I’m still reading Grossman’s Life and Fate (see here and here), and I’m here to report on another lexical item that required some interesting research. I was proud of myself for correctly analyzing начканц [nachkants] as начальник канцелярии [nachal’nik kantselyarii, ‘chief clerk’] without assistance, but on the very next page I hit матчасть [matchast’] and was lost at sea. The sentence was “Вот уже месяц, как полк вышел из боев, пополнял матчасть, принимал взамен выбывшего летный состав” [‘It had already been a month since the regiment had withdrawn from combat to replenish/restock its matchast’ and replace its missing flight personnel’]; it was clearly part of the makeup of a military unit, but what? It turns out it’s short for материальная часть [material’naya chast’], which means ‘equipment, matériel,’ which makes sense. And in the course of googling it, I found it’s commonly used in the phrase Учи(те) матчасть ‘Learn your equipment,’ and that led me to the wonderful site Луркоморье, “русский lurkmore”—i.e., a Russian version/equivalent of the English-language site lurkmore.com, which apparently deals with memes among other things. What’s wonderful about the Russian site is not just the full explanation of things like the phrase I was researching, but the name, which is a beautiful pun on “lurkmore” and лукоморье [lukomor’e] ‘cove, creek,’ one of the best-known rare words in Russian because of its strategic presence in one of the best-known lines of Russian poetry, the beginning of Pushkin’s Ruslan and Lyudmila: У лукоморья дуб зеленый ‘By a cove a green oak’ (see the first paragraph of this LH post for some context). This is further proof of the difference between America and Russia: even young Russian snarkmeisters of the type who create and classify internet memes are steeped in their poetic tradition in a way few Americans have been for a couple of generations now.
At any rate, the Луркоморье entry for the phrase not only helpfully equates it (in the appropriate context) to the English RTFM, it mentions that it entered popular culture in part from a 1973 movie «В бой идут одни „старики“» [No rookies in this battle!] and it provides a “bearded joke” from WWII: The Germans carry out a raid on an airfield and capture a technician. The Gestapo torture him: “Give us the specifications of the Il-2!” He says “I don’t know, leave me alone!” This goes on for a day or two, until the technician manages to escape. When he gets back to his unit, they, of course, start asking him about his experiences. He says, “Guys, learn your equipment! Over there, they just keep beating the shit out of you about it.”