May 01, 2002

Walking a Verst in Russia's Lapti

Walking a Verst in Russia's Lapti

Down through the centuries, Russian reformers have repeatedly said they do not want their country to remain a лапотная Россия – Russia of the laptis, referring to лапти, the traditional footwear made from birch bark. Despite the somewhat romantic refrains of our folk song: “Лапти, да лапти, да лапти мои!” (“Oh you, my laptis-laptis! ”), this and other connotations of лапти are often negative, in this case implying backwardness.

The word лапоть (singular for лапти) also figures in the idiom “Не лаптем щи хлебаем.” The literal meaning is “we don’t eat our soup with lapti,” but the real meaning is that “we are not as simple and primitive as you may think; we do know how to use a spoon.” A similar usage appeared in the famous film, Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears. The heroine is visiting a Soviet TV studio and hears two singers offering up a 1950s-era chastushka (humorous, four line rhyme):

Пусть нас “лапотной Россией” называет Вашингтон
Мы недавно запустили лапоть в сорок тысяч тонн

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