To Gulyat or Not to Be

Daniel Brooks

In Russia, walking is exalted and extraordinary. It is not mundane. I’m not talking about the word ‘to walk’ (khodit), a verb that merely signifies moving from place to place by foot. This is about the holy of holies in Russian which is to gulyat, a word that is more than several letters grouped together with a certain meaning. It is a frame of mine, a system of beliefs and an institution that includes among its meanings love, letting loose and last, but not least, walking.    

In its purest form, the closest translation of gulyat into English is strolling. Someone might stroll along an embankment, enjoying the fresh air and having a chat with friends. To my ear, in English, strolling is a bit antiquated. Strolling brings to mind women with parasols and men wearing top hats, perhaps in a park. To gulyat in Russian is something else entirely, a contemporary word that is in no way antiquated, having a long history, used by all ages and in many ways.   

Friends might go out to ‘gulyat’ in town, in the park or around the neighborhood. It can be done anywhere, at any hour and any place.  Someone can wander with no particular destination in mind for an indeterminate period of time. This is Russia’s favorite thing to do, to set off walking with someone, or on one’s own, having no map, following no route and ending up going where your feet take you. There should be no time limit.  It expresses the Russian need to be unbound by a schedule, plan or time. 

Yesterday evening my wife suggested going to the store, a few blocks away from our apartment, to buy a loaf of bread at around 9 pm. I didn’t want to go. It was snowing outside. I was beat. We were snug in our overheated apartment and it was a cold -10 Celsius outside. Going out there in the dark beyond meant putting on several layers, along with a few extra ones for good measure. My wife said, come on, let’s take a stroll (davai pogylyayem) and we did. We had a good chat, got some exercise and feed our souls in the relatively fresh Moscow air. All fatigue was gone. When the time comes to stroll around, there is no saying no. It’s a matter of natural law.

Many Russians are able to wander about for a long time. The foreigner should be forewarned. My wife can walk indefinitely. Once, when she was seven months pregnant with our first daughter, she and I set off in the snow at our dacha in December to gulyat.  We stumbled around in snow piled up to our knees into a field, then into the woods and after that, through another field. We got lost.  My wife carried on, confident everything would work out. After about four hours we came home, and I collapsed. For her, it was a perfectly normal outing and in fact, a big success, especially getting lost. 

The meaning of gulyat is not confined to moving around by foot. It can be used in the virtual sense, to enjoy life without walking at all. A man can gulyat with his friends by going to a bar, having a few cigars, drinking a few whiskeys and chewing the fat. I did it a few days ago, until 3 in the morning. On the next day, I felt a lot better.  Walking was not done. The dictionary definition of this meaning is to ‘have a good time’ but it’s more than that. This is another way to leave schedules, planning and time by the wayside.  It is another way that Russians do something off the cuff, throwing caution to the wind and following one’s impulses.

A man might ask a woman to gulyat. It’s a safe way to ask her out, compared to raising the stakes and saying, let’s go on a date. It shows that the man is interested in a woman and by saying yes, she’s possibly interested as well. It’s better than going out to dinner on a date because you won’t have to try to talk to her with your mouth full.  After walking around, the man might end up at the entrance to his (or her) apartment and invite the woman to have some chai, or tea. If she says yes, he might ask, what else can we have with the tea? Her correct answer is a cinnamon roll. I saw that line in a movie once. We’ll only have to wonder if the cinnamon roll was any good.  

This verb has life as a noun. Gulyona is someone or some life form that takes off somewhere when given the chance, for a long time. Our dog, named Chuck Norris, is a gulyona. He takes his humans on a walk every day for an hour or so. After we’ve been given the honor of watching him sniff around, Chuckie takes off into the woods. He shows up just in time for dinner which is comprised of chicken and buckwheat. Being bilingual, Chuck understands the words walk and gulyat equally well.  Every day we say Chuckie boy, you are a gulyona. He knows what it means. 

Gulyat is used when parents take their small children outside to the playground or bundled up in the freezing cold weather in baby carriages. It is the word used when children play. There is a well-known song which goes ‘we are little children, we want to gulyat (мы маленькие дети нам хочется гулять!) which I sometimes sing to myself when no one is around. 

This important Russian word has a rich history in literature. Pushkin wrote in his poem named Confessions: When you set forth, defyingbad weather, on a lengthy walk? (Когдагулять, порой, вненастье, высобираетесявдаль?). The translation doesn’t do justice to the original poem, but the point is this; if Pushkin said it, this word is the real deal.  

Russians living in the US often miss going out to wander around aimlessly. While I lived in Seattle in the early 2000’s, I made the mistake of buying a boat.  It was christened Bely Slon (white elephant). Once, I took a group of Russian friends on a boat trip to a town called Anacortes situated on the western side of Puget Sound across from Seattle. In Anacortes, we split up to walk around and I warned everyone to return by 1 pm so we wouldn’t have to go back across Puget Sound to Seattle in the dark. Being Russians and having gone out to gulyat, everyone showed up late and as I feared, our return trip took place in the black of night. The wind picked up and it began to rain. As luck would have it, my compass malfunctioned and couldn’t be read. We became hopelessly lost. Finally, when the rain and fog lifted, we found ourselves facing Edmonds, many miles north of Ballard Locks in Seattle where we needed to be. My Russian friends were down below in the foc’sle, drinking, telling jokes and singing. They were happier than clams. Being lost in the middle of the night in a downpour on choppy seas was the best thing that had happened to them in a long time. Afterwards, they all said it was an excellent boat trip (khorosho pogulyali) and they begged me to take them out in the Bely Slon to get lost again, soon.

Russia is a nation of people most of whom, deep down inside, are gulyoni. At any given moment, most Russians would like nothing more than to go out and gulyat and if possible, throw caution to the wind. Go to the center of any Russian city and you will see people wandering around, regardless of the weather. Now you know what they are doing. It is walking, and then some.   

Daniel Brooks 12 January 2019