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Old Slavonic Alphabet


Wrapping Up Russia With Fun In Cyrillics

by Matthew-Daniel Stremba


I should be frank, right up front, in a way that I've never been here in Yekaterinburg with Russian friends. Here it goes. Confession: I have no special love for the Russian language. [Izvenite, druz'ya, esli eto obizhaet.] It would've been heartless of me to say that, especially to those who've long been working at English.

Yet — yet, oh, yet! — I've learned enough Russian to be able to find the nearest men's room, to give directions to a cab driver, or to skim a newspaper's headlines for stories I might want to work on with a dictionary on my lap. But there has been no burning desire really to plunge into it. In fact, there's something inside that actually wars with me when I fool around with Russian, kind of like conscience prodding a good Catholic husband after his flirting with a waitress.

Ironically, at this point in my senior years, my clumsy Russian has a much better sound of fluency than my Ukrainian. A real irony. You see, it was my childhood in a Ukrainian-American community where I was steeped in a totemic antipathy to all things Russian.

Russian! Prussian! / Ukrainian! Ruthenian! / Slav! Plov! My real love, my first love, in this whole sphere of Slavic stuff is the Cyrillic alphabet. [The word "Cyrillic," by the way, is, in Russian, feminine gender.] When I was a mere boy I used to think that mastery of this alphabet would unlock all the doors on the way to total fluency. Hadn't the A-B-C-s in the primary grades —
all those awful trials learning to spell "b-r-e-a-d,"
and later "S-c-h-u-y-l-k-i-l-l"
— hadn't they endowed me with English competence?

And so I tackled the Ukrainian variant of what the East Slavs inherited (according to legend) from Saints Cyril and Methodius. I even learned to decipher Old Church Slavonic (OCS), the alphabet pictured above. And yet when I chanted the Apostle Paul's epistle at the Sunday Liturgy (a boy in our community came of age with honor when he could do that), when I was forming faux-Slavic sounds from those exotic OCS characters — oh, I loved those shapes, black and red on yellowing pages — I had little idea of what it all meant. And it wasn't Paul's obtuseness. Learning the alphabet, it turned out, was just that: learning the alphabet, and no more. Sort of like Uzbek boys who master Arabic script and can "read" the Quran.

That love of Cyrillic characters has been, like my preference for brunettes over blondes, a constant feature of most of my life until this very day. And so the first opportunity for actually being There Where this alluring alphabet was the common public standard — Moscow, the USSR, 1990 — I walked about that wholly different world drinking in lettering on the sides of trucks, on the fronts of stores, signs posted on walls, mastheads of newspapers and magazines, product identification on cartons.

Back then a carton of moloko was plain moloko (milk), just as a grocery store was a generic grocery store, differentiated from any other grocery store only by its number. These days there are supermarket chains in Yekaterinburg with real honest-to-goodness names.

Kupets  ("the Merchant") grocery store

We shop at the neighborhood Kupets (i.e. "The Merchant"). And there's a brand of milk called "MU-U," another is "Milaya Mila" ("Darling Lyudmila"), and another "Veselyy molochnik" ("The Cheerful Milkman"), and more. Below is the carton face of "Belyy gorod" ("White City").

Belyy gorod ("White City") milk carton

There's hilarity in dramatic change. Wasn't Gore a riot when he danced the macarena? Won't there be broad smiles the day Rome ordains the first woman priest? Sudden radical differences are a scream.

Besides the penchant now for all sorts of brand names in a country that for the better part of a century saw only no-name products, there is the wholesale importation of western terms like "no-hau" (know-how), "dzhekpot" (jackpot) and "biznes lanch" Russians can't duplicate the normal sound of "lunch."

biznes lanch ("business lunch") at a Tex-Mex restaurant

This restaurant serves their "biznes lanch" from 12 to 4 PM, offering a new "detskoe menyu" (a menu for kids), and while it is possible to read the six letters squeezing the steer's head as if they were Cyrillic (and that too is funny), all Russians by now know it's really TEX-MEX, not TEKH MEKH. Hard to believe that of all the things we'd export to Russia, one would be Mexican cuisine!

Clothing fashions anywhere are the last thing to interest me, but a banner announcing Fashion Week in this city compels my attention — the designers make an English term segue into the Russian spelling of the city.

Fashion We-ek-aterinburg billboard

Economic globalization and internet access everywhere must be factors in the greater dual use of Cyrillic with Latin characters (i.e. ours), and often, like here, that too is playful. Surely, the artists who came up with this "Fashion We‑ek‑aterinburg" must pass by it and whoop proudly. I congratulate them.

Two years here in Yekaterinburg has been a veritable bed of Cyrillic to roll and luxuriate in. And, because of increased Russian fluency, I've been afforded yet more revels in clever word-play in advertising and other public signage. This final page from Yekaterinburg presents a selection of these weird kinds of fun I indulged in.


Feast your eyes on the Cyrillic "A" below. What? you say, that looks just like a Latin A, our first letter A?

Apteka ("drugstore") sign

I'll concede that, but the pronunciation of a Cyrillic "A" is almost always [ah], like what the doctor asks you to say so he can check your tonsils. The word to the left on the store sign — APTEKA — is what Russians call a drugstore. The owners have added a specific trade name on the right — ZDRAVNIK — utilizing an old Slavic root that would suggest this is a kind of base for matters of health and well-being. Now that you know APTEKA, you may be halfway to appreciating the next Yekaterinburg image.

Apteka - Optika ("Drugstore - Optician's shop") signs

A pair of stores. The one to the left is a drugstore, while the one to your right is an optician — OPTIKA. The sign makers, I'll wager, must have loved doing this AP - OP / TEKA - TIKA as much as I loved looking at it. You having fun?


If you've got a market economy, lo, you have government regs, taxes, and books to cook. And there are publications for the capitalist in Russian society, like this one.

Gazeta Professionalov, Magazine billboard

Standing in a row from your left to right is a female accountant, then a uniformed agent representing enforcement power of the tax authorities, and Lady Justice. Each is identified by a key word: UCHET (bookkeeping), NALOGI (taxes), PRAVO (legal right), all of which seems to be the name of this GAZETA PROFESSIONALOV, which, white on red, promises: "When we're together, you're not a loser."

At the dentist's office earlier this year I was flipping through a magazine called "SHEF" — the Russian term for "the boss," "the chief" — a new publication with a subtitle "the magazine for those who make decisions." What caught my attention was an article on the American health mania as evidenced in jogging. It was the title that grabbed me: "SLAVA BEGU . . . " surely a play on the traditional (even in Bolshevik times) Russian expression "slava Bogu," i.e. glory be to God!

The title at the top of our essay, KONETS I BOGU SLAVA, is a classic end-line in liturgical texts: "It's finished, glory be to God!" My Bride says something similar upon getting our taxes done. I'll declare it upon completing our trip out of here.

SLAVA BEGU, however, is "glory be to running," or "running be praised." The article, subtitled "Running for health," seemed an ironic treatment of how business and a mass health movement have interacted.


Though Coca-Cola is a firma non grata in Uzbekistan these days, leaving only Pepsi to enjoy the Uzbek market (that's a story to tell) — in Russia there is both Coke and Pepsi.

Coca Cola devushki (girls) at Yekaterinburg Consulate celebration
Pepsi Cola devushki (girls) at US Consulate celebration, Yekaterinburg

These devushki (i.e. girls) were working the drinks booths at the 10th-Anniversary Celebration of the US Consulate's presence in Yekaterinburg, March 2004. There were also beer booths and wine tables at the event. The wide variety of beer (pivo) brands is another radical change in this part of the world. For me it's a change to smile about. But some Russians are looking at the other side of the beer business.

Pepsi Generation PIVO, in Cyrillic characters

The Uralskiy rabochiy (Urals Worker), its June 15 2004 edition, at the top of the front page, hyped a feature inside: "Why does / the Pepsi generation / opt for beer?" Page three offers a partial transcript of a talk-radio discussion concerning "the culture of drinking" in Russia, "a bi-i-g problem," the intro says. One discussant said beer had become in Russia the equivalent of lemonade, juveniles not considering beer an alcoholic beverage. Participants included two directors of sobriety organizations and two principals of the brewing industry. Want to know more, ask me about it when you see me next.


From the Tsarist Empire through the Soviet era until today, a normal picture of this part of the world is a vast landmass where large numbers endure in villages and small towns. With that you probably associate hard-scrabble lives, deteriorating housing stock, outhouses, muddy lanes, the kind of primitive conditions that compromise any wish to keep sparkling clean.

Up until very recently, indeed, local cleansing agents have been very basic. Soviet modernization introduced subway trains into several of the largest cities, including Yekaterinburg, but for decades transport cleaning forces could only wipe down the metro platform with a rag rinsed in a bucket of water that quickly turned into the color of fresh cement.

And so, upon our arrival here in 2002, I was intrigued by a television commercial for TIDE, the American laundry detergent. And not just because yet another bourgeois value was getting mainstreamed here.

Already near the end of the Soviet era, imported western products were being hyped on television. Several brands of cat food. And I remember how early Snickers made it into the USSR. Those commercials, as I recall, were voiced-over Russian translations of productions done in the western studios. In 2002, however, the TIDE commercial was definitely an original Russian production.

TIDE, sounded out in Russian, is also spelled with four letters.

Tide in Cyrillic characters

At the beginning, the Cyrillic "T," looking much like ours. At the end, the Cyrillic "D," an excitingly beautiful piece of work. In between is the Russian vowel "A" (which you now know is pronounced like the American "a" used in "father") plus the Cyrillic letter that means the vowel now on your tongue should get pitched farther back toward your tonsils, your tongue arching to the roof of your mouth. This Cyrillic spelling of TIDE transliterated would be "TAYD". Virtually the same sound.

Bored? Wait. Don't give up. The rest is easy. And fun!

Now, the word in Russian for the state of being clean is three syllables: chis-to-ta. You're wondering, when in the past did they have need for this word, and my guess is that it was a literal value for the privileged few and a spiritual value (i.e. chastity, purity) for the proletariat masses. Try saying chistota, with the stress on the final syllable. How did you do?

And what did the Russian commercial producers do for hyping TIDE/TAYD? They contrived a nifty Russian slogan: "ChistoTA! ChistoTAYD!" Wow. But "Cleanliness! Cleanli-Tide!" just doesn't work in English. Besides, as my Bride points out, chistota may mean "clean conditions," but chist-, chisto modifying a word means "pure" like in ona chistaya amerikanka, "she's a pure American." Thus, "ChistoTA! ChistoTAYD!" plays not only on sound, but also plays to the idea that here you've got the promise of really clean results, for it's pure Tide, not something less; in short, you're getting what you're paying for.


Even in the Soviet era, when they touted a classless society, there were owners of private cars. But they were a very small social class. In the last Soviet generation that class began expanding. Today there are many, many vehicles on Russian streets — so many you'd think pedestrians, like in the USA, have become a distinct minority. (NPR recently reported that car ownership in Russia has tripled in the last decade.) But not so. Pedestrians here remain the majority. And yet their lives are vulnerable to the car-driving minority's hazardous habits at the wheel. Yes, drivers are pretty religious about not driving under the influence, but paradoxically, sober, they drive like kings of the roadways — that's most of them, women included.

Why has no one organized this majority to defend their rights, pedestrian rights? Instead, the Church is asked by the authorities to preach to the babushki and dedushki to obey the street-crossing laws, and the Church apparently complies. Drivers drive, by and large, whether on main roads, service roads, side streets, on parking lots, on sidewalks, in the manner we in the USA associate with thugs, juveniles, drug-dealers, creatures with no sensitivities, and no one seems to be preaching to them. (Well, EKHO MOSKVY, a radio channel the Bride compares to our NPR, carried an opinion piece, early June 2004, that vigorously voiced concern for the plight of pedestrians.)

Anyhow, away from such a serious issue and on to the fun!

As this car-ownership minority increases, advertising campaigns follow. Good old market economy. Look at this VOLVO advertisement.

Udo-Volvo-stvie (Volvo linked up with "pleasure") in a magazine ad

Here you have another smart conjunction of Latin letters with Cyrillic. A neat insertion of the sound VOLVO into a basic Russian word udovol'stvie. Udovol'stvie means "pleasure," and so we get udo-VOLVO-stvie. Get the message? Neat, eh? The other polysyllabic word is a normal adjective signifying "endless."


These past two years we've witnessed several election campaigns. The Bride got to be part of several international election-monitoring teams, while I strolled and noted the posters and billboards.

The mayoral contest pitted Yekaterinburg's incumbent against several others, one of whom was the candidate of the oblast governor who is the mayor's political enemy, and therefore this one challenger seemed to be targeted for the nastiest shots.

Mayor in Russian is often "head of the city" and sometimes it's "mayor," which, in its Russian spelling, transliterates as "mer." We speak of puppets in a metaphorical sense, and so too do Russians. One of several Russian words for puppet is merionetka (cf. "marionette"). The incumbent's campaign engineers ginned up this political message, which suggests that electing the governor's man as mer would be installing in city hall the governor's mer-ionetka. "We need a mayor, not a marionette," shouts the billboard. The wordplay, you see, disappears in English translation.

Political ad accusing the opponent of being a Merionetka ("marionette")

The incumbent did indeed prevail winning another term in office. I have no idea whether this creation of the Mayor's political committee was the definitive coup de grace or not. I liked this ad for its creativity, but even more we like and respect the man who lost. My Bride said this mean ad was but one small part of an all-out smear campaign.


Masha Matveyeva, a helpful guide to Russian language and literature; calendar behind her has wordplay

Masha Matveyeva, pictured here at her desk in Yekaterinburg, has been doing me a great service pointing out useful websites concerning Russian language and other Russian themes and listing the latest Russian writers and books I should pay attention to. This may seem to bring this piece full circle: the American without a passion for Russian getting guidance for further Russian pursuits.

She's also here on this page to contribute something to our leading topic: having fun with letters and words in Russia. Note the calendar behind her. The photo was snapped in March 2004, and the calendar showing the matching month also simultaneously jokes about it.

Mart is how Russians call March, while koshmar, the stress on the last syllable, is how Russians label something that's just god-awful. Literally, koshmar is "nightmare." And here the calendar makers joke about the month of March, calling it not plain old MART, but instead KOSHMART.

I've usually felt February to be a nightmare of a month, but here in Yekaterinburg all the spring thaw of mud indeed makes March a real KOSHMART. The calendar-makers did something else with February. For the exclusive pleasure of all practitioners of Russian visiting this page, here is what the calendar does with the rest of the year.

Calendar word-play with Cyrillic characters


That's all from Russia. Vsego khoroshego!

KONETS i BOGU SLAVA. That's all folks!

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