Иди Hаxуй

Alex Abramovich

‘You’re occupiers. You are fascists. Why the fuck did you come here with your guns?’ This is the widely shared video of an anonymous woman confronting Russian soldiers in Henichesk, in southern Ukraine. ‘Take these seeds and put them in your pocket so, at least, sunflowers will grow on your graves.’

That’s my loose translation of a few lines I’ve seen rendered more literally, if more obscurely (‘so at least sunflowers grow when you all lie down here’). The translators are doing an excellent job, catching almost everything, though the full range and depth of Russian obscenities – which overlap with Ukrainian obscenities – is notoriously hard to convey written down, even in the original. In the 1870s, Dostoevsky described a conversation consisting, entirely, of one ‘unprintable noun’:

Once, late in the evening on Sunday. I chanced to take some fifteen steps side by side with a group of six drunken workmen; and suddenly I became convinced that it is possible to express all thoughts, feelings, and even profound arguments, by the mere utterance of that one noun which, besides, is composed of very few syllables indeed. First, one of the lads sharply and energetically pronounces this noun to express his contemptuous negation of something that had been the general topic of their conversation. Another lad, answering him, repeats the same noun, but in an altogether different tone and sense – namely, in the sense of complete doubt as to the veracity of the former’s negation. The third fellow suddenly blows up with indignation against the first lad, bitterly and excitedly bursting into the conversation, and he shouts to him the same noun, but this time in the sense of invective and abuse.

And so on. ‘Thus, not once having uttered any other single word, they repeated six times this one pet little word of theirs, in strict succession, and they fully understood each other. This is a fact which I have witnessed.’

The word in question, khuy (хуй) – ‘prick’ or ‘dick’ – has been banned in Putin’s Russia. But you hear it, over and over again, in phone videos and sound clips coming out of Ukraine, including the remarkable audio recording of an exchange between a Russian warship and Ukrainian soldiers stationed on Snake Island in the Black Sea:

Russian warship: ‘Snake Island, I, Russian warship, repeat the offer: put down your arms and surrender, or you will be bombed. Have you understood me? Do you copy?’
Ukranian 1: ‘Nu, vsyo. That’s it, then. Or, do we need to fuck them back off?’
Ukranian 2: ‘Might as well.’
Ukranian 1: ‘Russian warship, go fuck yourself.’

Moments later, it was reported, the island was shelled and all the Ukrainian soldiers – thirteen in total – were killed. They are now said to be alive. The exchange became an instant, obvious example of Ukrainian courage and resolve; in Ukraine itself, road signs between Kyiv and Boryspil were altered to read: ‘Russian ship – fuck yourself.’

But that’s not quite right, because the word being translated as ‘fuck’ here is khuy. Idi nakhuy (иди наxуй) – ‘go to dick’ or, more loosely, ‘go sit on a dick’ – is what the Ukrainians (and the road signs) have been saying.

Translating swear words is never simple. In this video of a Ukrainian soldier warning and threatening Russian troops, the words blayd (‘slut’ or ‘whore’), pizdetz (‘a messed-up situation’, deriving from pizda, or ‘cunt’), and khuy – three of the four words that form the basis of mat – are all translated as ‘fuck’, while ebat (which really does mean ‘fuck’, and is the root of the word Boris Nemtsov once used to describe Putin’s mental state) is never used. If that matters, it’s because in Russian khuy is stronger, by far, than the word for ‘fuck’. Tell a Russian acquaintance to fuck off, and he’s likely to laugh it off. But even among old friends, khuy and pizda are no laughing matter. (Pizdetz, on the other hand, is rather mild.)

‘Иди наxуй is the worst thing you can say,’ my sister Mariana tells me. She lives in Europe, and my Russian’s OK but hers is still fluent. ‘You can’t say it in jest, unlike pizdets or ebat. You can play with those two words. You can’t play with idi nakhuy. It’s a really aggressive, serious swear word.’

In that sense, ‘go fuck yourself’ isn’t wrong. (Mariana: ‘Pick the worst thing you can say in English.’) ‘Go the fuck, you fucks’ gets us closer, but only a bit. The truth is, there’s nothing in English that goes quite so far. (In Spinal Tap terms, our curses go up to ten, but Russian words go to eleven.) There’s no elegant solution, just as there is no way to convey the historically specific sense of resignation – of weariness and resolve – that I hear in that ‘nu, vsyo’ from Snake Island. As a Soviet-born man with Ukrainian grandparents, it’s something I feel in my bones, but can’t capture in English, even though ‘that’s it, then’ is close on a literal level.

Or not. Perhaps I’m still missing nuances – unlike those Ukrainian soldiers and Russian sailors, who seem to have understood each other perfectly – and my sister hears something just a bit different. ‘Such a tragedy,’ she says, ‘this Snake Island. But when people have crossed some line of fear, there is nothing to stop them. I can imagine this very well. To be honest, I just have a stone in my stomach. I’ve been to Kiev a lot, the last time was three months ago. I keep thinking of people: the excursionist who brought us to Chernobyl. The driver. The maid at our hotel.’


  • 1 March 2022 at 10:23am
    holografLRB says:
    Thanks for that, Alex and Mariana. I don't doubt you're right about the relative intensity and forgivability of invective, but I wonder if 'fuck you where you breathe' might come closer to the effect of 'idi nakhuy'.

    • 1 March 2022 at 7:50pm
      Alex Abramovich says: @ holografLRB
      Thanks, holograf. I'm an American, so it's hard for me to say (we wouldn't use that expression, choice as it may be), but I suspect you are right? On the other hand, is 'fuck you where you breathe' something you'd say in the in the heat of the moment? In that sense, "go fuck yourself" may be more right, if weaker...

    • 2 March 2022 at 8:26am
      whatnot says: @ Alex Abramovich
      there's a handy resource out there, Словарь русского мата в 12-ти томах [dictionary of Russian 'mat' in 12 volumes] by Алексей Плуцер-Сарно, but re translation effort, I noticed пидор or пидорас - 'faggot' in most contexts, but really a corrupted spelling of 'pederast', so not just any извращенец (pervert) or урод (freak) - is also often left out.

    • 2 March 2022 at 1:01pm
      holografLRB says: @ Alex Abramovich
      'FYWYB', picked up from a Scorsese film, I think, was popular with a few of my acquaintances thirty years ago and often used in pretty heated moments. Practice, probably.

    • 2 March 2022 at 3:13pm
      Alex Abramovich says: @ whatnot
      In my experience, not so different from "pedo," in the sense Elon Musk meant in his dumbfuck/libertarian psychopath tweet about the Thailand cave rescue thing...

  • 4 March 2022 at 12:42am
    j. w. says:
    I agree that "Go fuck yourself" might not be as strong as "Иди Hаxуй", so I would suggest "Fuck you and your dead homies", which could have fatal consequences in certain circles in the U.S.

  • 4 March 2022 at 10:20pm
    David Woodruff says:
    I agree about the seriousness of иди нахуй. The group Leningrad, which specializes in jokey cursing, achieved a kind of apotheosis with the phrase ехай нахуй (go to the same place, but drive there).

  • 5 March 2022 at 2:12pm
    Scott Pepper says:
    I loved the excerpt from Dostoevsky, and want to tell you (in case you haven't seen it) there is a wonderful, memorable recreation of that story in an early episode of "The Wire", an American tv series in 2002. It's called "Old Cases", but is known widely by fans as "the fuck scene". Dominic West was the lead, and his partner was played by Wendell Pierce, and they performed an entire initial murder investigation using that one word. It was so brilliant that I should have known it was not an original idea.

  • 5 March 2022 at 2:35pm
    Konstantine Matsoukas says:
    My favorite linguistic Russian excess: he/she/it came out of nowhere "like a cunt on skis" !!

  • 5 March 2022 at 4:21pm
    Andrew O’Hagan says:
    Andrew O'Hagan says: As a Glaswegian, and a fan of swears, I can only applaud Alex's excellent piece, and the excellent responses. I suddenly feel schooled by the Ukrainians, in so many ways, and I speak as someone who once heard a teacher say, 'Away tae fuck, ya wee fuckan bawbag.' I'm very much with Dostoevsky on the multiple applications of the single swear-word. On the west coast of Scotland, that happens with 'cunt'. It can be the worst that might be said of you, and yet, to be called 'a great wee cunt' is to be held in high esteem.

    • 7 March 2022 at 11:30pm
      Alex Abramovich says: @ Andrew O’Hagan

      "a great wee cunt" is like, please engrave that on my tombstone!

  • 5 March 2022 at 11:04pm
    Anthony Nassar says:
    "Fuck 'im in the ear!" is from some gangster film. "Fuck you, fuck your mother, and fuck the horses you rode in on," though maybe I'm working too hard.

  • 6 March 2022 at 9:01am
    SWJanet says:
    I studied* Russian at the State Institute of Foreign Languages in Kyiv in the 80s. We had to recite the 15 Republics and their capitals, and name the rivers of the USSR. They never taught us any swear words.
    But going to the football was dirt cheap even for students (as was the opera, but that’s for another time), so we went to most Dinamo home games. And *there* I learned to swear like Malcolm Tucker before Tucker was invented. Just as Alex and Dostoyevsky describe.
    *not so much studied, as roamed the streets looking for a pirozhki seller, because distanced from a family network, shortages took up a lot of our time. How my heart aches now for Kyiv and the Ukrainian people.

    • 8 March 2022 at 3:31am
      Alex Abramovich says: @ SWJanet
      I went to Brighton Beach, Little Odessa in Brooklyn, this weekend, curious to see how many Ukrainian flags I would see. (Not many. At all.) But the babushka selling pirozhki? She was the one with a Ukrainian flag....

  • 8 March 2022 at 4:08am
    Alex Abramovich says:
    Thanks so much for these smart, thoughtful comments. I'm more conscious, as I age, of gradations/differences just between US & UK English, all the ways cadence, tone, and all these thing are wired into us from an early age. Maybe American cursing, at this point, is dead as the horse it rode in on. 'Away tae fuck, ya wee fuckan bawbag' is so beautiful.

    FWIW: Gilbert Sorrentino's example of good, sturdy American sentence was: "Go the fuck back, An'tny!"

    • 9 March 2022 at 4:19am
      Alex Abramovich says: @ Alex Abramovich
      (An'tny was parallel parking, out in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn)

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