Toska, or not toska: that is the question

(Photo credit: Alexey Kostromin)

Even with the combined might of Shakespeare, Dickens and Byron, the English language still has no equivalent for the Russian word ‘toska’, but what does the elusive word tell us about Russian culture?

For many that have studied the Russian language, one word, in particular, stands out as having a special, elusive, significance. It has been described as, at worst, “a sensation of great spiritual anguish” and, simultaneously, as “a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for.” This was Vladimir Nabokov’s attempt at translating the untranslatable and even after years of trying, many students remain fascinated and intrigued by this linguistic thorn. The word in question? Тоска (toska).

The reason for this enduring interest—which goes way beyond the brow-crunching confusion of Russian having a word that English does not—is that it is so typical of the country itself and yet it resonates at a universal level as well. The feeling when it is first described to you is akin to empathising with a brilliant writer as they seek to convey a particular human emotion. In a way, ‘toska’ is a one-word poem.

There are a great many stereotypes about the Russian people that are predictably banal. One such killer is that Russian people never smile. This is, of course, ridiculous, but it is true that Russians do not associate a smile with being polite, and why should they? Why do we in Europe? There is a Russian saying which says that “laughter without reason is the sign of a fool.”

This brings us to another consideration about the word ‘toska’: it is symptomatic of the Russian culture of honesty that is visible on a daily basis. Should anyone approach you with a story about how rude a Russian waiter was to them, it is not impossible that they deserved it. Similarly, ask a Russian taxi-driver, “How are things?”, and note the suspicion on his face. It is not that this man is being rude, he is, instead, trying to understand how a stranger could possibly be interested in his personal life.

The conviction that ‘toska’ is a universal feeling that needs exploring led me to my Russian friends. I asked them two simple questions: “how would you define toska?” and “what would you say is it’s most appropriate synonym?” Initial reactions told me I was on to something, so I asked as many people as I could, not only in St Petersburg but also elsewhere in the country and abroad.

“An extreme spiritual disorder with manifestations that depend on the type of person you are.” Evgeniy

(Photo credit: Alexey Kostromin)

Honesty is crucial here, so I will begin with some myself. As I read and translated the answers sent by Russian friends, I realised that I hadn’t fully appreciated what it was that I was asking them. Students of Russian often come across ‘toska’ in the context of the so-called white émigrés—Russians who left the country in the wake of the revolution—many of whom wrote about the nostalgia they felt for their motherland. This gives the impression that ‘toska’ is, to a large extent, a positive emotion: a strange sort of pride, a warmth of memory, perhaps? Not so, according to many of those I spoke with.

“The feeling of a person who is lonely, bored or in a state of sorrow. The feeling that something is lacking or that you are bored with someone or something.” Anya

‘Toska’ is a moving target and foreign folk must accept the fact that it is impossible to define. Instead, it must be felt. A person’s understanding and experience of ‘toska’ depends on a great many things; situation, outlook, and geography, to name a few. For those from St Petersburg, like Nabokov himself, ‘toska’ is basically a nuanced version of deep depression, an almost unbearable portion of sadness with a sprinkling of dill (those familiar with Russian cuisine will know why this herb, in particular, was chosen). The dill, in this case, is a longing for something unknown, something more interesting. In short, up here in this city, ‘toska’ is no picnic.

Closer inspection of what Russians have to say shows that the common thread to ‘toska’ is sadness. This thread is, naturally, deep blue in colour and each adds to this his or her reasons for their own understanding of the word. Some will add the red of love and desire, some the grey of boredom while still others will add the purple of nostalgia. These secondary colours are determined by the person’s life situation and, in acknowledging this, we each weave our own variation of ‘toska’. There can be little doubt that a psychologist could learn a great deal about a Russian simply by listening to their definition of the word.

“A feeling of sadness and apathy. ‘Toska’ is different in that it relates to a feeling of hopelessness, from a missed chance or a wrong choice. Sadness is something fleeting, ‘toska’ is deeper, more serious.” Margarita

It is fascinating to think that thousands of years ago the Slavic people felt it sufficiently important to label this feeling when others did not. Why? The suspicion must be that, for whatever reason, Russian culture has evolved in such a way as to recognise the reality that life is not easy and that, as humans, we are susceptible to the effects of emotions—that we are rarely in control of our own destinies and that negative emotions are as much a part of life as the positive. Rather than something to be ashamed of, it is a fact of life that is to be embraced, as it has been by the Russian language. In all its forms, ‘toska’ is a word that expresses a degree of vulnerability and it takes an honest person to admit that they feel that way.

“Toska is a feeling of inner emptiness, a meaningless of everything around you, the feeling of being lost, physically and spiritually, in both space and time.” Alexey Kostromin (photographer)

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