Learning Russian from pins

Souvenir shopping usually goes hand in hand with traveling. Postcards, key chains, magnets to adorn the refrigerator, and if you traveled in Communist countries, little enameled pins. On my very first visit to Beijing in 1988, I bought a panda one from zoo, and another one that simply said “Yi He Yuan” – the Chinese name of the Summer Palace. I think they’ve become as a genre of souvenir, although one can still lots of Chairman Mao ones, more as a ‘political/historical’ thing.

Four years later, I went on a ride on the Trans-Siberian Railroad with my five cousins and one uncle. We made whistle-stops at many towns, like Irkutsk, Perm, and saw the shores of Lake Baikal, but never got to visit any of them. At most, our interactions with the locals was buying strawberries in newspaper cones and fried bread from them on the station platform. Chinese traders on the other hand, hawked leather jackets from inside the train, out the windows. Their plastic cargo bags that were stuffed to the gills when we boarded in Beijing, would be emptied by the time we go to MOCKBA (Moskva = Moscow)

Amongst other ways to pass time on the one-week ride, we traded Levi jeans (the Russian youth wanted to make sure they were Made in the USA, and not Made in China – how prescient!) for USSR/Communist memorabilia, like military watches. I think that’s how we also got a slew of pins.

I ended up with 12 of them in my possession. Variously, they’ve sat in a box, adorned a canvas bush hat I got as wages from volunteering at the DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles) at Burning Man, and now I’ve put them aside again.

I never really knew what the pins signified, they were all labeled in Cyrillic Russian. The only words we picked up were PECTOPAH (restoran – restaurant) on the trip.

But now armed with a tiny Russian-English/English-Russian Dictionary, enforced waiting time (manning phone # 7 at the KCSM), I decided to translate the words on the pins, letter by letter, and then find out what they were about, by looking them up on the Internet – which was created solely so I could look up intriguing trivia like this. It was a nice little sleuthing exercise in foreign languages, and then culture, all without leaving the comforts of my life in Northern California.

It turns out that there’s lots of place-nouns that sound about the same phonetically in Russian as they do in English. Restaurant is one. Museum is another.

Of course, if I were really competent, I could have simply find a way to type Cyrillic letters into Google and look stuff up that way. But no, I like the brute force method, as befits someone who has no iPhone.

Because this blog serves as my vanity press, let me bore you with what I found out. It’s piqued my curiosity even more – Someday I’d like to go visit these places from which I have souvenirs, but have never actually been to!

From top, going from left to right

1) SK ANTONIO KANOVA NAPOLEON ARMITAJ – Antonio Canova Napoleon Hermitage
Huh? Why would Napoleon, famously defeated by the Russian winter, be featured on a souvenir pin? The Hermitage is a famous museum in St. Petersburg- akin to the Louvre. Antonio Canova was a noted Italian sculptor, who became quite popular with the Russians. His bust of Napoleon is in the Hermitage.

2) MB Ломоно́сов – MV Lomonosov 1711-1765
Mikhail Lomonosov was a Russian scientist. Moscow State University is named after him.

3) ХОХЛОВКА Архитектурно-этнографический музей – Khokhlova Architectural-ethnographic museum is in Perm. It’s an open-air museum, with historic wooden buildings. It would have been cool to visit the place.

4) May 9 – Victory Day – celebrating the Soviet Union’s victory over the Nazis.

The following two pins had depictions of the actual sport – which was helpful, because the words in Russian sound/spell nothing like their English equivalents

5) CCCP лыжи – USSR cross country ski

6) CCCP стрельба из лука – USSR Archery

7) Museum/House of the Dekabrists/Decembrists Irkutsk – This is a memorial museum of the Decembrists –rebels seeking reform in Russia were exiled to Siberia after 1826 – having been influenced by the French Revolution/Napoleonic Wars. I actually took a photo of mural commemorating them at the train station, but never bothered to learn about them until now.

8 ) Байка́л = Baikal – I think the animal depicted is the sable – mercifully not hanging from the jaws of Siberian tiger (see below)

9) Ирку́тск = IRKUTSK
This is a major city near Lake Baikal. The wild cat on the pin represents the Siberian tiger with a sable in its mouth, which is the symbol of Irkutsk.


One thought on “Learning Russian from pins

  1. I think the only souvenirs I have from that trip are a set of Beatles nesting dolls and a Soviet flag in my bedroom in Dublin.

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