Friday, August 27, 2010

The Beautiful Red Square

by Drew Martin

In the Czech film, Kolja (pronounced as Kol-ya), which won the Oscar for the best foreign film in 1997, there is a scene between an elderly Czech man, František Louka, and a five year old Russian boy, Kolja (a diminutive of Nikolai), which the translator let slide because a simple quip would have been too complicated to explain in the short volley.

Louka (which means "meadow" in Czech) is played by the seasoned and beloved Czech actor, Zdeněk Svěrák (the film was directed by his son, Jan). In the scene, he is required to hang a red, white and blue Czechoslovakian flag next to the soviet red Russian flag in the window. Louka does not speak Russian and young Kolja does not speak Czech, although the languages overlap and the elder should also speak Russian. His inability is typical of the mellow Czech defiance that led to the Velvet Revolution.

In the English subtitles (of the US release I saw in 1997) Kolja says "Our flag is beautiful" when he sees Louka putting the flags in the window. Bothered by the remark, Louka replies that his Czech flag is beautiful and the scene moves on. What the boy actually says in Russian is "Our flag is red". The joke is in the word krásná, which means beautiful in Czech and red (krasnaya) in Russian.
Originally, krasnaya also meant beautiful in Russian but over time began to mean only red; the word krasivaya assumed the meaning for beautiful.

This is why Red Square - Красная площадь, (Krasnaya plóshchad') is named as such. It originally meant Beautiful Square, but changed with the evolution of the word krasnaya. It is the largest medieval square in Europe (which I am one to consider Moscow part of) and it is highlighted by the mesmerizing St. Basil's Cathedral (so beautiful that Ivan the Terrible ordered the architect, Postnik Yakovlev, to be the legend goes,
so he could not create anything as magnificent).

The picture on the right is one I took during a visit to the Soviet Union in 1986, when I was 16. The line on the right along the wall under the Kremlin and across St. Basil's Cathedral is of Russians waiting to view Lenin on display in his tomb.