Russian Language Blog

Academicians, Pushkin, and the Steamship Posted by on Feb 17, 2011 in Culture, language, Soviet Union

As promised, here’s the second and final post that provides some linguistic and cultural background for appreciation of one of the masterpieces of Soviet animation, Winter in Prostokvashino.

«фломастер» – You might recognize the brand name Flo-Master. If you are teaching (or studying) a marketing course, this is a perfect example of brand dilution or overuse. The word «фломастер» in Russian means any type of marker regardless of the actual brand. The same happened to other brands, including

  • Pampers – «ты ребёнку когда последний раз памперс меняла?» [when was the last time you changed the baby’s disposable diaper?]
  • Xerox – «нам в офисе цветной ксерокс поставили» [we got a color copier in our office]
  • Jeep – «да по этой грязи и джип не проедет!» [even an SUV won’t make it in this mud!]
  • Keds – «у нас зимой в кедах даже студенты не ходят» [in winter, even students don’t wear athletic shoes]
  • Unitas – «в нашей коммуналке всегда проблемы с унитазом – то треснет, то забьётся» [The toilet in our communal flat is always a problem; it either cracks or gets clogged].

If you are looking for more examples of brand names becoming «имена нарицательные» [appellatives, common nouns], check out this Wikipedia article.

«Что это за народное творчество?»«народное творчество» is a term that describes both folk art and folklore. In this case, however, Matroskin, the Cat uses it sarcastically to emphasize the crudeness and lack of artistic quality in Sharik, the Dog’s response. It’d be better translated into English as “what’s with the cave art?”

«Индейская национальная изба, фиг вам называется» – this is a play on words «вигвам» [a teepee] and «фиг вам» that can be best translated as “screw you” or “go to hell”. Of course, Native Americans had many types of dwellings, but the one that most Russians think of is «вигвам». By the way, in Russian «индеец» means a Native American while «индиец» means a person from India.

«бестолковый» – a wonderful word, so descriptive! Literally, someone who is «без толку» [without smarts] – a clueless, thick-headed individual. The noun, by the way, is «бестолочь» as in «да этой бестолочи математику хоть бы на тройку вытянуть» [this dimwit would be lucky to simply pass his math class].

«а о нас кто подумает – Адмирал Иван Фёдорович Крузенштерн?» [and who’s going to think about us? Admiral Ivan Fyodorovich Krusenstern?] – to me this is about the funniest phrase in the whole cartoon. Why? You see, typically the famous Russian who’s invoked in such rhetorical questions is «Александр Сергеевич Пушкин» [Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin], as in

  • «а кто за тебя домашнюю работу делать будет – Пушкин?» – Are you waiting for Pushkin to do your homework for you?
  • «а свет в туалете кто гасить будет – Пушкин?» – Do you think Pushkin will shut off the bathroom light for you?
  • «а порядок здесь кто наведёт – Пушкин чтоли?» – Do you suppose Pushkin will straighten things up here?

But Matroskin, being his intellectual self, doesn’t go for the common and «избитый» [trite]. By the way, here’s the «пароход» [ship] Matroskin refers to in his explanation about who this Krusenstern was.

«человек и пароход» [lit. the man and the ship] – while Prostokvashino cartoon gave rise to countless sayings, this is not one of them. Instead, it is a phrase from a poem “To Comrade Nette – The Steamship And The Man” by Vladimir Mayakovsky. In general, the expression refers to someone with gravitas who is «широко известен в узких кругах» [lit. widely known in narrow circles].

«ездовые академики» – while “sled-pulling academicians” is a joke, the Russian saying «в каждой шутке есть доля правды» [there’s a grain of truth in every joke] holds true since it was common to use university professors and research scientists, along with students, as field hands at harvest times.

«совместный труд для моей пользы» [cooperative work for my personal gain] – this phrase pokes fun at one of the frequently-used Soviet catch-phrases, «совместный труд для общественной пользы» [cooperative work for the benefit of society].

«главное украшение столателевизор» [the most important thing on a table is… a TV] – apparently, TV addiction was a big problem even when Russians only had 2 TV channels. Notice that Matroskin’s song also mentions TV that replaces all other experiences.

«самодеятельность» – Soviet authorities directed and encouraged citizens’ involvement in various community projects. One type of projects was «кружки художественной самодеятельности» [amateur talent groups] that were usually directed or led by a professional artist.

Armed with all this knowledge and supported by the most helpful native Russian experts on the blog and on our Facebook fanpage, you should be set for getting the most out of the other 2 episodes of Prostokvashino – «Трое из Простоквашино» [The Three from Prostokvashino] and «Каникулы в Простоквашино» [Vacation in Prostokvashino].

So what other Soviet and Russian cartoons should we watch and learn from?

Tags: , , , , , , ,
Keep learning Russian with us!

Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Try it Free Find it at your Library
Share this:
Pin it


  1. sam:

    i like russian

    • yelena:

      @sam Sam, keep reading our awesome blog and you’ll like it even more. And if you join our Facebook page, then you’ll swiftly move to “love it”. Русския язык – это классно! [Russian language is awesome!]

  2. Elizabeth:

    Wonderful article! I’ve watched the whole series of Prostokvashino cartoons many times. They even inspired me to try to find out the history of the word gutalin (shoe polish) in Russian.

    • yelena:

      @Elizabeth Elizabeth, what did you find out? I’ve never even thought of it, but the word itself always sounded funny 🙂

  3. Steve:

    I was going to add карандаш as another example, having been derived from the Swiss pencil company, Caran d’ache.

    But I decided to check my facts first. It turns out that things went the other way. The pencil company got their name from Caran D’ache, the pseudonym of a late nineteenth-century satirist, and he got his monicker from the Russian word.

    Learn something new every day, don’t you.