Poetry Kaleidoscope: Guide to Poetry

Chastushka

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Chastushka (часту́шка), a type of traditional Russian poetry, is a single quatrain in trochaic tetrameter with an abab or abcb rhyme scheme. Usually humorous, satirical, or ironic in nature, chastushkas are often put to music as well, usually with balalaika or accordion accompaniment. The rigid, short structure (and, to a lesser degree, the type of humor used) parallels limericks in British culture. The name originates from the Russian word части́ть, to speak fast.

Chastuskas cover a very wide spectrum of topics, from lewd jokes to political satire, including such diverse themes as love songs and Communist propaganda. During Soviet times, the government even published large collections of "ideologically correct" chastushkas.

Sometimes several chastushkas occur in sequence to form a song. In fact, in Russian, this type of song is referred to as just the plural часту́шки, i.e. chastushkas. After each chastuska, there is a full musical refrain without lyrics to give the listeners a chance to laugh without missing the next one. Originally chastushkas were a form of folk entertainment, not intended to be performed on stage. Often they are sung in turns by a group of people. Sometimes they are used as a medium for a back-and-forth mocking contest. Improvisation is highly valued during chastuska singing, much like in rap culture.

The last foot of a chastushka line is often a single stressed syllable rather than a full trochee, but no other structural variations are generally allowed. Due in part to this rigid structure, the tune used to sing them is standardized, but varies among different regions of Russia. A popular example is the tune of Яросла́вские ребя́та (Yaroslavskie Rebyata, The Yaroslavl Guys), the signature tune of the folkloric vocal band by that name. In fact, the Yaroslavl region has been famous for its chastushkas since long ago.

Examples

The vast majority of folk chastushkas are lewd or laden with vulgarities. Here are some relatively printable examples. Included are loose English translations that preserve the chastushka rhyme and meter and the main meaning (though not the details).

  • Kolkhoz life
Птицеферма у нас есть,
И другая строится.
А колхозник яйца видит,
Когда в бане моется.
We have got a chicken farm,
And the second's not too far,
But kolkhozniks get to see eggs (slang for testicles)
Just at public baths thus far
  • Bolshevik political and anti-religious propaganda
Знаем Ленина заветы.
Кулаки, попы - наш враг
Призовет их всех к ответу
Большевицкий красный флаг.
We remember Lenin's words of
Our prime foes, priest and kulak
They will be called to account
By the bolshevik's red flag.
Не ругай меня, мамаша,
Что в подоле принесла.
Богородица-то наша
Тож без мужа родила
Mother, spare me, don't scold me
For what I brought in my skirt.
Just think, like me, Virgin Mary
Without husband's help gave birth.
  • A parody of the Soviet peace propaganda
С неба звездочка упала
Прямо милому в штаны,
Пусть бы всё там разорвала,
Лишь бы не было войны.
Shooting star straight from the heavens
Fell into my boyfriend's shorts.
His burnt manhood's no biggie;
My main wish is no more wars.
  • Appeared when daylight saving time was introduced in the Soviet Union
Время сдвинули на час
На Советском глобусе
Раньше хрен вставал в постели
А теперь в автобусе
Time got shifted by an hour
From Khabarovsk to Donbass. (in the original: "On the Soviet globe")
Morning wood'd been in the shower,
Now I have it on the bus.

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