I keep forgetting to mention this post by Anatoly Vorobey from a week ago: he links to this discussion of Soviet language use, and quotes a particularly striking observation (the original is below the cut):

Naturally, in internal Party questions the directive activity of the Central Committee was self-evident and was not hidden from anyone, but that key decisions in diplomatic, police, censorship, and similar questions are not taken under the directions of the corresponding establishments but of the Central Committee was considered as a secret… For this reason, in internal secret correspondence, when it was necessary to refer to a decision of the Central Committee, it was necessary to write “instantsiya” [‘level of authority, chain of command’].

Oh, what a tangled web we weave!

Естественно, во внутрипартийных вопросах директивность ЦК была самоочевидной и ни от кого не скрывалась, но вот что ключевые решения по дипломатическим, полицейским, цензурным и аналогичным вопросам принимаются вовсе не руководством соответствующих учреждений, а ЦК – считалось как бы тайной… Поэтому во внутренней секретной переписке, когда надо было сослаться на решение ЦК, предлагалось писать “инстанция”.


  1. Cherie Woodworth says:

    Interesting for political purposes (though this was assumed in western Sovietology anyway), but much more interesting from the linguistic point of view. It is very hard to translate two of the key words here — “direktivnost'” and “instantsiia.”
    Though these look like direct borrowings, you can’t by any means simply backward-engineer them to the original — I think Hat does a good job on a tricky problem.
    But like so much in Soviet reality, you can’t give the “translation” of the word without giving a whole parenthetical explanation of context and meaning.
    Other possible translations?

  2. In Australian (and English) legal terminology, we talk about a decision at “first instance” or a court deciding at “first instance”. A synonym of “instance” is “jurisdiction”. So I imagine the Russian usage refers to a level of jurisdiction, whether it be judicial, administrative or whatever.

  3. It is very hard to translate two of the key words here — “direktivnost'” and “instantsiia.”… I think Hat does a good job on a tricky problem.
    Thank you for noticing!

  4. the directive activity…
    yes, I also think it is a very good way of translating Russian words with -ость suffix which corresponds to -ity in English. Directivity doesn’t sound right, so break the word in two, one giving semantics of the main part and another the meaning of the suffix.
    But both ‘directive’ and ‘instance’ come, I think, from French. Early bolsheviks were both fluent in French and, naturally, admirers of the French revolution and the system it created. Instance, widely used in modern French, simply means authority. I think it could be used in the same sense in English?
    I’ve read both postings that LH links to here, and I, too, recommend them – and the long discussion on Boris Lvin’s journal.
    However, I was surprised that the author and others didn’t mention the classic book about the Soviet system – ‘Nomenklatura’ by Michael Voslensky. The idea was suggested by Jilas, the book was first published in 1984 in Germany, I think, and in 1991, with Gorbachev still President and General Secretary, an updated version which included episodes with Gorbachev and Yeltsin was published in the Soviet Union.
    I couldn’t find my English language edition, but here is Voslensky’s quote about ‘directive organs’ and ‘instantsiya’:
    …функционирование системы на самой ее вершине…
    Для обозначения этой вершины в номенклатурном жаргоне утвердился термин “директивные органы”. По обыкновению косноязычно, но четко он выражает мысль: это не какие-нибудь там “высшие органы” государственной власти или управления, а органы, действительно дающие директивы всем этим “высшим”. Выражение “директивные органы” – не просто разговорное; оно употребляется в служебных документах в качестве эвфемизма, дабы не назыать всуе ЦК КПСС.
    Есть и второй номенклатурный эвфемизм для обозначения ЦК КПСС, “Инстанция”. Он тоже по-своему выразителен: в системе разросшейся бюрократии общества реального социализма счета нет разным инстанциям. Но есть среди них одна Инстанция. Когда говорят: “Состоялось решение Инстанции”, посвященный знает, о ком идет речь – о ЦК КПСС.

  5. I think it could be used in the same sense in English?
    Only in certain restricted contexts; for example, a “court of first instance” is a court of primary jurisdiction. But I suspect most English speakers have either never encountered it in that context or didn’t know what it meant if they did, and it wouldn’t be understood in such a sense outside of those specialized contexts. To translate инстанция as “instance” would almost always be a bad mistake; it’s a classic faux ami. (For an earlier complaint of mine about lazy translation, see this post on “publicist.”)

  6. My Mac’s American Oxford dictionary marks publicist as dated.
    It seems to me that publicist is more British, than American. British English retained closer links to its Norman roots, than American. Norman French was the legal language of England, wasn’t it? I think Russian публицист comes from French publiciste.
    But of course you are right about instance-instantsiya. Not only in this particular context, but in general too. It shouldn’t be translated. What is also interesting, why this particular word didn’t make it into international usage? Nomenklatura, apparatchik, kommissar, politbureau and even plenum made it into English, but not instantsiya with its very specific, newspeak meaning?
    faux ami… My Russian helps me navigate through French too, for example magasin – магазин.

  7. a “court of first instance” is a court of primary jurisdiction
    The Jordan Times uses this phrase in news pieces about crime. After seeing it in context a few times I sort of got an understanding it was about a layer of the court system, but for some reason thought it referred to a religious court system. I once tried to get a proofreading job at JT, they’re very much into British English, so maybe the phrase would have more meaning to Brits.
    BTW, for anyone who follows the honor crime issue, Rana Husseini’s Murder in the Name of Honor is finally out. I have heard her speak–she’s the courageous JT journalist who, in spite of continuous death threats, reported over and over again on honor crimes.

  8. Well, instanciya is french borrowing and it means there:
    1 instance n.,f. (a) insistence; authority, (Jur) proceedings
    It is not a bolshevik-time borrowing as you can find it in Saltykov-Schedrin story of 1858.
    It is still used in modern russian and it means “any piece/example/instance of authority”. The most frequent usage is “I’ve already visited all the instances but…” 🙂

  9. marie-lucie says:

    I would not call the French word instance “widely used”. I remembered tribunal de première instance “court of first instance” but I had to look in the TLFI for more examples of the word. The only other expression I remember hearing is être en instance de divorce ‘to be engaged in divorce proceedings’. It is true that the word has other meanings but none of them are likely to occur in conversation, except perhaps among law professionals.

  10. It seems that legal instance is an instance of that fairly rare thing, a borrowing from the language of the civil law (modern Roman law) into the common law. There are two main pathways for this to happen, Scots law (which began as a common-law system and to some extent remains so, but “received” civil law in the 17C) and admiralty law (which was originally part of the law of nations and theoretically uniform in all countries).

    In particular, Scots law has long used the expressions first instance and second instance in the sense of our original jurisdiction and appellate jurisdiction; only the first term was assimilated by the common-law courts. In addition, the instance side of a U.S. district court sitting in admiralty considers matters of contract and delict (tort) of a specially maritime character; in the U.K. they speak of an instance court in this sense.

  11. Fascinating! Every once in a while I think I should really learn more about legal history, but there’s so much else to do…

  12. I suppose as the son of a law professor I was predestined to be profoundly interested or profoundly uninterested; it turned out to be the former, as part of my general interest in everything. That’s why my blog is called Recycled Knowledge.

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