One of the most used words in Russian – “muzhik”, is both its own ordinary and slang form. To complicate matters further, some see it as an insult, while others think being praised as a “real muzhik” is a huge compliment. Learn how to use it well!
In 2010, Russian President Vladimir Purin called Leonardo DiCaprio “a true muzhik.” What he meant was that Leo, while traveling to St. Petersburg to attend a conference on saving endangered Amur tigers, had to change three planes. DiCaprio’s plane from New York had to turn back after an engine caught fire. His second private plane was later diverted to Finland due to a snow storm.
In a speech, Putin said DiCaprio “forced his way to us like he was crossing a front line.” Continuing, the Russian president said: “I’m sorry for the bad tone, but in our country we call people like that ‘a real muzhik‘.
Who could be considered a “muzhik” in Tsarist Russia?
Leonardo DiCaprio in “Revenant”, 2015.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2015 / Regency Enterprises
In nearly all media coverage of the event, Putin’s words about DiCaprio were translated as “a real man.” But that’s not entirely accurate. The expression “real man” would actually be translated as “настоящий мужчина” (“nastoyashiy mujchina”), where мужчина is the exact translation of “man”. Muzhikhowever, is something different.
In Italy, the word peasant is something similar to “peasant” in English – an unskilled agricultural laborer, roughly equivalent to guy in Egypt. These two words can also be used in their respective cultures to mean “buddy” or “dawg”. Well, that’s the first basic meaning of a muzhik in Russian – the one that belongs to peasants, agricultural workers, etc. In Tsarist Russia, the word muzhik was used to refer to a man belonging to the peasant social stratum – even in laws and official documents.
In colloquial speech, muzhik in pre-revolutionary Russia was a social term, but in a nobleman’s speech it took on pejorative connotations: a nobleman calling another nobleman a muzhik was considered a serious insult and would almost certainly result in a duel.
A “bufetny muzhikcould mean a canteen servant, a “dvorovy muzhikmeant a servant in the domain of a noble, and so on. However, there has always been a more complementary and even honorable side to this word – and this is how it is mostly used in contemporary Russian.
What is the difference between a man and a “muzhik”?
“A peasant with a harness”, Ivan Kramskoy, 1883.
Kyiv Art Gallery / Public Domain
Russians have always admired their own peasants – the majority of the population and the winning power behind all the victories of the imperial army. Since the time of Empress Elisabeth (1709-1762), daughter of Peter the Great, “balls with mujikswere held at the Winter Palace shortly after the New Year – which meant that everyone, even peasants (if they were properly dressed) were allowed to attend.
You may also be surprised that in his private life Emperor Nicholas I of Russia called himself a muzhik (and his wife, Empress Alexandra – “my baba(the same word for “a peasant woman”). Using these words, the Emperor praised the idea of a Russian muzhik – a relentless, fearless and decisive person, who would do anything to defend and provide for his homeland, his home and his family.
This meaning has remained unchanged through the ages, and it is still used today. What do we Russians mean when we call someone real muzhik?
First, it is resolutely masculine. He doesn’t necessarily have a beard, but he can definitely be a bit rude. A little reserved. A muzhik is definitely tough – physically and mentally. He doesn’t have to be a fiery athlete, though. For example, the late genius Stephen Hawking was definitely a real muzhik – for overcoming his illness and becoming one of the greatest scientists we have ever known.
READ MORE: 7 reasons why Russians are so tough
Sean Connery, pictured on a water taxi in Venice, 1970s.
Archives Cameraphoto Epoche/Getty Images
A muzhik lives on his own terms. He respects society, but he can easily brush aside its conventions if he deems them unnecessary. Writer Michael Crichton, in his memoir ‘Travels’, describes Sean Connery: “He’s comfortable with himself, direct and outspoken. ‘I like to eat with my fingers,’ he says, eating with his fingers in a fancy restaurant, careless. You can’t embarrass him with trivialities. Eating is what’s important. People come for an autograph and he glares at them. ‘I am while eating, he said sternly. ‘Come back later.’ They come back later, and he politely signs their menus. He doesn’t hold grudges unless he intends to. Yes, this is a description of a real muzhikwhich Sean Connery certainly was.
To be in a difficult and unfavorable situation, a real muzhik does not change his mind about his actions or stray from the path he intends to follow. When Napoleon Bonaparte was summoned to command the Republican forces at the Siege of Toulon in 1793, he was an unknown young captain, and the superiors of the Republican army treated him and his plans with open contempt – but Bonaparte did his homework, he was an accomplished artillery commander, and in the end his plan proved super effective, Toulon was taken and the royalists protecting it defeated. Napoleon was a real muzhik in the Russian sense – maybe that’s why he was respected in Russia despite being the enemy.
People push a car in Valdivostok, Russia.
Finally, ‘mujik’ in contemporary Russian is a universal call to arms. For example, your car has stalled in the middle of the road and you need help pushing it aside. Approaching a bus stop with several guys waiting there, you don’t say something like “Господа, не могли бы вы помочь…” (“Gospoda, neh moglee par vee pomoch?” – “Gentlemen, could you please…”) No, you say: “Mужики, давайте толкнём!” (“Muzhiki, davayte tolknem! – ‘Muzhiks, let’s give him a hand!’). Immediately, it implies at the same time that you respect all the men you go to, and that you believe that they will help you without hesitate a second. Because after all, there is a bit of real muzhik in every Russian man!
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