Russia and the Color Yellow
January 27, 2013 2:09 PM   Subscribe

What does the Russian mind associate with the color yellow? 

How did Желтый Дом come to be a name for a mental asylum?

Why did exiles in Siberia wear grey clothes with a yellow lozenge on the back?
posted by slowlikemolasses to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I know that yellow flowers, in russian culture, symbolize betrayal/infidelity and believed to be a precursor for arguments. Don't know about your other questions but am curious to see what others say.
posted by ttyn at 2:20 PM on January 27, 2013

Prostitutes had special ID documents, called "yellow tickets", in Czarist times. But when you say exiles, do you mean prisoners in the Gulags?
posted by Ideefixe at 2:29 PM on January 27, 2013

posted by slowlikemolasses at 2:31 PM on January 27, 2013

Just confirming what ttyn wrote: there's a mild superstition about giving someone a bouquet of yellow flowers. There is a 90s song called Yellow Tulips: "Желтые тюльпаны, вестники разлуки" — "Yellow tulips, harbingers of parting." Nothing else comes to mind. Perhaps "yellow house" is a kind of synecdoche, like "Bedlam"? It's certainly not a common term for mental institutions more generally.
posted by Nomyte at 2:34 PM on January 27, 2013

I can't answer what the Russian mind associates with the color yellow. But in regards to your question about the term "желтый дом", according to the great Vladimir Dal, it originated as a reference to the yellow paint of the Obukhovskaya hospital in St. Petersburg, which housed one of the first psychiatric wards in Russia. If you can read Russian, there's a discussion about it here on gramota, and the Russian Wikipedia article on Obukhovskaya hospital mentions literary references to it as a psychiatric ward.
posted by pravit at 2:36 PM on January 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

In Polish, "having yellow papers" refers to mentally ill people, and as far as I know, it's because the documentation of their release from the mental hospital was printed on yellow-colored paper.

Could be an urban legend, though; I'm curious about whether it's connected with the Russian "yellow houses".
posted by Ender's Friend at 3:58 PM on January 27, 2013

I wish I could be more specific but in English we discussed the symbolism of yellow in Crime and Punishment, so maybe you could investigate commentary on that?
posted by brilliantine at 8:10 PM on January 27, 2013

In Chinese calling something yellow means pornographic or erotic. Perhaps there is some crossover with Siberia?
posted by dave99 at 9:57 PM on January 27, 2013

My Russian friend says this:

the first psychiatric hospital in the russian empire was yellow, by coincidence. this is why "yellow house" is a euphemism for 'psychiatric hospital,' although it wasn't used much by my generation (i'm 34.) Also, there was a 'meme' of sorts at the time of Dostoyevski (he wrote about it,) associating the color yellow with illness in general, but i don't recall that used _ever,_ by anyone who was still alive by the time i formed my first memories.
big discussion on the subject. in russian only, unfortunately.

i have no idea about the grey suits with yellow...lozenges? is that really the word this person intended to use? hmm.

hope this helps.

posted by bilabial at 4:28 PM on January 28, 2013

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