Having read and enjoyed Viktor Astafyev’s 1964 story “Конь с розовой гривой” [Horse with a pink mane] (about a kid who longs for the titular gingerbread horse but gets into trouble with his grandmother, who has promised to buy one in the nearby river town where she sells berries), I decided to read his 1959 story “Перевал” [The passage], about a boy of around ten who flees an impossible living situation in a tiny village and joins a crew of rafters shepherding logs down the Yenisei River. Touchy and standoffish at first, he works hard, is accepted as one of the gang, and earns his first money and true self-respect after helping them get the wood past a difficult set of rapids (this is the “passage” of the title, which I have seen mistranslated “The Pass”); while it clearly fits into what we think of as kid’s lit, it’s very effectively written, taught me a lot of Siberian words and technical logging terms, and made me want to read more Astafyev, so I turned to his 1960 story “Стародуб” [The windflower].

It turned out to be set in a tiny Siberian village on a river, cut off from the rest of the world by dense forests and difficult rapids, a scene almost identical to that of the previous story. This village is inhabited by Old Believers (for whom I learned a new word, кержак) who have chosen the inaccessible spot to avoid contamination from the sinners around them; the plot is kicked off when a raft comes to grief in the rapids and only a young boy survives, cast up on shore with a badly mangled arm and barely conscious. What to do with him? The villagers gather in council and vote to get rid of him, since if they allow him to stay people may come looking for him and spoil their pure existence. They put together a tiny raft and force him onto it despite his wounds, explaining that they are not committing any sin, merely returning him where God put him, and it is God’s decision whether to rescue him or let him drown. At this point I decided that the story was a little grimmer than I felt up to, so I set it aside and moved on to another 1960 story, Vladimir Tendryakov’s “Тройка, семерка, туз” [Three, seven, ace—an allusion to Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades”].

Imagine my surprise when it began by describing a stretch of river along which logs were sent, held up by shoals, backwaters, and other traps, notably the occasional rapids; alongside a pair of particularly bad rapids is a tiny village… I was starting to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, especially since I was encountering many of the same specialized vocabulary. But instead of a small boy, the stranger fished out of the river is a tattooed former Gulag inmate, to whom the head of the work crew offers a job if he wants to stay. Unfortunately, the stranger has a deck of cards and introduces his fellow workers to the vice of gambling. The story is tautly plotted and dense with moral conundrums, and I am still thinking it over a day later. (It’s apparently been translated into English: Three, Seven, Ace and Other Stories.) But I think I’ll avoid logging camps and rapids for a while.


  1. The Kerzhaki is one of many splinter groups of the Old Order, tracing their formation to the Kerzhenets Basin Sketes of Volga backwoods. Specifically the Kerzhaki of Eastern Sibera are quite eloquently described in Grigory Svirsky’s Northern Tales (which used to reside on but there seems to be some issue with it now).
    Anyway back to that haunting Groundhog Day feeling … the book I recall had a whole town seemingly reliving one day in a time loop all right, but the setting is more sinister. As the main character discovers, they all died in a chemical factory disaster, and postmortem they have been modeled, on a reduced physical scale, for use in marketing research. Could you point me to what book it is, please?

  2. PS and of course Стародуб isn’t a tree. It is an ephemeral spring yellow anemone (wind-flower), Adonis sibirica. A similar A. vernalis is aka pheasant-eye in English.
    The original anemone is scarlet-colored Adonis coronaria, consecrated to that handsome lover of Aphrodite’s torn to bloody shreds by a magic wild boar (“as if brought by the winds, as if snuffed by the winds”) but outside of the Near East, most of the Adonis flowers are yellow rather than blood-red.

  3. Siberia is actually one place I wouldn’t mind going.

  4. MOCKBA: Frederick Pohl’s “The Tunnel Under the World”

  5. PS and of course Стародуб isn’t a tree. It is an ephemeral spring yellow anemone (wind-flower)
    You say “of course,” but Dahl says “Стародуб, старый дуб” and calls the flower стародубка. However, a search in the story text shows you’re correct; that’s what I get for not finishing the story!

  6. Sorry for the unqualified “of course”; I don’t think “starodub” is used for oak trees at all in modern Russian (it sounds very Ukrainian to me), and oak trees don’t grow in those parts of Siberia anyway.
    But Dahl is right, “starodubka” would be more familiar. I just checked with my Siberian contact and to him, “starodubka” sounded more probable. It’s probably a case of transferred identity because a more modest anemone of the South of European Russia is very abundant in the oak groves; so the name must have travelled with the migrants to the oak-less Siberia?
    Astafyev keeps tricking you with the titles which don’t become transparent until you’re half way through, huh 😉 ?
    @ A – thanks a lot!

  7. John Emerson says:

    I routinely check the local weather against Omsk. Right now we’re 15 degrees warmer but we’re often about the same. Winnipeg’s weather is literally Siberian, no hyperbole.

  8. I think Astafyev uses starodub (old oak) as a pun, a counterpoint on starover (old believer). The flower breaks through the crust of the villagers xenophobia. Lovely story.
    The hunters refer to the female elk as a cow – korova (the young one is a telenok – calf). It’s unusual in townspeak. I remember how surprised I was when I first heard it. Does this pattern exist in other languages and is it as alien to townies in other lands as it is in Russia?

  9. Cow & calf is not unusual in English for a lot of animals – elephants, for instance. I haven’t heard it for elg, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I don’t think it’s confined to any particular segment of the population. You’d probably hear it more on Animal Planet than in someone’s living room.

  10. (You might well hear Animal Planet coming from someone’s living room, but you know what I mean.)

  11. I think Astafyev uses starodub (old oak) as a pun, a counterpoint on starover (old believer). The flower breaks through the crust of the villagers xenophobia. Lovely story.
    Excellent point, and you’ve convinced me to finish the story!

  12. Hah. I note that David Gillespie, in the authoritative Reference Guide to Russian Literature, makes both mistakes in a single sentence:

    Astafev’s first major work was his novel Taiut snega [The Snows Melt], and this was quickly followed by three novellas (povesti) that encapsulate his major concerns. “Pereval” [The Pass], is based on the author’s childhood; “Zvezdopad” [Starfall] is set during World War II; Starodub [Old Oak] discusses man’s relationship to the natural world.

    I guess he didn’t actually read the stories!

  13. hear Animal Planet coming from someone’s living room
    there are living rooms with more cows than on Animal Planet (nb: this is not a sexist remark, cow may refer to males too).

  14. for a good visual to Astafyev’s places watch ‘The Master of Taiga’ (Khozyain Taygi) 1968 film (lots of floating timber) with Vyssotsky and Zolotukhin, both from Taganka and both singing in the film. A clip with Zolotukhin singing.

  15. Roughly half of Steller’s Seacows for example were males, I bet. Unfortunately they was extinct within 27 years of their discovery by man.

  16. If by “man” you mean white folks.

  17. Ok, but there were only 1,500 seacows remaining alive when the Europeans showed up, so I don’t blame only the white folks.

  18. Sorry for the pointless digression. And now back to Viktor Astafyev…

  19. Hunters have their lingo. In English male/female bears can be called boar/sow.
    Getting back to the Bovidae, in traditional English usage the male of the species of which the female is a cow is called a bull, not a cow: it would be as incorrect to call a bull a male cow as to call a cow a female bull. We don’t have a traditional word that traditionally covers both sexes, unless you count “cattle”. (I was reminded of this by Aaron Toivo’s comment about halfway down this LL thread.)
    I believe the same applies to ducks and drakes, or used to.

  20. And geese and ganders (“what’s sauce for the …”).

  21. If by “man” you mean white folks.
    Actually, he wasn’t blaming “white folks” for killing them off, he was pointing out that “discovery by Europeans” is not equivalent to “discovery by man”. It appears that they were known to “man” before this, since hunting by aboriginal peoples is thought to be one factor in causing them to disappear from their previously much larger range.

  22. I’m not sure which of us you’re addressing, Robe. Anyway, I understood Roger’s point. I had actually thought of writing ‘man & woman’, but then I thought “Why blame women when it was probably only men?” I wasn’t thinking about the people who were already living there, though they were obviously more to blame for killing off the Steller’s Seacows than any European was. Sorry if that’s not pc enough for anyone, now I’ll stop it with the seacows.

  23. In September there was a thread on Indigenous Blogs, at which I made a few comments about Mongolian-language bookshops in Hohhot.
    I actually went to Hohhot at the start of October and revisited those bookshops. I did a short webpage on their location, which can be found at:
    Next time I go back I’ll find out some more useful information, like contact details!
    Sorry for posting at an irrelevant thread, but Hat has made it clear previously that if a thread is closed, it’s acceptable to post at another thread.

  24. John Emerson says:

    There are a limited number of names for the males, females, and young of various species, but I don’t think they vary much between groups of people, except that the more involved you are with a species the more distinctions you are able to make.
    This is a real Eskimo words for snow situation I think. For cattle you have bull, ox, steer, cow, heifer, calf, weaner, yearling, and probably some others. Which species have cows, does, sows, hens, etc. is fairly well fixed for the commonly known animals, I think.

  25. I guess I should have made that a clickable link:
    Mongolian-language Bookstores in Hohhot

  26. Well, we seem to have a nice convergence here. Mongolian actually has separate names for different ages, like ‘two-year-old horse’ (I’d have to look for the specific vocabulary, but it definitely exists). I know English has words like ‘yearling’ and ‘heifer’, etc., but this is not quite the level of detail that Mongolian goes into.

  27. John Emerson says:

    When I said “I don’t think they vary much between groups of people” I meant within a given language. People more involved make more distinctions, people less involved make fewer.

  28. rootlesscosmo says:

    We don’t have a traditional word that traditionally covers both sexes, unless you count “cattle”.
    @empty: but yes–“kine.” Not often heard in daily conversation but frequent in the KJV Old Testament.

  29. Yes, I was forgetting about “kine”. But it’s plural, and there is no corresponding singular noun, unless you count “cow”.

  30. just remembered – Starodum (lit.- old thinker) is the main character in Denis Fonvizin’s 1780s play The Minor. Through him Fonvizin expressed the moral ideal of the Enlightenment. The play was in Russian school curriculum and would have been an allusion for anyone seeing ‘starodub’.

  31. Another excellent point.

  32. As I was reading this interesting post and the equally interesting comments, it occurred to me that the multilingual people visiting this great website could be interested in Sylvain Tesson’s recent experience in today’s Siberia (surviving in the wild, and following the escape routes of a few Gulag prisoners):

  33. The hunters refer to the female elk as a cow – korova (the young one is a telenok – calf)… Does this pattern exist in other languages and is it as alien to townies in other lands as it is in Russia?
    Sashura, I’ve often heard moose referred to as cows and bulls, and there’s a record and bookstore chain in Maine and New Hampshire called Bull Moose. That said, I’m not sure how common it is for people outside moose zones to refer to moose using those terms. (FWIW, I grew up in rural Maine.)

  34. Thanks, Lisa, I thought that it might be the same in other places.

  35. As a non-moose-coresident, I primarily associate bull moose with the Progressive Party, a one-shot political party which ran Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 for a third term as President after the Republican Party refused to renominate him (a maximum of two terms being long-standing tradition, and now part of the Constitution). The nickname “Bull Moose Party” arose when Roosevelt said he was “as fit as a bull moose” after being shot in a failed assassination attempt. Though the party platform was seen as extremely leftist in its day, all of its specific reforms have been achieved — without, however, breaking the stranglehold of the rich on U.S. politics.
    There have been a number of other Progressive Parties in American politics, most of them vehicles for mavericks who had alienated their own party members.

  36. Oooo, MOCKBA, as soon as you started describing the plot of that story I knew I had read it, though it was all of 45 years ago or more …

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