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Bumming Around

Published: December 4, 2013 (Issue # 1789)

The other day I read an article about a draft law on homeless people being floated by the Moscow city government. What caught my eye in particular was the phrase “авторы [закона] предлагают законодательно закрепить понятия ‘бродяжничество’ и ‘бездомный гражданин’” (the drafters propose to legislatively establish definitions of ‘vagrancy’ and ‘a homeless citizen’).

This is, of course, no big deal. Bureaucrats, lawmakers and lawyers all over the world define words in a particular way in specific documents. But it got me thinking about the linguistic differences are between vagrants and homeless people in Russian and ways to describe a rootless life.

Some of it is easy for English speakers to understand: бродяжничество is the same as vagrancy, and бездомный is the equivalent of homeless. In fact, бродяжничество comes from бродить (to wander), and vagrancy comes originally from the Latin vagari (to wander).

In both Russian and English, бродяга (vagrant) is someone who wanders from place to place, usually in poverty and without a home or regular employment. Бездомный (homeless person) doesn’t have a permanent living place — and in Russia, registration.

As I understand it, бродяга/vagrant is almost always бездомный/homeless, but бездомный/homeless is not always бродяга/vagrant.

In colloquial Russian today, a homeless person is бомж, from the Soviet abbreviation без определённого места жительства ([a person] without a definite place of residence). This abbreviation, invented to describe homeless people who ideologically couldn’t exist in the U.S.S.R., has turned into a masculine noun with the plural бомжи (stress on last syllable) and feminine form — бомжиха.

And then there are words that are old fashioned but more expressive, like босяк (tramp, from босой — barefoot); оборванец (bum, someone dressed in tatters, from рвать — to tear); скиталец (wanderer, from скитаться — to go from place to place); or even странник (wayfarer, wanderer or pilgrim).

Another wonderful word is шатун (wanderer, bum). This comes from шататься, which most commonly means to shake or be unsteady, like a loose tooth. But it also has the sense of going from place to place, and шататься по миру is to knock around the world. Today you are more likely to hear шатун used metaphorically about people: Он был политическим шатуном (He was a political pendulum.) Or terrifyingly, about bears: медведь-шатун is a bear that doesn’t hibernate. Медведь стал шатуном, бродил по лесу, выходил на дорогу, нападал на лошадей и людей (The bear left his den, wandered around the woods, went out on the roads, and attacked horses and people.)

Reminds me of a boyfriend I once had — he was a real bear if he didn’t get enough sleep.

During the Soviet era, being a vagrant or homeless was simply against the law. In fact, not working was against the law. This was called тунеядство (parasitism), a word that I used to have such trouble remembering I used the mnemonic device of “tuna fish” — lying around like a fish. Being fish-like could land you in the camps for a couple of years.

Thankfully, Moscow officials aren’t going to put you in jail for not working. If you are бездомный, they’ll register you and give you access to medical aid. But they have special centers for anyone into бродяжничество, which they define as a homeless, unemployed way of life, “оскорбляющий человеческое достоинство и противоречащий требованиям личной гигиены” (insulting human dignity and inconsistent with the needs of personal hygiene).

Essentially, if you stink, you’re going to be in big trouble.

Michele A. Berdy, a Moscow-based translator and interpreter, is the author of

“The Russian Word’s Worth” (Glas), a collection of her columns.


Times Talk


Thursday, Apr. 24

Learn more about Denmark during the Danish Business Delegation’s visit to SPIBA this evening starting at 5:30 p.m. at the Danish Culture Institute. Danish Consul general Klaus Sorensen will be in attendance and the buffet following a presentation on Danish companies in Russia will be the perfect opportunity to network with the assembled businessmen.

AmCham’s Human Resources Committee Meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. this morning in their St. Petersburg office. Check their website for more details.

Friday, Apr. 25

Light Music presents the main events for their Cultural Kitchen project at Loft-Project Etagi today. A B2B event that focuses on Finnish food, arts, travel, music and design, the evening will conclude with a dinner by chef Jyrki Tsutsunen and dancing to music by Aino Venna. The event, which began yesterday with presentations by tourism and cultural institutions, concludes today with a preview of Finland’s Flow festival and other musical events. Invitations are available from

Saturday, Apr. 26

At 6 p.m. this evening, stylist Liliana Modigliani offers 50 simple ways to up your style quotient with beauty tips at the Galeria shopping center on Ligovsky Prospekt. The event is part of the final day of the shopping mall’s Fashion Saturday sales event, this week focusing on top brands located on the ground floor as well as presentation from fashion experts on sprucing up your spring look.

Sunday, Apr. 27

Families shouldn’t miss Childhood Planet 2014, the trade fair that started yesterday and concludes today at LenExpo. Not only will goods and services be provided for children and families but the event hopes to promote Russian brands and eco-friendly products using the latest technology available in the childcare industry.

Monday, Apr. 28

The Hotel Indigo will be the site of SPIBA’s Acting Skills for HR and Other Managers master class this morning starting at 9 a.m. The event will begin with coffee before moving on to the class itself and conclude with a tour of the recently opened hotel. Confirm attendance by Apr. 24.

Tuesday, Apr. 29

Improve your English at the British Book Center’s Interactive English Lesson tonight at 6 p.m. Students at pre-intermediate and intermediate levels are welcome discuss topics that are selected to help learners master the more difficult aspects of English grammar and vocabulary.