May 01, 2019

Spring has (Not) Sprung



Spring has (Not) Sprung
Victor Bogorad

In most of Russia, getting through весна (spring) is rough, especially in the age of social media.

In early March, when Moscow is still buried under more than a meter of snow and people are buried under many inches of fur and heavy wool, there is nothing more annoying than Instagram photos of daffodils, forsythia and cherry blossom buds.

Где весна?” (Where is spring?), Muscovites moan. 

But actually, Moscow’s spring is entirely on schedule. You just have to turn off what Russians call гаджеты (electronic devices) and crack open a book about spring in Russian folklore and history.

Весна consists of three months, which are now called март (March), апрель (April) and май (May), based on the Latin names. Before 1492, март was the first month of the year (from 1492 until 1700 September was the start of the year), and it was the start of what was originally called пролетье (spring).

March had several names in the Slavic world. In what is now Russia, the most common names were протальник and сухий, which seem a bit contradictory. Протальник is when the first проталины (thaw holes in ice or snow) appear. Сухий, which sounds like the modern word сухой (dry) is a bit of an etymological mystery. Linguists have two hypotheses, neither of which is completely satisfying: they think it either refers to a lack of precipitation in the month, or to cut wood which has thoroughly dried over the winter.

In any case, март is the month of the snow- and ice-melt, and a month of unpredictable weather: Март неверен: то плачет, то смеётся (March is inconstant: sometimes it weeps, sometimes it laughs). And it can be very cold: Пришёл марток, надевай семеро порток (March is here, put on many pairs of pants — порты). But still, it’s the month that begins to break the back of winter: Февраль зиму выдувает, а март ломает (February blows winter away, but March breaks it).

April is the in-between month. Апрель — не холодный, как март, и не тёплый, как май (April isn’t as cold as March nor as warm as May). Perhaps this isn’t as obvious in big cities, warmed by all the underground heat and hot water pipes and buildings, but outside the cities snow is still knee-deep. It’s the wet month: Февраль богат снегом, апрель – водой (February is rich in snow, April in water). Апрель всех напоит (April will quench everyone’s thirst).

From all of this, it’s not surprising that in the old days April had two names: снегогон (“snowchaser”) and берёзозол (“pain for birches” because the peasants cut them deeply to extract birch juice).

But beware: Не бойся зимы, а бойся отзимка (Don’t fear winter, fear its sudden return). Отзимок or отзимье is a very short word with a very long definition: A dramatic fall in temperature, freezing weather with snowfalls after the snow has melted from a long period of warm weather.

And then, finally, there is май (May) aka травень (time of grass). This is the green month: Май леса наряжает, лето в гости ожидает (May dresses the forest, waiting for summer to visit). It’s a busy month of planting, but often cool, and in some ways better that way: Май холодный — год хлебородный (A cold May produces much grain). And you can always count on a cold spell when the bird cherry – черёмуха – is in bloom.

The lesson of that one warm sunny day? Одна ласточка весны не делает (One swallow doesn’t make spring). Or in modern parlance: Don’t put away your parka just yet.


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