Russian Language Blog

Million Scarlet Roses Posted by on Feb 3, 2011 in Culture, language

«Миллионалых1роз» [Million Scarlet Roses], a song first sung by «Алла Пугачёва» [Alla Pugacheva] in 1983, is still very popular and well known in Russia. Our guest, David Roberts, will help us learn, among other things, a few new 4-letter words, where the modern past tense comes from, why we can sometimes use the past tense to indicate what we’d like to happen in the future, and how to talk about the colors of flowers.

Жил-был2 художник один
Домик имел и холсты,
Но он актрису любил
Ту3, что любила цветы4
Он тогда продал свой дом
Продал картины и кров5
И на все деньги купил
Целое море цветов
Миллион, миллион, миллион алых роз
Из окна, из окна, из окна видишь ты
Кто влюблён, кто влюблён, кто влюблён и всерьёз
Свою жизнь для тебя превратит в цветы.
Миллион, миллион, миллион алых роз…..Утром ты встанешь у окна
Может сошла ты с ума
Как продолжение сна
Площадь цветами полна
Похолодеет душа6
Что за богач здесь чудит
А под окном чуть дыша6
Бедный7 художник стоит.

Миллион, миллион, миллион алых роз…

Миллион, миллион, миллион алых роз….

Встреча была коротка
В ночь её поезд увёз
Но в её жизни была
Песня безумная роз
Прожил художник один
Много он бед перенёс
Но в его жизни была
Целая площадь цветов.

Миллион, миллион, миллион алых роз….

Миллион, миллион, миллион алых роз…

There once lived a certain artistHe had a little house and canvasesBut he loved an actressOne who loved flowers

Then he sold his house

Sold his pictures and his home

And with all the money he bought

A whole sea of flowers

A million, million, million red roses

From the window, from the window, from the

window you see

Who’s in love, who’s in love, who’s in love,

and seriously

Turns his life into flowers for you

A million, million, million red roses….

In the morning you stand at the window

Maybe you’ve  one out of your mind

Like the continuation of a dream

The courtyard  is full of flowers

Your soul chills

What sort of rich man is fooling about here

But below the window, scarcely breathing

Stands the poor7 artist

A million, million, million red roses….

A million, million, million red roses….

The encounter was short

A train took her away into the night

But in her life there was

A wild song of roses

The artist lived on alone

He endured many hardships

But in his life there was

A whole courtyard of flowers

A million, million, million red roses….

A million, million, million red roses….

«Примечания» [Notes]:

1. «Алый» – like English, Russian has several words for red, which probably refer to different shades of «красный» but which we mostly treat as synonymous. The dictionary translation of «алый» is scarlet. Other “red” words are «багровый» (purple, crimson) and «малиновый» (related to «малина» [raspberry] and «малиновка» [robin]). More Russian words for various “оттенки красного” [shades of red].

2. «Жил-был» – This expression (and its corresponding feminine and plural forms «жила-была» and «жили-были») is often found at the beginning of children’s stories, and is equivalent to “once upon a time”. It is a relic from a time when the Russian verb system was more complex than it is now. The past tense forms we now use, agreeing with the subject in gender and number, were originally past participles used to form a perfect tense, using the appropriate present tense form of «быть» as the auxiliary verb. The verb «быть» was fully conjugated:

  • я есмь
  • ты еси
  • он/она/они есть
  • мы есмы
  • вы ести
  • они суть

Going further back, there were also three dual forms: есвѣ [we (two of us) are]; еста [you (two of you) are]; есте [they (two of them) are]. (If you are wondering about the unfamiliar letter at the end of the first dual form, check out one of David’s previous posts about Russian alphabet).

Only «есть» has survived in everyday Russian, but some of the other forms can still be found, for instance, in biblical quotations. Most Russians readily recognize the phrase «Азесмьцарь» [I am the tsar] from a popular old comedy «ИванВасильевичменяетпрофессию» [Ivan Vasilyevich Changes His Job].

In the old perfect tense, the conjugated forms of «быть» were combined with the past participle:

  •  «я жил(a) есмь»                                           I (have) lived
  • «ты жил(a) еси»                                           You (have) lived (singular, familiar)
  • «он/она/они жил(а/о) есть»              He/she/it (has) lived
  • «мы жили есмы»                                         We (have) lived
  • «вы жили ести»                                           You (have) lived
  • «они жили суть»                                          They (have) lived

There was also a pluperfect tense, referring to the distant past, where the past participle was combined with the perfect tense of «быть»:

  •  «я жил(a) был(a) есмь»                              I lived (a long time ago)
  • «ты жил(a) был(a) еси»                              You (singular, familiar) lived (a long time ago)

«и т.д.» («и так далее» means “etc”).

Now that «есмь», «еси», etc have dropped out of use, we are left with «я жил(a)», etc as the past tense, and the old pluperfect, surviving only marginally, has become «жил-был», «жила-была» and «жили-были». In this song, «жил-был художник…» is probably best translated as “there once lived an artist…”

So, what we now think of as the past tense forms, are really past participles, and as such they behave as predicative (short form) adjectives, agreeing in gender and number with the subject, just like ordinary short adjectives like «рад» (masculine single form of “happy”). Occasionally we can encounter them as attributive adjectives, and then we don’t usually notice their verbal origins. Example: «прошлый год», «прошлая неделя», literally: the year/week gone.

This can help us make sense of the past forms of verbs of motion being used as imperatives, with no past meaning, like «пошли» [let’s go], «поехали», [let’s go] and «пошёл» [go]! If we go back a few centuries and combine these past forms with «быть» in its appropriate imperative form we get expressions that translate directly to expressions we recognize in English: let’s be gone, be gone.

Before we leave «быть» and its old present tense, a word about the 3rd person plural, «суть». This gives rise to the present active participle in a more or less regular way (replace the final «» of the 3rd person plural by «-щий»), so we get «сущий» [who is being]. It can be found with this original meaning in «Отче наш, сущий на небесах!», the first line of the Lord’s prayer. In general usage it has become a simple adjective meaning real, authentic, and genuine. But it has also given rise to the verb «существовать» [to be, to exist]. So we have come round full circle – if we really need to express “they are” with a verb, where the early Russians could have said «они суть» we now have to say «они существуют»!

3. «Ту» – feminine accusative singular of «тот», literally “that one” but here best translated as “one”.

4. «Цветы» – flowers. This word is an irregular plural, coming from the singular «цветок» [flower]. Together with the word «цвет» [color], which has an irregular plural «цветa», it seems almost to have been designed to confuse non-native speakers! Think of all the variations of a conversation about the colors of flowers – «про цвета цветов». How would you say “the range of colors of flowers”? («диапазонрасцветокцветов») Here are the full declensions:

Color Colors Flower Flowers
Nom цвет цветa цветок цветы
Acc цвет цветa цветок цветы
Gen цвета  цветов цветка  цветов
Dat цвету цветам цветку цветам
Inst цветом цветами цветком цветами
Prep цвете цветах цветке цветах

Apart from the nominative and accusative, the words are the same for colors and flowers.

If we aren’t very careful in our pronunciation, we Anglophones are liable to mispronounce «цвет» [color], with its unfamiliar initial «ц», as «свет» [light]. Try saying in Russian “In polarized light the colors of flowers appear very different from their colors in normal light.” («В поляризованном свете цвета цветов кажутся иными, чем в обычном свете.») But it could be worse – at least declines regularly and doesn’t have a plural.

5. «Кров» – literally roof, or shelter. Maybe here a better translation would be “the roof over his head”. Not to be confused with «кровь» [blood]. Another option for translating the entire phrase «продалсвойдомикров» is “sold his home… and hearth”. (Note the stress on the first, prepositional, vowel in the word «продал». It is equally correct to stress the final, root, vowel.)

6. «Душа» and «дыша» – these two look rather similar, but they have completely different meanings. A similar looking word, with yet another completely different meaning, is «душ». «Душа» and «душ» are nouns: «душа» means “soul” and «душ» means “shower” (what you take in the bathroom); a shower of rain is «ливень» (from the verb «лить» [to pour] as in “downpour”). «Дыша» is not a noun, it is a gerund, or verbal adverb and it means “breathing”. It is derived from the verb «дышать» [to breathe]. The rule for such “–ing adverbs” is to replace the last two letters of the present tense third person plural by «–я» or «а»:

  • «спешить» [to hurry] – «спеша» [hurrying]
  • «тешить» [to pamper] – «теша» [pampering]
  • «лежать» [to lay down] – «лежа» [laying down]

7. «Бедный» – like its English equivalent “poor” it has two shades of meaning, making a double impact in this verse – the artist is poor, because he has no money, and poor in the sense of to be pitied, because his love is unrequited.

What is your favorite Russian song? Or let’s narrow it down even more – what’s your favorite song by Alla Pugacheva?

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  1. Ryan:

    As a note to note three’s last paragraph, the щ is entirely expected. Indo-European formed its present active participles from the third person present tense, basically. You can see the same thing in Latin (amant, amantes, for “they love,” “the ones who are loving”). Russian got the щ in present active participles from the same process we got the щ in возвращаться. And also the same language, since it’s a letter/sound from Old Church Slavonic. We see the Russian version of it in a word like горячая (from гореть).

  2. Arkadiy B:

    amazing post, as always! thank you for refreshing my Russian…although this brings be back to middle school’s much hated Russian grammar lessons on cold winter days in Volgograd 😉
    Funny thing is, I am using your posts to learn more English grammar!
    Oh, and am I glad that Russian got much simplified and shed all the prehistoric grammar 🙂

    As for the most favorite song by Pugacheva, it would have to be the “Mne nravitsya chto vi bolni ne mnoi…” from “S Legkim Parom”.

  3. David:

    When I wrote this post I assumed the story about the artist, the actress and the roses was fictional. It turns out that the artist, the actress and the flowers actually existed. He was Georgian, she was French. This is from Wikepedia:

    Niko Pirosmanashvili (generally known internationally as Niko Pirosmani)1862–1918) was a Georgian primitivist painter.

    You can learn more by looking up Niko Pirosmani in Wikepedia. if you have one of his paintings, contact your home contents insurance copmpany

    • yelena:

      @David David, I didn’t know that! Thank you so much for letting us know. What a story!

  4. David:

    You can see some of his paintings on Youtube here

  5. Jeannie:

    This a great way to translate a song and then give some explanation for some words. Often, when I read Russian children’s books to my 4 year old son I don’t even think of an explanation for “Jili Bili” but you used a good one. But, when he did ask me to translate it one time: I said: “There was or There were” and that seemed to have satisfied him.

  6. David Roberts:

    Jeannie, glad you enjoyed it. I did a similar thing with Журавли some time back, and I’ve been saying to Yelena for ages that I’ll do one on Катюша.