, the loan was bandage on a severed artery. The funds allowed the Tsarist state to limp on by rebuilding their military and plugging holes in the haemorrhaging state coffers. Nevertheless the loan came too late to aid the war effort with Japan, and the next Minister of Internal Affairs, Pyotr Stolypin, fumbled the state’s assets in his attempts at reform, focussing his attention on the peasantry, strengthening the internal repression framework, and his notable ‘wager on the strong and sober’. Gone was Witte’s appeal to the European financial elite and encouragement of capital inflow to stimulate industrialisation and heavy industry. Instead, Stolypin focussed his efforts on agricultural production, already Russia’s primary export westward. Later, the bonds were annulled or ‘repudiated’ by the Bolsheviks.

Sometimes people and organisations do things that are seemingly irrational to pave the way for a change in attitude or policy. Crucially, the line between enemy and ally is slim. When conditions demand it, even your adversary, who helped your enemy in war, who rebuffed your attempts for funds, who two generations ago invaded your land, can suddenly become your saviour. International finance can be a wedge for political reconciliation. Russia and Britain were, briefly, the best of friends.


I'm Avram Altay Liebenau, I've been studying Russian since I was 15 and am in my final year studying BA Russian and History at University College London. I enjoy writing about varying topics, from financial history to football hooliganism.

Avram can be reached at avram.liebenau@gmail.com.

F*** you, but in Russian [Explicit]

Katrin Scheib describes an unorthodox language class

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

(Warning: very strong language throughout)

We've got white wine in grandma's fancy glasses. We've got olives in tiny white bowls. We've got toothpicks to take the olives from their bowl. This is going to be a civilised, educational evening for a group of people gathered around a table in a Moscow living room. To start us off, our teacher writes down four words and holds them up: Dick. Cunt. Fuck. Slut.

What can I say: this is about linguistics and about Russian studies. It's about an everyday phenomenon of the Russian language that isn’t part of your typical class. Today, we're learning about mat, the language Russians use to swear. Oh, the jokes we've been making among us before this session: "So what shall I bring to that bloody evening at yours?” - “Hm, maybe some biscuits and shit.” Nice try. We had no idea.

“I love mat, it's incredibly versatile and variable”, says Dasha, who has kindly agreed to be our lecturer tonight. She is Russian, a journalist and a dedicated user of mat. “As a phenomenon, it's not limited to poorly educated people living in the provinces, the intelligentsia uses it as well”, she explains and mentions the name of a fellow boss of ours, from back when we were both working at the Moscow Times. “Remember, he used the polite „вы“ to address me, but at the same time, he would use mat in our conversations.” So while mat is all about swearing, it's not a good indicator of a person’s level of education or of their manners, she argues.

When we arranged to meet for tonight’s lesson, there’s one thing Dasha had made clear from the start: We're doing this right, or not at all. She has bought a small whiteboard, prepared a lecture - 30 minutes, with room for questions after. Her approach to our first round of vocabulary is just as structured, writing them down first in Russian, then transliterating into English, followed by the translation. From “хуй” to “khuy” to “dick”. Seven attentive pupils nod along and take notes.

Khuy, pizda, yebat' and blyad'. Dick, cunt, fuck and whore. For words which, in theory, no journalist in Russia should use in their writing and no musician in their songs. Which, of course, only makes them more interesting for some musical genres. “There are some big hits that have two versions, one with mat and one without”, says Dasha, and even Pushkin is said to have used mat in some of his poems. According to Russian tradition, Dasha shouldn't really know about all this, “because we women are all fragile little flowers, so it's considered inappropriate.” There have been moments when she's sitting in a café with a friend, deep in animated conversation, using lots of mat – only for a man from another table to come over and say something along the lines of “Come on, girls, the way you're talking – that's just not done.”

Dasha doesn't care, not in a café and not during our little crash course tonight. She wipes the whiteboard clean and continues, because each of the four basic parent terms has countless progeny. Take khuy, for example:

  • poshol na khuy: literally “go to dick”, it means something like “piss off”

  • mnye pokhuy: “I don't give a dick”

  • nakhuy: “to the dick”, meaning “to hell with it”

  • nakhuya: a sweary “why?”, as in “Why the dick is it raining again today?”

  • nikhuya: a sweary “nothing”, as in “I'm waiting for the phone call, and what happens? Not a dick.”

  • khuyovy: shitty

”And now for the best part”, says Dasha as she gives us a grin. “As well as using these four words to express something negative, they will equally work for the opposite.” Okhuyenno, for example, means “excellent”, and okhuytelno means “great”. Still, any Russian will notice the word at the core, so when she's visiting her in-laws, Dasha makes sure to use the standard Russian terms for “great” and “excellent”, rather than those where you can still hear the “dick”.

So we work our way through all of them, the four core terms and their varieties. Guided by Dasha, we learn how to avoid actual swearing – Russian has it's own versions of “darn” or “effing” - and how to replace curses with rhymes. Never mind the literal meaning, if you come up with a rhyme for it, people will still recognize the original dirty phrase. And so, yobanny v rot (fucked in the mouth) first becomes yobanny krot (fucked-up mole) and then zhovanny krot (chewed-up mole).

Time for the grand finale, for what Russians call “three-floor swearing” - as if a great curse was a house built from different mat terms. And since you can conveniently turn them from verbs into adjectives into nouns, they are also easily combined. “Piz-da-blyad-sko-ye mu-da-yo-bi-she”, Dasha dictates slowly as we all write it down. It's a bit of a diversion from the four core curses because here, the somewhat milder mat term “mudak” (asshole) also gets its chance to shine. The result, in all its four-part glory, translates as “whorecunting assholefuckery”. You'd use it, Dasha says, if you really disapprove quite strongly of something, when someone seriously gets on our nerves, or when you just banged your elbow against a piece of furniture. We nod. We have another olive. We take notes.

A German version of this text first appeared on the author's blog, kscheib.de


Katrin Scheib is a German journalist and blogger. Since moving to Moscow in 2014, she has worked for The Moscow Times, Coda Story and recently covered the Football World Cup for n-tv.de. She also writes a monthly newsletter on football in Russia.