Sunday, April 24, 2005

Inaugural Essay, Part II: Why the Name Dykun

The Ukrainian word dykun means “savage,” and I have two main reasons for naming my blog thusly:

1) I was taking intermediate Ukrainian at the Harvard Ukrainian Summer Institute when I asked my teacher (you know who you are, if you are reading!) what the phrase for "to go backpacking" as around Europe was in Ukrainian. He stopped, thought a moment, and then asked, "You mean with that thing on your back and sleeping wherever and eating whatever? Yeah, I know. . .podorozhuvaty jak dykun (to travel like a savage)." I don't know if he was serious, that such was the real phrase in Ukrainian, and although I am fairly sure he has traveled as such a savage himself, my Ukrainian family in Pidhajtsi had no idea what the heck I was talking about when I tried that turn of phrase out on them last summer. But then again, one probably should not expect them to have much of an idea of what I was talking about anyway, even if this was the right phrase in Ukrainian. You see, they were just mesmerized by my constant comings and goings from Pidhajtsi to some other part of Ukraine and back again. I know that I saw much more of Ukraine in one summer and fall than any of them had seen their entire lives, whether they had 23 or 75 years. This is a really big topic to discuss, but in short, one way to gauge the "Europeanness" or "Westernness" of a nation is to gauge how mobile the people of a country are, and to do that, all you have to do is look at the infrastructure for travelers and tourists, or ask people where they had been and how recently they had been there. Plenty of people do travel in Ukraine, but I would bet that far more do not travel much; and when they do, many only venture around their own or some nearby region, but perhaps for one or two big trips their entire lives (of course, this is changing and will continue to change, but at the moment seems to hold as true). I had been in Poltava 2xs already when a neighbor in Pidhajtsi excitedly proclaimed to me, "I was there once! No, really, I was! Let's see, it was back in 19, um 198. . .1982! For a couple of days!" I took my 23-yr-old second cousin Oksana to Kyiv on New Year's Eve 2005, and that was her first time there! I had already been there twice before she ever was. In fact, I had been to Kyiv long before many, many Ukrainians had ever been there for the first time themselves, which for many was during the Orange Revolution!

So I like the notion of backpacking being to travel "as a savage," and I also appreciate what is truly savage about the situation regarding travel in Ukraine for the average, rural Ukrainian: the centuries of authoritarian rule, and present and past poverty and a decayed infrastructure, that have kept people bound to their place. However, I also want to suggest here that perhaps there is something positive about being so tied to one's place. Perhaps we moderns and postmoderns are the sick ones, rootless and too shifty. Perhaps we confuse too much movement with freedom. This is not to suggest that the savage means by which people were historically bound to the land in Ukraine and elsewhere has anything positive about it, but perhaps there are positive reasons for being bound to the land nonetheless. One recent philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, who is often dubbed the nomad's philosopher, felt that the high mobility of modern society frequently prevented the kind of deep, inner, spiritual movements that true nomadism could provoke; one need not to travel too far from home to be a real nomad of the mind and spirit, and those who travel the greatest distances may be just running away.

Whatever be the case, one cannot truly ask this question--and many probably won't even be able to see reason to ask such questions--until one has actually experienced life in a place where people's sense of time and space, and travel therein, are much closer to pre- or early modern sensibilities than are ours, in the wanderlusting and high-speed West. Wich makes me want to ask, just what is the West running away from? Have we not left something important behind in out haste? .

2) On that note, a note about what could be called the "savage" conditions in Ukraine: Most Westerners I met in Ukraine were, to varying degrees, surprised, shocked, or just appalled by the conditions in Ukraine. I met very few who felt right at home, or who at least were willing to accept Ukraine on its own terms. This included a lot of diaspora I met while there. One really good way to get acquainted with not only the real conditions in Ukraine but also with the REAL people of Ukraine is to travel like the majority of Ukrainians do, when they do travel. Take the cheaper, Soviet-era buses, not the luxury ones, when you can. Take trains, and don't fly, and when taking the overnight train, go plastkart or on the cheapest rail ticket, which will place you in the common room wagons--unless you don't know the language well and are skittish about not knowing it well. That is, if you are smart, you ain't gonna get robbed; any big city in the US seems to me a more unsafe place than any part of Ukraine, and I met an American hippie-like guy who spoke neither Ukrainian nor Russian in Ukraine but who loved the common wagons. If you do travel in this way, you will come in contact with some of the real conditions in Ukraine, and I think this is a vital opportunity that every Westerner should embrace, rather than avoid and/or judge: in Ukraine, you have the chance to experience life much closer to the way that the vast majority of human beings on earth live it. And to any diaspora reading here: Face it, these are your Ukrainian people who live like this, and you will need to decide whether or not you are in fact more American than Ukrainian by virtue of your creature comforts. I also don't think that being partially or somehow Ukrainian means you have the right to complain the loudest of all Westerners about conditions while in Ukraine! And all visitors to Ukraine should also keep in mind that the conditions there are actually quite decent by global standards; that is, conditions for average Ukrainians are not what they are for average people in either India or the subsaharan Africa, so buck up, little campers!

Thus, travel in Ukraine can be, depending on one's orientation and openness, a relatively "savage" experience, but that's much too strong of a word, in my opinion--bear with me as I use it here for thematic continuity. It is better to say that travel in Ukraine might be, for some, a somewhat uncomfortable experience, but I in fact found the conditions in Ukraine enchanting and instructive, in the sense of taking a class in how NOT EVERYTHING in life NEEDS TO BE NICE, NEAT, CLEAN NOR BRAND NEW, as it is in North America. Thus, I advise taking the more DYKUN route, which is to me the more real route. But you can travel in the lap of luxury in Ukraine too, flying everywhere or taking the fancy buses, or riding in the fancy railcars, and sleeping in fancy hotels and eating at fancy restaurants, if you want. EVERYTHING that Westerners have is available in Ukraine; you just have to be able to afford it. But the fact of the matter is that the majority of Ukraine's and the MAJORITY OF PLANET EARTH'S people in general can not. . .

Perhaps it's best to advise that one try to see and experience all the sides of contemporary Ukrainian life. Ukraine has an enormous diverstiy of standards of living. One should try to exeperience it all, but since one can experience Western decadence at home, one should try to see what remains of a less Western world. . .and the logical thing for me to call it here will be "a more savage world," but I don't want to: I don't think it is savage at all, just different. In some ways, its more peaceful, and more human, than the hustle and bustle of the West. And so on that note, living in a village in Ternopilshchyna is an American who got married and has already lived in Ukraine for years, and who plans to grow old and die in Ukraine. He is rumored to have been a Peace Corps guy who stays because he says that the peace of mind he has found in rural Ukraine was impossible for him to find in the US. This should make us rethink what is "savage."

Us'oho najkrashchoho (All the Best),

Stefan Iwaskewycz


Anonymous said...

Hi Stefan... My Name is Ivan Dikun, but my last name is worng... The Original last name is Dykun.
In 1902 a ship named Helgoland touch Argentinian land... In this ship coming Hric Dikun (46), Iwan (16), Anna (45) and some more people...
Im am searching some information about my parents and I need to know if Iwan is the same name like IVAN, Juan in spanish, Jhon in Englis... is correct?
Sorry my English.. haha... Im learning...

U Can write me to :

Stefan said...

Greetings Ivan,

"Iwan" is indeed another way of spelling "Ivan." In
the cyrillic alphabet of both Ukrainian and Russian,
it is spelled "IBAH," which can be written in English
either as "Ivan" or "Iwan." The spelling "Iwan" is
also how the named is spelled in Polish. A great many
Ukrainian names were spelled using the Polish version
of the Roman alphabet, especially in the era in which
you said your parents or relative came to the Western
hemisphere. And oh, all these variants of the name do
mean "John" in English, y "Juan" en espanol.

So your name could be Ukrainian (or Ruthenian, as most
Ukrainians were known in 1902) or Polish. Do you have
any idea where, in general, your ancestors came from?

My own last name is derived from Ivan: Iwaskewycz. It
is a Ukrainian surname that was spelled using the
Polish alphabet, but not in the Polish manner: in
Polish, the proper spelling and pronounciation is
"Iwaskiewicz." In English, it means "Johnson."
"Ivas'" is a diminutive form of "Ivan," something like
"Johnny" in English.

As you probably well know, your last name "dykun" is a
noun that means "a savage" in Ukrainian.

I hope this helps. Please write to me and let me know
how your research progresses, and feel free to write
with more questions of whatever nature. . .

All the Best,

Anonymous said...

Well, my name is Jim Dykun and I am proud to consider myself a "savage." Thanks for the insight!

Anonymous said...

"Дикун" actually means "wild man."

A backpack is a "наплечник" (naplechnyk).

A traveler is a "mandrivnyk" ("мандрівник").

Someone was pulling your leg, but that's OK.

George M.

Stefan said...


Thank you for writing. . .

"Savage" (the noun) is just as good a way to translate "dykun" as is "wild man;" "savage" and "wild man" are synonymous terms, and the University of Toronto's Ukrainian-English dictionary offers both "savage" and "wild man," so we both are right. (And "savage" is also as good a way to translate the adjective form as is "wild," as well. . .)

Also, the phrase "podorozhuvaty jak dykun" appeared in an essay we were assigned in the course of our class that year at the Harvard Ukrainian Summer Institute. It appeared in an essay written by a Ukrainian who had backpacked around Greece. "Travel like a savage" was the phrase that that Ukrainian writer/wanderer (that mandrivnyk) used, and we all had a laugh when our teacher, Prof. Yuryj Shevchuk who now teaches at Columbia U, insisted that "to travel like a savage" was a genuine phrase. Genuine in this case must mean VERY literary, as it always does in Ukrainian; hence my family in Pidhajtsi got a good laugh at me. They also found it funny that I said "chomu" all the time, which to their ears was very formal and literary-sounding. They teased me for being too proper with them until I got into the habit of saying the more common and colloquial "choho."

In my experience, too, contemporary Ukrainians are more likely to say "ruksak" (ya know, from German "rucksack") for a big ol' backpacker's backpack, but that may just be an idiosyncracy of the family I was staying with. I also often heard "bahazh" for my backpack.

When I returned to Pidhajtsi this past August, my uncle said, "Welcome back, wanderer, and how long until you wander off again?"

Thanks for writing. My Ukrainian is certainly not perfect, so if you notice any other potential errors on this blog, please give me another heads up!

Kris Groberg said...

Hi Stefan--Dono gave me your website. Perhaps you could come to Fargo sometime in the next semester and speak to my class on Russian Art & Architecture at NDSU. Now you have my email address and we can talk. And is that "George M." George Mellinger? Hi George if so. Kris Groberg

Inter_obriy said...

I guess you took your professor by surprise, and he had to cheat his way out of the situation. I believe there is no such saying, as "to travel as dykun" in the official Ukrainian language.

It is a “russizm”, recent, unofficial borrowing from the Russian.

The phrase "Otdihat' dikarem" is a common saying in Russian language.

Yet, "Otdihat' dikarem" has nothing to do with “savages”. It means being a non-official holiday-maker, as opposed to a person with bought-in-advance sanatorium permit.

The historical context in which this term developed is that in the Soviet times, the government distributed huge number of these permits between workers all over the country either for a huge discount or even often for free.

That’s why in every resort area of the Soviet Union there were always two distinct categories of tourists: organized and “dikari” (ones-that-came-on-their-own).

Therefore the meaning of "Otdihat' dikarem" is as far from the meaning of English word “savage” as it could possible be.

It is ridicules to translate it as travel as a “savage”. It got to be translated as a free-lance traveler. “Freelancer”. That is what it is.

Stefan said...

Thanks for the historical-linguistic perspective on the development of the word "dykun" in Soviet times. Someone else wrote me an email--someone born and raised in Kyiv--and said that "podorozhuvaty jak dykun" must indeed have been a phrase adopted from Russian. This person did feel that it was an appropriate phrase for indicating
"backpacking," and this person also did not contest "dykun" being translated as "savage" or "wild" in this context.

Well, what I gather from this and from what you wrote, is that the meaning of the word "dykun" drifted from "wild" or "savage" into something better translated in English as "nonstandard" or "nonconventional." Thus,
"podorozhuvaty jak dykun" ili "otdykhat' dikarem" means that one is a nonstandard traveler. It makes sense in this light--that you helped to shone--that someone from Ukraine backpacking in Europe rather than in the more conventional mode (of booking a travel tour or booking hotels and planning travel routes, etc., in advance) would choose this phrase as a way to translate "to go backpacking." Non-standard travel, not exactly "wild."

This phrase then still suites what I was trying to say above, especially since a lot of diaspora Ukrainians and Western visitors to Ukraine often take a tour and/or take modes of travel that are more conventional to their Western way of life while in Ukraine.

About the general debate surrounding Ukrainian speakers adopting Russianisms indicated in your comment, my rule as I learn to speak better and better Ukrainian is the following: if there is a Ukrainian way to say it, then it should be used; if there is not a previously existing, purely Ukrainian phrase or slang for saying something, then Ukrainian speakers should feel no guilt in adopting such phrase or word from whatever other language. . . In terms of what phrases and slang to adopt to supplement native Ukrainian, I do not choose but follow the lead of native Ukrainian speakers. If some native Ukrainian speaker (someone I consider credible) points out a more Ukrainian way of saying something that I have grown accustomed to saying by some Russian or other slang, then I endeavour to change how I speak.