Русский пофигизм: Ah, the Glories of the Russian Language!

Michael Bohm, the opinion page editor of the Moscow Times, writing in his own paper (we’ve added rough phonetic transcriptions of the Russian words so that, if so inclined, non-Russian speakers can say them — staff addition, corrections welcome):

I have often heard Russians say, Русский пофигизм неизлечим {ROO-skee pa-FEEK-izm} (The Russian attitude of “I couldn’t care less” is incurable). But from drivers to professors to prime ministers, no one really seems to care much about this.

One place that you are guaranteed to see пофигизм is on the roads. When attempting to cross a pedestrian walkway and a mad driver almost runs you over, you may shout, Ты нарушаешь закон! {tee na-RU-shayesh za-kon}(You are breaking the law!) — to which the driver may very well respond, Иди на фиг! {ee-DEE na fik}(Go to hell!) or Мне по фигу! {min-YE pa FEE-gu} (I don’t give a crap!) He also may показать вам фигу {pa-ka-ZAT vam FEE-gu}(the Russian gesture of sticking the thumb between the index and middle fingers), but лихачи (road daredevils) usually prefer a more serious gesture involving arms, not fingers, to tell pedestrians off.

As you can see, the root of the word пофигизм is the three-letter word фиг {FEEK}, which is a euphemism for the obscene three-letter term for the male sex organ. There are dozens of фиг-based expressions that are popular among Russians of all ages and social classes. There is фиг тебе! {FEEK ti-BYE}(you won’t get anything from me!), as well as ни фига себе! {FEEG-a sib-YE} and офигеть! {AFIGET} (wow!). Or на фиг это тебе нужно? {NA FEEK ETA TIBYE NU-zhna}(what the hell do you need that for?) and зафигачил! {za-FEEG-a-cheel} which is what a football fan shouts when his favorite player scores a goal.

Пофигизм especially flourished during Brezhnev’s stagnation period. The phrase “всеобщий пофигизм” {vis-ye-OB-shchee pa-FEEG-eezm}(universal apathy) referred to the mass social inertia, disillusionment, cynicism, depression and utter hopelessness that anything could ever be changed in the decrepit Communist gerontocracy that Brezhnev so vividly personified.

Although пофигизм permeated all aspects of Soviet life, it was particularly prevalent at the factory, where managers constantly padded production numbers, workers churned out substandard goods, and both groups stole everything they could get away with. And at the end of the day, всем было по фигу {vis-YEM BEE-la pa-FEEG-u} (no one gave a damn — about his job, the factory, the economy, the country and virtually everything else).

Русский пофигизм, of course, goes back much further than the Soviet era. The quintessential “народный пофигист” {na-ROD-nee pa-FEEG-eest} (the “national loafer”) in Russian folklore was Yemelya, who was completely indifferent to … everything. He lounged on his warm stove all day, and his answer to every appeal to get off his butt was мне неохота {min-YE ne-akh-OTA} (I don’t feel like doing it). At the end of this fairy tale, which every Russian parent reads to his child, Yemelya is rewarded for his пофигизм when he marries the tsar’s daughter and rules the country — a peculiarly Russian version of a Hollywood хэппи-энд {KHEppy-end} (happy ending).

There is also пофигизм that is rooted in the harsh Russian winter. A muzhik, cigarette dangling from his mouth, who is cutting wood in the backyard in a T-shirt when it is minus 20 degrees Celsius outside, may say to his wife who is urging him to dress more warmly, Мне по фигу мороз! (I don’t give a hoot about the cold!) When this phrase is used today, мороз refers to any danger.

Пофигизм can also have elements of reckless, impulsive bravado, like when Putin showed the world who’s the boss by threatening to send a doctor to “clean up/out” Mechel and its owner — and wiping $58 billion off the Russian stock market in a single day.

Пофигизм is especially popular among young Russians. Many students гуляют (have a good time, party) all semester, passing exams only with the help of шпаргалки (cheat sheets) — which most professors see, of course, but then ignore because many of them are also пофигисты. Then there is the 18-year-old жеребец (stallion) who doesn’t bother to protect himself while sowing his wild oats. But if he is hit with the unexpected news that there was a “залёт” (slang for unplanned pregnancy; literally, “flight”), his friends may try to comfort him with a classic пофигисткий {pa-FEEG-eest-stki} credo: Не бери в голову, бери между ног {ne ber-EE vGOL-a-vu, ber-EE MEZH-du NOK} (Don’t let it get to your head; just enjoy yourself and get back into the game).

Naturally, most Russians are pretty indifferent about their indifference, but at the same time, they have always been able to laugh at their incurable пофигизм. For example, during the Brezhnev era, there was a popular joke: Советский человек растёт: раньше ему было всё по плечу, а теперь ему всё по фигу {sov-YET-skee chel-o-VEK rast-YOT: RAN-she yemu BEE-lo vis-YO po-ple-CHU, a tep-ER ye-MU vis-YO pa-FEEG-u} (The Soviet man is “evolving”: Before he was able to accomplish everything, but now he couldn’t care less about everything).

3 responses to “Русский пофигизм: Ah, the Glories of the Russian Language!

  1. Иди на фиг?

    LR, what the f***? Very few Russians are so polite.

    Иди на хуй!

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