January, February, March… Month names are some of the easiest words to recognize across European languages. Take February for example: that would be Febrero in Spanish, Februar in German, Février in French, Φεβρουάριος in Greek and Февраль (pronounced as Fevral’) in Russian. The script might be different, but the sound is still familiar. For the longest time I assumed that practically all European languages, be they Romance, Germanic or Slavic (and save for the notoriously odd ones like Celtic or Finnish) worked this way, drawing names of calendar months from Latin and the Roman tradition. Then, one fine October morning in the Czech countryside I found myself staring at seasonal hours of operation of Karlstejn Castle, but instead of the 12 Latin-adjacent names, I was looking at Latin letters spelling out entirely unfamiliar words.
As I scanned the schedule, the English-speaking part of my brain was stumped, but the Russian one kicked in as I got to month XI, which read LISTOPAD. The word was too peculiar to be random; in fact, it was a precise Latin-script transliteration of the Russian word ЛИСТОПАД, or ‘leaf-fall.’ Ah, yes, it all started to make sense. I looked back up: LEDEN, the first month of the year — no doubt it took its root from LED, which means ‘ice’. Czech calendar, it seemed, was nature-inspired.
I really liked the idea of these words being laden with meaning that went beyond paying lip-service to pagan gods. There is something authentic, something native in a language being so closely tied to its land. This kind of naturalism would fit Russia so well, I thought — after all, Russian is a culture that glorifies nature in everything from its folklore, classical art, literature and the national past-time of mushroom hunting.
Turns out, Russian language indeed has its own version of all the months and it was in use until the end of the 17th century, when Peter The Great adopted Julian calendar. Thankfully, these truly Russian names were not forgotten, and though you won’t find them on a regular Russian calendar, have been preserved in historical writings and folk culture.
So here they are, 12 Russian months in Real Russian, and what they mean. Don’t worry, Latin script only!
1. January – (new) Yanvar’ – (old) Prosinets. The root of this word is ‘sin’‘, meaning blue, and the prefix ‘pro‘ signifies an appearance of something. This is the month when after dark, grey December skies and short days we’re starting to see patches of blue in the sky, more clear weather and sunlight, and an extra hour and a half of daylight by the end of it. Spring is still far — but it’s coming!
2. February – Fevral’ – Lyuten’. You know how I just said that spring was coming? Well, forget about that. In central Russia, February is usually the harshest of winter months, with deep frosts made harder to bear by howling winds. Thus the month takes its name from the adjective lyutyj, or ‘especially harsh’.
3. March – Mart – Kapel’nik. Kaplya = drop, and kapel‘ is the seasonal melting of the snow and ice, and the resulting ‘melted waters’. Kapel’ is a very musical word: the water falls down drop-drop-drop, kap-kap-kap. Migratory birds start to come back, and streets explode with multitude of sound, celebrating the arrival of Spring. Until the end of the 10th century this month also welcomed the New Year, which arrived on Spring Equinox.
4. April – Aprel’ – Tsveten’. Tsvetenie means blooming or blossoming. Nature has awakened in earnest now.
5. May – Maj – Traven’. Due to the Sun’s peculiar positioning, which results in abundant dew fall, this is the time of year when grasses — travy — grow tall and green. It is also the ideal time for planting. Russian May holidays, which stretch from International Labor Day on May 1st, and end with (World War 2) Victory Day on May 9th, are the official kick-off of the gardening season, and the first mass exodus of urbanites to their dachas.
6. June – Eeyun’ – Raznotsvet. From ‘razno‘ = different, and ‘tsvet‘ = color, or flower. Meadows are in full bloom now, green grasses many bright by many different flowers. Summer is here.
7. July – Eeyul’ – Groznik. Time of grozy, or thunderstorms. Abundant rainfall from those short storms is highly important for successful picking of wild mushrooms and berries, which falls on midsummer. Mushrooms are purified of diseases, and berries grow juicy.
8. August – Avgoost – Zarev. Zarevo, or zarya means a bright, colorful dawn. This focus on an atmospheric phenomena is born out of seasonal laboring in the field from early morning till the evening. This is peak harvest.
9. September – Sentyabr’ – Revun. “One that roars, or howls.” Several things howl in September: cold winds bring an end to the warm days of summer, and wild animals, feeling the coming of Winter, begin to howl as well, with deer loudest of all.
10. October – Octyabr’ – Listopad. Same exact word as in Czech, but making its appearance a month earlier. That’s because by the time November comes to Russia, the leaf-fall is usually over and trees are standing bare. October is possibly the most beautiful month of the year, the epitome of Russia’s Golden Autumn.
11. November – Noyabr’ – Gruden’. This one is interesting. In modern Russian, gruda means a heap, but in the olden days it referred to hardened ground. Nightly frosts are common now, and the days are too cold for the soil to defrost and soften. Farming season is over until next Spring.
12. December – Dekabr’ – Stuzhen’. Stuzha is a deep cold, characteristic of Winter. Even though Russian word for ‘cold’ is holod, the kind of cold you catch is called prostuda— hinting at a seasonal nature of this ailment. Winter has arrived.