I’m currently reading Journey into Russia by Laurens van der Post, a description of a long journey he was able to make in the Soviet Union during the spring and summer of 1963, alternately interesting (good descriptions of landscape and of people he meets) and irritating (too much claptrap about immemorial racial tendencies and ill-informed speculation about Soviet life). In a good chapter about Siberia he has this little anecdote:

Watching the distant summer lightning from the train my friend said they had a special word for it and he would be glad if I could teach him another as expressive. The word was ‘Zarnitsa‘.
‘You win,’ I answered without hesitation, and to my surprise he thanked me by shaking my hand. I think nobody knows, not excluding the Russians, how hungry they are at heart for some recognition of what is positive and creative in their character.

(I include the final sentence as an illustration of the psychobabble with which the book is larded.) I happen to be very fond of the word зарница [zarnítsa] myself, and I mentioned it last time we saw summer lightning; it’s presumably related to заря [zaryá] ‘twilight’ (a Balto-Slavic word—cf. Lithuanian žarà), but since it’s (oddly) not in Vasmer I can’t be sure. Dahl has it under зарево ‘glow,’ with some alternate forms that have presumably gone out of use: “Зарница ж. зарники м. мн. соб. зореница ниж. зорянка олон. отдаленная молния, когда виден свет и блеск ее, а грома не слышно” [zarnítsa f., zarníki, zórenítsa Nizhni Novgorod, zoryáka Olonets, distant lightning when its light is visible but no thunder is to be heard].
I decided to look it up in the Russian National Corpus, and found many references to an “игра «Зарница»” [“Zarnitsa” game], which turns out to have its own Wikipedia entry; it’s a children’s game originally created in 1967 to help prepare children for military service, and involves two teams trying to capture each other’s flag under the supervision of a referee. (It is apparently still played, under the sponsorship of military/patriotic clubs.) I imagine a number of my readers will remember playing it, and I would be interested to hear their recollections.

Incidentally, one grammatical feature that struck me (see this 2003 post) was his consistent use of “may have” for the the contrary-to-fact past (where in my dialect “might have” is required); for instance, on page 243: “Had it not been for the energy and ruthlessness with which he [Stalin] carried out these plans Russia may well have succumbed to Hitler.” Since van der Post was an Afrikaner who did not move to England until his twenties, I’m not sure whether that usage reflects South African or U.K. usage, but either way it must go back well before World War II, so what I used to view as a recent development is clearly no such thing.


  1. The game was overpromoted and in reality, hardly ever got off the ground. The word is pretty cool though, and in my mind it instantly conjures up the lines of a beloved folk song
    Помню тройку удалую,
    Вспышки дальних зарниц,
    Твою позу усталую,
    Трепет длинных ресниц…
    Всё прошло, всё умчалося
    В невзвратною даль,
    Всё прошло, всё умчалося
    Ничего не осталося,
    Ничего не осталося,
    Лишь тоска да печаль.
    I was susprised to learn that the music belongs to the immortal Sholom Secunda, the one who later sold “Bay mir bistu sheyn” for a few bucks. Secunda must have been 17 or 18 when he composed “Mayn Yiddishe Meydele”!

  2. Valera Fooksman says

    Yes I’ve played it in summer camps in early 80s, when I was 12 or so. One vivid memory is a “station” where we had to throw pine cones at a target, and I surprised myself with the lucky shot. I think the cone throwing was a substitution for weapon shooting (rather then for grenade throwing). I don’t recall capturing a flag as the main goal though, I think it was a score-based team competition.

  3. I’m too young (and my parents didn’t care enough for the whole camps thing) to have participated in organized Zarnitsa, but we did improvise a spontaneous version at some point (that was around the year 1999 or 2000). People were mostly unsure of the rules, but everybody agreed it definitely involved capturing a flag and tearing some object off an opponent’s clothing to take them out of the game.

  4. J. W. Brewer says

    Thus, via Slavic immigration, the tiny Prairie town of Zarnitsa, Manitoba, whose inhabitans are boringly known as Zarnitsans.

  5. michael farris says

    “whose inhabitans are boringly known as Zarnitsans”
    I would certainly not find being called a Zarnitsan to be boring.

  6. That’s because you’re really from Florida.

  7. michael farris says

    Yeah, “cracker” doesn’t have much of a ring to it, but Zornitsan….. Now that’s a demonym to be proud of.

  8. michael farris says

    Zarnitsan too!

  9. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Once you know that the quackmaster-in-chief (also known as Prince Charles) is a great admirer of Laurens van der Post you mlust expect some claptrap.

  10. Yes, he was buddies with Maggie Thatcher too. And although I’m aware he opposed apartheid and the government that imposed it, I can’t help but raise my eyebrows at the list of colors here: “The palaces and the churches are gay with green, cream, beige, peacock-blue, white, pale blue, pink and nigger-brown pastel washes…”

  11. LH, you are being somewhat parochial. He was a South African: if he’d wanted to offend he might have said kaffir-brown.

  12. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    He was also writing at a time when the word gay didn’t raise any eyebrows.

  13. I puzzled for a while, because I thought I had read a savagely funny novel or two by van der Post when I was a strapling. But what the WiPe says about him doesn’t sound like the right guy. Then I figured out I was thinking of Peter de Vries. O, for a respite from the martyrdom of free-association !

  14. ‘Strapling’ is a good substitute for ‘stripling’, Grumbly. Are you grumbling about your boyhood?

  15. When I shared with a Russian friend some years ago my Bulgarian edition of the book “Le Petit Nicolas” (it is one of my favourite children’s books – by the way, my Bulgarian edition is a collection of stories from various books of the “Le Petit Nicolas” series), he said that one of the stories – “Jeu de nuit” from “Les Vacances du Petit Nicolas” – reminded him of the Zarnitsa game and he was rather surprised to find it in a French book.
    I have been wondering myself about this – how this game originated and how come it happened that it appears in a French children’s book.
    PS Blagodarya mnogo (means Thank you very much in Bulgarian), Languagehat, for the excellent blog!

  16. A strapping sapling? Or in his West Texas boyhood Grumply may have been a stirrupling.

  17. SGG: Моля!

  18. BTW I stand corrected on the game … it must have been a staple of summer camps, of which I am not an expert, having spent very little time there. What people remember isn’t really a militarized game, certainly nothing like preschoolers – elem schoolers’ “voinushka”. Zarnitsa of the Pioneer Camps was an outdoor team competition, with the teams usually known by colors (e.g. red team vs. green team), often scored by capturing flags or finding secret caches of the competing teams. The camps, and the Zarnitsa teams, were coed.

  19. I wonder whether the 1967 inventors of the game might have had Blitzkrieg in mind.

  20. I happen to be a fan of LvdP, though I have not read A View Of All The Russias, which is the title on my copy. I inherited it from my parents, who were Jungians). I particularly like the novel A Story Like The Wind and its sequel A Far-Off Place, as well as the memoir The Prisoner And The Bomb (aka The Night Of The New Moon).

  21. I have the book and agree with you – there are too many misinterpretations or too much reading-in.
    I played Zarnitsa as a pioneer (scout) in the 60s and then as a guide (vozhaty) in the 70-80s. There were general guidelines, like capturing the opposing team’s flag, but in most cases you could devise your own rules. As a guide I laid two separate courses for two teams of 9-10 year olds under my supervision, with both routes leading to one goal. Each had ‘obstacles’ and tasks with rebus type clues. It was similar to a treasure hunt at Easter.

  22. John Cowan says

    I wonder how close this is to anglophone “Capture the Flag”. I first learned about this one in Scouting for Boys, which I read with interest, mostly for the knots, although I was never a Boy Scout.

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