Another Meaning of Sputnik

Posted on 28. Feb, 2012 by in Culture, language

I loved Rob’s comment on my Valentine’s day post.  If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might remember Rob’s previous guest posts, including Chemistry for Muggles as well as his exhaustively researched comments, both on the blog and on the Facebook page. This particular comment was so amazing that I figured, it needed to be more visible (with Rob’s kind permission). Without further ado, here’s Rob:

From memory, here’s a two-line Russian “poem” about love, author unknown, circa 1993:

Верный парень, нормальный,
Ищет спутника жизни.

I never met the author and don’t know his name; I doubt he had any intentions to be a poet, and I’m sure he would have laughed at the idea that his short объявление (ad; announcement) in the Знакомства (Personals) section of a бульварный (low-brow; vulgar) tabloid newspaper was anything close to “poetry”! Certainly, there’s nothing original or imaginative in the six words; it’s a rather standard and clichéd first sentence in a “seeking love” ad.

But it was poetry for me, as an American student of Russian who was teaching English in Moscow, as a 22-year-old homosexual who had just finished university and had only recently “come out of the closet”; who had already met some young gay and lesbian Russians, and who understood that their futures as gay people in Russia would be a bit more difficult than my own future when I returned home to America.

For me, back in 1993, there was so much significance packed up in that short ad, which struck me like a haunting крик души из тюрьмы одиночества (the scream of a soul from the prison of loneliness).

The ad probably appeared (if my memory is correct) in the back pages of СПИД-Инфо — which, in 1993, may have been the only Moscow publication that was willing to print gay/lesbian personals ads. (By the way, СПИД-Инфо literally translates as AIDS Info — but make no mistake, this was not a sober-minded educational journal intended to teach the public about AIDS and “safe sex”; it was a sleazy tabloid with celebrity sex-gossip and blurry B&W pictures of pretty women showing their breasts, and aimed mostly — though not exclusively — at heterosexual men. I used to buy it because I’d figured out that it was a good source for slang terms that you don’t learn in a college Russian course, such as трахаться (to screw/bang/shag).

So if the same two lines of Russian had appeared in a Brighton Beach newspaper in 1993, they would not have had quite the same Romantic impact for me — they would have seemed less like a послание в бутылке, одновременно полное отчаяния и надежды (a message in a bottle, simultaneously full of despair and hope) — because by 1993, prospects for gays in America were considerably brighter than in Russia.

It’s also possible that the words sounded more “poetic” to me, as a learner of Russian, than they would to a native speaker. The expression спутник/спутница жизни was quite new to me then, and it struck me as a wonderful, colorful, крылатое выражение (“unforgettably catchy phrase”; literally “winged expression”), though perhaps to a Russian it’s only a moth-eaten banality one sees in Знакомства ads.

Let me try to explain the wonderful genius that this phrase holds for a foreign student of Russian. Every English speaker knows the word “sputnik”, but for most of us, it’s simply the name of a beep-beep-beep-ing metallic object, smaller than a basketball, that the Soviets launched into orbit in 1957. However, when you’re a beginning student of Russian, they teach you that спутник is actually the generic Russian term for “satellite”, including natural satellites — so the Jovian moons Io, Ganymede, Europa, etc., are спутники Юпитера, “satellites of Jupiter.” A bit later, your teachers explain that спутник can also refer to a person, with the meaning “traveling companion”, and that when used in this sense, it also has a feminine form, спутница. And even later, you are taught how to analyze the Slavic etymology of Russian words: the-пут- in спутник is related to the noun путь (“way” or “path”), and from the same root comes words like попутчик, which was sometimes translated into English as “fellow traveler,” a Cold War euphemism for “Communist.” But спутник and попутчик are not identical, because the prefix с- suggests a closer and more intimate connection than по- does… [etc.]

So — with the above in mind — if you’re an American student of Russian in 1993, and you see the phrase спутник/спутница жизни in the “Personals” section of a Russian newspaper, you quickly understand from the context that the meaning is close to “life partner” or “significant other”. But, recalling your professor’s explanation of the difference between спутник and попутчик, you know that “life partner” totally fails to capture the metaphorical color of the Russian.

After thinking about it for a while, I decided that an appropriately poetic and idiomatic translation of “спутник/спутница жизни” would be:

“a driving buddy for the road-trip of life.”

Anyway, there was another surprise waiting for me. Probably 95% (or more) of the population is heterosexual. Thus, if you saw the phrase “…ищет спутницу жизни” in an ad, you could generally be sure that the subject of the verb искать (“to seek; to look for”) was мужчина (a man), парень (a guy), or мужик (a man); and if you saw “я ищу спутника жизни”, you could safely assume that “я” was a женщина (a woman) or девушка (a girl).

And thus it came as a moment of astonishment when I read the words “парень ищет спутника…”, and I had to stop and remind myself that both парень and спутник were nouns мужского рода (“of masculine gender”)!

Thus, a парень (guy) was looking for another male… not as a mere партнёр (which can signify “sex-partner”), but as a “traveling companion on Life’s journey”. More than that, the парень had described himself as верный (honest and loyal), and also нормальный (ordinary).

Usually, if a Russian writing a Personals ad describes himself/herself as нормальный/нормальная, you can translate it as “ordinary, likeable, down-to-earth”. But I would assume that for a gay or lesbian in Russia, the word might have a more assertive meaning: “I am not abnormal.”

From Googling, I find that sputnik zhizni is still a popular phrase today, for heterosexuals and homosexuals alike. And nowadays, the expression does not, and cannot, have the same poetic quality that it did back then — because the Internet has taken away much of the одиночество that was once the daily reality for Russian gays and other small minorities.

But Верный парень, нормальный, ищет спутника жизни seemed like poetry to me in 1993, and спутник жизни will always have a poetic quality…

 

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7 Responses to “Another Meaning of Sputnik”

  1. Ken Martin 28 February 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    Yup! A wonderful blog!

  2. Minority 28 February 2012 at 4:23 pm #

    There’s one more poetic name for “спутник жизни” – “вторая половинка” [one’s second half].

  3. yelena 1 March 2012 at 3:03 am #

    Minority, you are very helpful, as usual. In fact, you reminded me of this вторая половинка phrase and I included it in the upcoming post. Thank you!

  4. Rob McGee 1 March 2012 at 10:06 pm #

    Thanks for reposting this, Yelena!

    Minority, I like “вторая половинка”, too, but what makes “спутник/спутница жизни” appealing to me is that it is gender-specific, yet orientation-neutral. In other words, the phrase doesn’t have centuries of strictly heterosexual associations, like муж, жена, and брак; it’s an expression that can be used by straights and gays alike. But at the same time, it recognizes that some people are looking for a man, and others are looking for a woman!

    I also like the phrase because it emphasizes a lifelong relationship — it sounds more “permanent” than words like boyfriend and girlfriend — regardless of whether the two persons are legally married.

  5. Harry 3 March 2012 at 7:34 am #

    What a great little story. Thanks so much for it :)

  6. Sarahjane 4 March 2012 at 12:32 pm #

    I only properly read this today (having previously skim-read it and dismissively noted the presence of the awful спутник жизни, I’m sorry to confess). I found this post unexpectedly moving. Bravo, Rob.

  7. Stas 25 June 2012 at 4:57 am #

    First, Rob, let me say thank you for this great and moving story.

    However, спутник жизни in Russian could refer either to male or female. Like the words адвокат [lawer, advocate] or пилот [pilot] are masculine but could refer to both man and woman. Of course, one can always use адвокатесса, however, this would be rather uncommon. So it is not unusual to hear and read phrases like this, адвокат сказала, что…

    Then, the парень in the personal ad could’ve looked for a femnale companion. And нормальный thus would’ve meant heterosexual which, by the way, how some heterosexual Russians refer to themselves, or sometimes they call themselves натуралы [naturals].

    Nevertheless, I like your interpretation. And we can choose to wholeheartedly believe any interpretations we desire and without being wrong.


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