July 11, 2021

Zelyonka: It Ain't Easy Being Green

Zelyonka: It Ain't Easy Being Green
Zelyonka makes a fun arts and crafts supply for small children and bloggers alike.  Alex Curtis

Looking more like the Grinch’s tears than an actual medical treatment, brilliant green dye (or “zelyonka,” as it is known in Russian) has a long history in post-Soviet territory.  Thinking back to my first run-in with the substance, I truly had no idea what I was in for. After removing my first-ever tick (a whole story itself), my Russian host handed me a little glass bottle with a dropper, assuming I’d know what to do with it. 

A bottle of Brilliant Green antiseptic solution.
The mysterious substance
I found myself in the
possession of.  

Whatever I did next can only be described as reckless; I popped the bottle open, expecting to find hydrogen peroxide or something similar, but was instead inundated with green pigment. It made such a mess. My hands were green for a few days, and I’m pretty sure the dress I was wearing still has a green splotch along the hem if you look carefully enough. It was a colorful moment of cross-cultural learning (and an even better excuse to prank my loved ones back in America into thinking that I had developed some tick-borne flesh-eating disease). 

The immediate question I had after dying myself like Kermit the Frog, was, what exactly is this “zelyonka,” and what is it good for? And why does it have to be so messy? 

Zelyonka” is the diminutive form of the Russian word for green (“zelyony"). Just for context, the Russian language does not just use the diminutive form to describe things that are small but also to show that they are dear or beloved. This should give you an idea of the kind of staple this is in the Russian first-aid kit. Zelyonka is a common antiseptic used to treat everything from chickenpox to (apparently) having a nail stuck in your head (not recommended). It first gained popularity in the Soviet Union during the twentieth century because it was a practical and low-cost solution that was accessible to the generally impoverished population at the time. The dilute alcohol substance is effective against Gram-positive bacteria and has an advantage vs. common antiseptics, such as iodine, in that it does not irritate mucous membranes as harshly on accidental contact. Today, Russians will swear that it cures anything and everything. 

So if it is so great, then why isn’t it more commonly used here in America? Well, for starters, despite the fact that it is widely acknowledged that brilliant green does work as an antiseptic, there isn’t very much additional research (either in the modern era or in the English language) that can back up these claims with more certitude. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, the product is terribly messy, and Americans don’t typically want to draw attention to their cuts and scrapes with gangrenous-colored swatches. 

A very green-faced Navalny stands in the street.
Putin's corruption makes activist Alexei Navalny green in the face. | Photo by Evgeny Feldman under CC BY-SA 4.0

In fact, more commonly in other parts of the world, an undiluted form of the chemical compound is used as a dye for silk or wool (hence the name “brilliant green dye”). More recently, political protesters or assailants in Eastern Europe have taken advantage of this quality of zelyonka and have used it to mark their enemies. Generally, the bright green bath which leaves your target looking a bit like Shrek is just a rather funny and harmless form of assault, but if the substance enters the eyes it can be extremely painful and harmful. Most notably, in 2017, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was doused with the chemical and suffered damage to his cornea as a result.

Indeed, it isn’t easy being green. But at this point, people began to use the color and the event as a symbol of the movement, spreading the hashtag #greennavalny and putting non-hazardous green facepaint on themselves at protests in solidarity. So the cultural relevance of zelyonka continues to live on, and isn't likely to go anywhere soon.

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