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Moscow Times
December 29, 2009
Celebrating Russia's Wide and Wonderful Soul
By Michael Bohm
Michael Bohm is the opinion page editor of The Moscow Times.

New Year's Eve is just around the corner, and this means that most of Russia shuts down for two weeks and enters the party mode of загул, гулянка and гульба - all of which mean major celebrating and are rooted in the verb гулять (to have a good time, celebrate). When Russians гуляют during New Year's holidays, they do it на полную катушку (to the fullest) - with tables overflowing with food and drink and hours spent sitting around the table pronouncing toasts.

But you don't have to wait until the end of the year to гулять. There are plenty of opportunities to celebrate around the table on other government holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and weddings. In addition, there are also dozens of "professional days" throughout the year - for example, Planetariums' Day (March 15), Anesthesiologists' Day (Oct. 16) or Librarians' Day (May 27) - and, of course, you don't have to have anything to do with the given profession to celebrate on these days and raise a glass in their honor.

A загул that really gets out of hand becomes a разгул (wild party, orgy). Разгул can also be used to describe the "orgy" of any bad phenomenon that rages out of control. For example, Russia's nationalists love to stigmatize the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin - who could celebrate with the best of them - as a "разгул демократии" ("an orgy of democracy"). This catch-phrase of the anti-Yeltsin, anti-Yegor Gaidar, anti-Anatoly Chubais and anti-everything-liberal camp tries to lump anything and everything bad that raged out of control in the "лихие 90-е" (the wild '90s) - for example, hyperinflation; contract killings; MMM pyramid schemes; the emergence of the mafia, oligarchs and "New Russians" with their signature crimson sport jackets, gold necklaces, rings on every finger and debauch lifestyle; or Yeltsin's tanks firing on the White House in 1993, which gave new meaning to the phrase "У нас то гульба, то пальба" (At first we celebrate, then we start firing).

In addition, the verb гулять can be used to describe infidelity. This verb is used primarily for women: Люда гуляет от своего мужа (Lyuda is cheating on her husband). When guys do it, они ходят налево (They're getting a little on the "left" side). If Lyuda got pregnant, you could say: Она нагуляла ребёнка (She got pregnant from someone other than her husband).

If you have subordinates working under you, one of the worst derivatives of гулять is прогул (unauthorized, invalid absence from work). The Soviet Union had an awful time dealing with прогульщики (those who were AWOL) among factory and other blue-collar workers. The lousier the job, the more often workers прогуливали - particularly after a night of drinking.

On payday, it wasn't uncommon for the wives of Soviet factory workers - usually the cooler heads in the family - to come to their husbands' workplace, stand in line next to them at the cash window (or outside the main factory entrance) and snatch a good portion of their salary away so that their husbands wouldn't squander their salary on another night of reveling.

Soviet factory bosses issued plenty of written reprimands against the no-shows at work, and in some cases they fired злостные прогульщики (repeat truants). But because of the shortage of labor for bottom-of-the-barrel factory jobs, the прогульщики had little trouble finding an equally lousy job at another factory, where the nasty habit of skipping work happened all over again.

Mass no-shows among factory workers made an already dysfunctional Soviet economy even worse. Every general secretary from Nikita Khrushchev to Mikhail Gorbachev tried to implement national campaigns to radically improve work discipline at factories - including the infamous anti-alcohol campaign in Gorbachev's case - but they all failed. In the end, the austerity of Russia's free-market economy did more in 18 years to reduce the problem of no-shows at work than the Soviet "workers' paradise" could ever dream of doing in 70 years.

Students are also notorious for their numerous прогулы (missing classes), but Russia's morale is much softer on them. After all, молодо-зелено, погулять велено! (When you are young, it's OK to have fun!)

If Russians didn't necessarily write the book on how to celebrate with friends and family, they definitely wrote a few chapters. This national trait adds some nice color to the legendary "широта русской души" (the great expanse or "width" of the Russian soul) - although this is something that Fyodor Dostoevsky didn't particularly admire and tried to "narrow" ("широк человек, слишком даже широк, я бы сузил" from "The Brothers Karamazov").

Bard Alexander Rosenbaum, a doctor by training, recalled the advice given to him by his parents, who were also doctors, in the famous lines from his 1986 classic "Утиная охота" (Duck Hunting). Rosenbaum encouraged Russians to remember and preserve the rich tradition of their forefathers: to be sincere and true to their Russian hearts and souls and to be diligent in all endeavors - whether in work or in play. In short, he encouraged Russians to be Russian:

Я помню, давно учили меня отец мой и мать:
Лечить - так лечить! Любить - так любить!
Гулять - так гулять! Стрелять - так стрелять!

I remember how my mother and father taught me a long time ago:

When you treat patients, you should be diligent and conscientious!
When you love, you should love to the fullest!
When you celebrate, you should celebrate to the fullest!
When you have to fight, fight to the end!

But there is an old, popular chastushka that perhaps better captures the true meaning of гулять - with some heavy doses of Russian fatalism to boot:

А мы пить будем
Мы гулять будем
А как смерть придёт
Помирать будем!

We will drink
We will live it up
And when the Grim Reaper comes
We will die!

The Russians might have something here. After all, the world's greatest philosophers - from Plato, Confucius. Kant and Marx to Monty Python - have been beating their brains out for centuries trying to figure out the meaning of life. Perhaps the Russians discovered the answer a long time ago.

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