What is Russian for Boogeyman Indeed?


Thanks to movie references, more and more people ask what the Russian word for “boogeyman is,” and how does it sound. That’s not a trivial question, as different cultures see mystical creatures differently, and the Russian one has many sorts of boogeymen, ghosts, and spirits. Having looked through various options that exist in the Russian language, I’ve picked this.

The proper Russian word for “boogeyman” is “babai” or “babaika” (not “Baba Yaga” as it was stated in a popular action film). Still, “babai” is not a 100% direct translation of “boogeyman” as these mysterious creatures look different for different peoples.

Though both words are used to frighten children, the Russian and English understanding of “boogeyman” is different. For an English speaker, a “boogeyman” is an evil spiritual superpower or an imaginary monster. For an average Russian, a “babai”  portrays as a little old man.

However, parents don’t often mention who “babai” is or what he looks like. In this case, a child’s imagination can draw all the missing parts of the story. Then, “babai” can inhabit dark corners at night or live under the bed.

Автор: Иван Яковлевич Билибин – File:Domovoi Bilibin.jpg, Общественное достояние, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1369561

According to some sources, hundreds of years ago, the word “babai” meant a collector of a tribute. Therefore, the belief that “babai” takes away children who misbehave seems logical.

Pronunciation of Boogeyman in Russian

Here you will find how to pronounce the right word for the Russian “boogeyman” and those used in American cinematography.

  • Boogeyman (right) – Babai
  • Boogeyman (incorrect) – Baba Yaga
  • I am the boogeyman (movie phrase) – Ja Baba Yaga

Is Baba Yaga the Boogeyman?

Below, you can see the classic image of Baba Yaga and compare it with your understanding of a boogeyman.

From a modern perspective, Baba Yaga is a folklore hero of a different type, which is far from what we would call the “boogeyman.”

  • Baba Yaga is not a spirit.
  • It doesn’t live in a dark corner, under a bed, or in a wardrobe.
  • In most of the tales, heroes disturb her with their visit (though, in some tales, she steals children).
  • She is a sorceress and a shaman, whereas a “boogeyman” isn’t.

Baba Yaga is an old, ugly witch with a bony leg who lives deep in the forest. Her home is a hut made on chicken legs surrounded by a fence made of human bones. She can fly on her broom or in a large wooden mortar. She is not always presented as a villain, and sometimes she helps heroes in their deeds if they complete the tasks she asks them.

The prototype of Baba Yaga is a dead person who lived in a house that symbolized the border between life and death, so this personage was more important than just a part of a children’s ghost story.

However, times have significantly changed the perception of this mythological hero. In different cartoons and children’s movies, she is presented amusingly. Is Baba Yaga the hero that scares everyone to death? Definitely not.

Who can we call Baba Yaga in Russia? (not in person, of course)

  • An ugly woman
  • A malicious old lady next door
  • A female boss that you dislike
  • A strict teacher

What are Some Other Words for Bogeyman in Russian?

In fact, “babai” is only one of the many creatures that can resemble the “boogeyman.” In Slavic tradition, spirits inhabit different places: forests, swamps, rivers, and, of course, your own home. There wasn’t a place without a spirit. However, with time, most of the names were forgotten. However, the ones listed below are well-known to every local through fairy tales and legends.

  • Leshij – a spirit of the forest. He usually looks like an older man, in some tales gigantic in some tales small. 
  • Kikimora – an evil female spirit who is spinning threads at night and causes unhappiness and troubles to people. She can live in homes and inhabit swamps. 
  • Rusalka – a female evil spirit who lives near rivers. Unlike a kind, merry maid, she can tickle to death or drown.
  • Vodyanoi – an owner of rivers and lakes. He is a dangerous spirit that looks like an ugly, older man with a fishtail. 
Автор: Н. Н. Брут, Magazine «Leshy», Общественное достояние, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15825323
  • Domovoi – a kind ghost creature that lives in your house, looks like a little man. He is sort of a good spirit that protects a home from unhappiness.
  • Barabashka – noisy little boogeyman that also lives at your home and makes all sorts of messes: hides your keys, breaks dishes, makes noise at night, makes it so that you can’t find two identical socks in the morning, and so on.
  • Koschei – an evil magician who looks like a very skinny man or a skeleton. His death is hidden in magical objects that are put one into another: a needle in an egg, an egg in a duck, a duck in a hare. And so on. 

These heroes are usually beautiful in new cartoons. If you want to see how Baba Yaga, Koschei, and others are perceived in the Russian culture today, don’t miss my post with a collection of modern animation with Russian and English subtitles.

Why is John Wick called Baba Yaga?

From what we know, picking up Baba Yaga as the nickname for the hero of an action movie seems strange.

From an average Russian perspective, when John Wick says, “Ja Baba Yaga,” he means “I’m an old humpbacked female with a long nose and wonky teeth.” This is somewhat opposite to the masculine, strong, and straight-forward hero of Keanu Reeves.

There might be several reasons for such an unusual choice of nickname for the protagonist of this famous movie.

1. It’s an excellent audience-appealing choice. The word “baba” sounds very Russia-related, like “babushka” – this is what scenarists probably wanted. If they picked the more appropriate but unpronounceable, “Koschei,” (roughly: Lich King) this would say nothing to the viewers. 

2. Mistake. The word Baba Yaga could be simply misinterpreted as “a boogeyman.” We can see this in the scene when Viggo Tarasov is talking to his son.

The words “babaika” and “Baba Yaga” sound very similar and can also be easily confused.

3. The authors did good research. On the other hand, the authors could look behind this simple definition. Baba Yaga can easily be used because of the “Russian scent” of those who come to visit her. And this resonates with the fact that John Wick’s calmness was disturbed by the Russian mafia.

Secondly, in some tales, Baba Yaga steals recalcitrant children. What happens in the movie? John Wick comes for Virgo’s defiant son.

Lastly, in Russian folklore, Baba Yaga is often represented as a chasing villain. The same as the protagonist, she can follow those who disturbed her to death.

Boogeyman Song in Russian

Here, I want to show you a couple of boogeyman songs in Russian that sound scary, though they are children’s lullabies.

Boogeyman song from “John Wick”

The first one is a simplified version of a very popular lullaby that we hear in “John Wick.” It says that if you don’t sleep quietly, a gray wolf will come and take you to the forest. Listening to this song so many times as a child made me worried by the chance of being caught by a wolf by chance.

To a modern listener, such a frightening part of a lullaby may seem very weird. Similar couplets may be noticed in folklore lullabies of different peoples (in English, Greman).

Here is how the Russian boogeyman song is presented in the movie.

  • Baji-Bajushki-baju / Rockabye
  • Volki vojut na lunu / Wolfs are howling at the moon
  • Baji-Bajushki-baju / Rockabye
  • Volki vojut na lunu / Wolfs are howling at the moon
  • Baji-Bajushki-baju / Rockabye
  • Poskoree zasipaj / Fall asleep quickly

The full version you can see here.

Super-scary boogeyman song

Though Russian songs are usually spinning around local folklore, there is one that stands out. It describes the presence of a real bogeyman, a ghost that has come for you.

This boogeyman song sounds terrifying. If I had heard it in childhood, I would hardly ever sleep well in my life. Its calm melody contrasts the lyrics and raises all possible childhood fears.

But please, don’t think that sadistic Russian mothers sing it to their children. This song was created as a soundtrack to the Russian movie “The Wayman” (2007). Unlike the film, that was poorly reviewed by viewers; this beautiful and scary lullaby has become popular in Russia and abroad.

Conclusion

“Boogeyman” in the tradition of English speakers looks quite different in Russian. When the classic “boogeyman” is a spirit that frightens you to death, the closest Russian equivalent, “babai,” often looks like an old man.

Though Baba Yaga is a popular hero of Slavic tales, it’s not a “boogeyman,” too. It’s an old witch who lives on the edge of the forest. Therefore, Baba Yaga is quite an unusual name for an attractive and masculine hero of a movie. What do you think about the Baba Yaga choice?

Along with “babai” and “Baba Yaga,” there are many other types of “boogeymen” in the Russian culture that are well-known to every child. Do you know any Russian words for boogeyman, ghosts, and spirits? And what does the average “boogeyman” look like in your country? Share in the comments below!

Anastasia Korol

Anastasia Korol is an enthusiastic Russian language tutor. She gives effective, goal-oriented lessons to students all over the world. Thousands of people have already followed her Instagram.

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