THE WORD'S WORTH

In Russian, the Soul Is Key to Self-Expression

By Robert Coalson

Of course, everyone has heard of the velikaya russkaya dusha, or great Russian soul. It is that strange, mystical quality which enables Russians to claim that they are more spiritual than Westerners, even though foreigners generally come to Russia to find the spirit of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky while Russians often visit the West for some good shopping.

But I maintain that just a quick survey of the Russian language is enough to convince one that Russia really does have a more penetrating, all-encompassing conception of "the soul" than most other nations. Those who have read Nikolai Gogol's satiric masterpiece "Myortvye Dushy," or "Dead Souls," already know that in many circumstances the Russian word dusha is a synonym for chelovek (person). Russians seem never to have bought into the Hellenistic division of mind, body and soul that post-Enlightenment Europe adopted.

Like English-speakers, a Russian entering an empty room might remark, ne vidno ni dushy (there's not a soul to be seen). However, Russian also has expressions like zhit dusha v dushu (to live in peace and harmony) or dusha bolit (to be worried about something). Of a poor person, it is said, u neyo za dushoi ni grosha (she doesn't have a grosh to her soul, a grosh being an old Russian coin).

Etot razgovor mnye ne po dushe (I don't feel like having this conversation) is a useful expression which can disguise mere petulance as spirituality. The next time your friends suggest another trip out to Izmailovo, you can turn up your nose and say chto-to mnye ne po dushe tuda sevodnya yekhat - literally, for some reason my soul is not up to going there today.

Russian also has a fabulous expression for someone who becomes afraid when faced with sudden danger, u nevo dusha ushla v pyatki - literally, his soul ran into his heels. Sometimes this expression is rendered even more dramatically as u nego dusha upala v pyatki - his soul fell into his heels.

Clearly, in the Russian language, the soul is the key to a person's identity and behavior. U neyo dusha naraspashku - her soul is wide open, an open book - Russians say about someone who is honest and sincere. When a person is worried, they say u nevo dusha ne na meste (literally, his soul isn't in the right place) or eto u nevo tyazhelo na dushe (that is heavy on his soul). When a person really wants something or is particularly excited by some idea, u nevo dusha gorit - his soul is on fire.

Clearly the Russian soul is far busier than your average Western soul,which is generally only dragged out on Sundays and special occasions. There is one other moment that Western and Russian souls have in common though. When the time come, we all must otdat bogu dushu - give up our souls to God.