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When you are lost for words, especially if we are talking about foreign words, it is pretty common to resort to gestures. With this in mind, I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to shed some light on the most common Russian gestures. The information on their origin seems to be pretty conflicting. However, the meaning of these gestures is pretty well established. The article that I decided to use as the main reference point provides a pretty good collection of urban myths on the subject as well as a professional opinion: Yulia Nikolaeva, Professor of Linguistics at Moscow State University, tries to refute or confirm the popular myths.
Кукиш, also фига, дуля or шиш (thumb tucked in between your index and middle finger)
This gesture is quite popular in Russia. The most common version is that it was introduced to the Russians by the German expats. The German language has a popular saying “fick-fick machen” which means “having sex.” This gesture was used by Germans in an attempt to seduce Russian women. Russian women adopted the gesture, but with the exact opposite meaning; by using this gesture they were conveying that you get no sex. Over time the gesture became very common. Modern meaning implies “you get nothing,” whatever it is you are asking for. Nikolaeva seems to agree with this version.
“Коза”– sign of the horns (index finger and little finger pointing up)
This gesture existed in the Russian culture for centuries. The most common version says that originally the symbol was used for protection against evil spirits. In the last few decades, “new Russians” (a cliché used to describe rich Russians who rapidly accumulated their wealth through mostly questionable means) gave the gesture a new meaning; if someone is trying to look successful and cool, they might utilize this gesture to communicate the idea that they are “all that and a bag of chips.”
Another group of people who are fond of using this gesture in Russia are the rock/metal music followers. In this case the gesture carries pretty much the same meaning it has in the US and Western Europe, which is…? My point exactly! Nobody can clearly define what it means anymore. According to popular belief, the gesture was introduced to the metal world by Ronnie James Dio after he joined Black Sabbath.
Бить себя кулаком в грудь (to hit yourself in the chest with your fist)
One of the versions of this gesture’s origin goes back to the times of Mongol-Tatar Yoke. Supposedly, the nomads expressed their loyalty to their lords by hitting themselves in the chest. Nikolaeva doubts accuracy of this theory referring to the fact that the French also utilize this gesture. Contemporary meaning of this Russian gesture is pretty much the same: by hitting yourself in the chest you express loyalty to a person, vouch for accuracy of yours or someone else’s words, swear that you are telling the truth or promise to deliver. Interestingly enough, I have noticed the presence of a similar gesture in hip-hop culture. I wonder if there is any connection between the two?
Рвать на груди рубаху (to rip your shirt open)
According to popular belief, this gesture stems from the desire to show the cross as a symbol of Christian faith. The reason behind showing the cross is to communicate honesty and sincerity, somewhat like saying “I swear to God!” Yulia Nikolaeva seems to support this version.
Щелчок по шее (a flick on the neck)
The origin of this gesture is, perhaps, the most controversial. The most common belief is that it appeared in times of Peter the Great. Supposedly, there was a very talented carpenter or some other sort of craftsman who did some very impressive work for Peter I. In return Peter gave him a letter of privilege, which allowed him to drink free of charge anywhere for the rest of his life. At some point, the craftsman lost the letter; to keep the privilege in effect, he was branded by czar’s officials (on the side of his neck) . Upon entering a bar, the guy would flick himself on the brand, which meant that he is entitled to drink for free. In today’s Russia, everyone knows that a flick on the throat is an invitation to drink.
«Джентельмены удачи» (Gentlemen of Good Luck) is a classic Russian comedy that happens to show most of the described gestures in action. Give it a try!