TOPIC: The gestalt of "жириновщина" and other "-щина" words
LETTER

Dear RLM,
One frequently encounters nouns ending with the suffix -щина (or -овщина). For example, дедовщина, безтолковщина, митинговщина, уголовщина, поножовщина and so on. In many instances the root is based on a surname: гапоновщина, ежовщина, лысенковщина, and more recently, гайдаровщина and жириновщина.
I understand that the suffix historically carries a negative connotation. For example, татарщина refers to the Tatar Yoke, ждановщина denotes the "cleansing of the arts during the post-World War II Zhdanov Era."
Could you shed some additional light on the subject?


MENTOR REPLY

Good Linguist,

Thank you for doing most of the basic work for me.

Indeed, the suffix -щина (-овщина) carries a negative connotation. This is true for all of your examples, not just татарщина and ждановщина. Although to be fair to fans of Gaidar and Zhirinovsky, "the degree of negativity is in the eyes of the beholder." Still, there is more to the story.

Let's begin by noting that in some words, -щина is not a "suffix" per say, but a part and parcel of the root - that is, without it, the remaining "root" would not carry the same meaning.

For example, what does the root дед- suggest by itself? It's a "nice root" that brings images of grandpa and kind old men. Add the suffix -(ов)щина and you find yourself in a very different world: дедовщина - the custom of hazing recruits in the military by senior enlisted soldiers. A mouthful of a translation! And that's the problem with most -щина words - translating them, as your "translation" of ждановщина clearly illustrates.

The point is that many -щина words are rooted in literature, history or personalities and require a brief explanation or even a footnote to be fully "translated."

For example, the -щина suffix can be rendered by the English suffixes -ism, -itis, -ian, -esque, or even -like or Era:

    обломовщина ~ Oblomovism or Oblomovitis
    достоевщина ~ Dostoevskian
    булгаковщина ~ Bulgakovesque or, better yet, Bulgakov-like
    ежовщина ~ the Yezhov Era.
But what do these terms really mean to Russians? A lot more than our "word for word" renderings. Indeed, use them in a conversation with a Russian, and they all trigger a "gestalt" of thoughts and feelings:
  • gestalt - "a psychological phenomena so integrated that it cannot be derived from a summation of its component parts."

Three examples:

    1. обломовщина - Oblomovism or Oblomovitis. The term is based on the main character of Ivan Goncharov's novel Oblomov (1859), Ilya Oblomov, a likeable but lazy landowner who wastes away most of his life on a couch - sleeping, dreaming and making plans which are never to be realized. The term обломовщина was coined by the radical critic Nikolay Dobrolyubov (1836-61) in his article Что такое обломовщина? What is Oblomovism? in which Goncharov's hero came to symbolize all that was wrong with the 19th century Russian gentry - an "-itis", if you will - that afflicted the old regime. Say обломовщина to a present-day Russian in the proper context, and they will smile a knowing smile.

    2. ежовщина - the Yezhov Era. The term takes its name from N.I. Yezhov, the NKVD (secret police) chief, who helped carry out Stalin's "Great Terror" (1934-38), which resulted in the arrrest, torture, death or imprisonment of millions and millions of Soviets. Use the term around Russians who lived through those times and a shiver runs down their backs.

    3. Your example - жириновщина, a term that's just recently been coined and is still developing. What does жириновщина mean to today's Russians? Many things. To begin with, Vladimir Zhirinovsky serves as deputy speaker of the lower house of Parliament, the Duma. He's a political maverick with a record of supporting the Kremlin. He's also been called a "wildman," "firebrand" and "shadowy figure" in the press. He heads the Russian ultranationalists some of whom have formed Nazi-like "brown shirt" paramilitary organizations. At one point he not only wanted to reestablish the old borders of the Soviet Empire but to extend them to the Adriatic Sea. He's a showman, "funny man" and buffoon - all rolled into one. By the way, "buffoon" is not an altogether negative term to the Russian psyche. He has been known to throw water at political opponents and start food fights, shoving matches and fistfights on the Duma floor. He's even pushed and punched a few women delegates. He drinks a lot, surrounds himself with sexy young "things" whom he paws in public and in front of his wife. He has also publicly suggested that sex could be the cure for Russia's economic woes. (Did we mention that he drinks a lot?) There's more, but it doesn't belong in a family publication like this. In short, the man's a complete slime! A pig! Pond scum! And, of course, he's always running for President and a lot of people vote for him. So how do we translate жириновщина? "Zhirinovsky-ism" or "Zhirinovsky-itis"? You get the picture: we really can't do it justice with a one word rendering. True gestalt!

The meanings of other -щина words are colloquial coinages and not as "gestaltish:"

    военщина ~ military cliques, military circles (usually opposed to Soviet or Russian policies)
    поножовщина ~ knifing or knife fight
    бестолковщина ~ disorder, chaos or confusion
    митинговщина ~ the propensity for, or love of, holding endless meetings (in governmental, political and bureaucratic circles); often found, at least in recent Russian politics, in the same context as запой hard drinking:

    Маляровцы склонны к митинговщине и запоям.
    "Followers of Malyarov have a penchant for endless meetings and hard drinking."

Finally, may I suggest two quick ways to figure out the "gestalt" of some -щина words. First, use the Oleada lexical search engine to find the words in context. For example, a quick run based on a -овщин* pull resulted in the following "hits:"

    хлестаковщина
    маниловшина
    чертовщина
    уголовщина
    безотцовщина
    семибанкирщина
Some of these terms you'll find in dictionaries, others will require some research - at least now you have a context!

Second, use the Interactive Research Index in the Russian Language Mentor Developing Russian Cultural Literacy course to quickly look up historical and literary references. For example, the following information was found for the first two words in the list above ( хлестаковщина and маниловщина):

"[Gogol's] play The Inspector General (Ревизор) is a tale of mistaken identity. A town is in a tizzy waiting for an inspector general to arrive. Enter Khlestakov (Хлестаков), a young man passing through, who can't understand why the townspeople are wining, dining and bribing him. In any case, he enjoys his stay, fleeces the local yokels for all they're worth, then leaves a few minutes before the real inspector general arrives."

"[In Gogol's] novel Dead Souls (Мертвые души)... the landowners he encounters include the classic character types Sobakevich (Собакевич) - big, strong, stupid, afraid to be taken advantage of; Manilov - silly, sentimental, hard to get rid of; Korobochka - stupid widow, Nozdrov - cheat, bully, good-old-boy; Plyushkin (Плюшкин) - pack-rat and miser. Use any of these terms to describe a Russian, and people will understand you!"

Good luck!

The RLM

p.s. The nice lady who sometimes acts as my proof-reader (my wife) wanted me to add that the Russian word for woman - женщина is the exception to all of the above! Are you happy, Honey?