Who Cares About Pofig?

Daniel Brooks

A good friend in Moscow has a fondness for the word pofig, a Russian word he said can’t be translated. It can be – but not easily; Pofig roughly means ‘nonchalance’, or not giving a damn. Russians believe their pofig-ism is a special kind. In certain circumstances, Russians are not all that bothered by disasters, meteors and crisis. They take matters in stride. They have to; it’s that kind of country.

The root of the word pofig is fig, derived from the fruit that should be eaten in limited amounts, when ripe. The word has branched out, becoming a bad word over the centuries. It has a long historical lineage, dating back to ancient Greece and Rome when a fig was thought to represent fertility, eroticism and parts of the female anatomy about which Russians have knowledge without necessarily discussing the matter on web sites devoted to the knowledge Russians have. It is not as bad as the “f” word while coming in well ahead of several other rude phrases. The word fig should not be used in polite conversation in Russia unless you know what you are doing. In impolite company, use it all you want.

Said in combination with other words, fig can mean someone is astonished, such as in the phrase ne figa sebe. Let’s say you are driving around in the far reaches of Russia and a massive meteor comes out of the sky. You make a video tape with your phone and as the meteor hits the ground, you calmly say ne figa sebe and then put it on YouTube. You are mildly astonished.  For a practitioner of pofig a massive meteor landing in town is no big deal.

A derivate, fignya can mean something is nonsense. Another derivative is nafig, used when something is unnecessary. I often say “fig yego znaet” meaning – who knows? There are other forms of fig, frowned upon by parents, used by their adolescent children well into adulthood.  

You can show someone the fig by using a hand gesture in Russia, made by sticking your thumb between your forefinger and middle finger and showing your fist to someone, knuckles facing the other person with the tip of the thumb barely visible. This is the Russian version of flipping someone the bird, as we Americans say, or showing them your middle finger. Like the word, this gesture is very old and impolite. In addition to being an insulting gesture, showing someone the fig is protection against the evil eye. I had never heard of the evil eye before coming to Russia, but it doesn’t sound good. Protection against it never hurts.

Someone once told me the best way to protect against gypsies is by using a double fig, with both fists. I tried it once in the 1990’s. I was at a train station in Moscow when two gypsies came up to me, trying to read my palms and pick my pockets. I showed them a double fig (dvoinoi fig), holding up both fists to them. The gypsies said things that sounded like a series of “f” words in their own language, spoken rapidly. They got my drift and quickly took off. Lately, I’ve seen fewer gypsies at the train stations in Moscow and I’d like to think I had something to do with it.

I’ve seen Russians use the fig gesture when they get really, really angry. If a woman shows a man the fig, he should find a white flag and wave it. When a Russian shows someone the fig, it’s not a good sign. Any visitors new to Russia would be advised not to display either hand gesture. A friendly wave works best, or a thumbs up. 

Fig is one of those words that is used in countries that stay up late and haggle.  Inhabitants of these civilizations are easily offended, have a fiery reputation and bang their feet on the floor while dancing. The Italians and Spanish have their version of fig and use several expressions that are similar to Russian ones. Meanwhile, countries outside the realm of fig usage have a vague idea of the meaning of the word. Some things are universal.

A pofig attitude can be seen in daily life in Russia. Most store clerks practice it and have perfected the art of not giving a fig about their customers. Perhaps they have been trained. It’s an interesting thought. Someone ought to open a coffee shop dedicated to being rude. I bet it would catch on.

Some hotel owners are pofigists. We visited a hotel on the shores of Lake Seliger, situated between Moscow and St Petersburg. The web site showed a modern hotel building, view of the lake and newly built interior. When we arrive, we found a nice hotel building, all right, with a courtyard inhabited by a large, run-down boat and several piles of garbage. Cats lived in the smelly stairway leading up to our apartment which was beautifully designed, very comfortable and smelled wonderful. From it, the view of the lake was spectacular beyond the garbage and shacks. We asked the owner about the boat and trash in the yard. He took his hand up to about shoulder height, palms down, and waved his hand down towards the ground in a quick movement. This is a way of expressing pofig using a hand gesture.

I lived and worked in Russia in 1998 when the Russian government collapsed, its cash reserves fell to almost nothing, the Ruble was spiraling out of control, the country was deep in debt and the banking system came to a complete halt. Imagine such a thing happening in the US or the UK; the population would have been beside itself. People would have had a fit. All hell would have broken loose. In Russia, everyone was calm. Moscow was quiet, with few cars on the road. Somehow, life went on. Who needs banks? The country switched to cash, folks reached into their cellars for potatoes and jars of pickles. The roads were mostly empty of cars and a large number of people stayed home, as if the country had imposed martial law on itself. When speaking with Russians, I remember asking, aren’t you worried? Many said, this is Russia, what do you expect? It was all about pofig and the hand expression was used often, waving away thoughts about questions that couldn’t be answered. Pofig became, at the time, less of a liability and more of an asset. Not giving a damn has its merits, if you are better at it than any other nation.   

Daniel Brooks, copyright, 2 April 2019