‘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.’