Relics of the Old Regime.

I know you’ve all been waiting with bated breath to learn what I’ve been reading since I finished The Brothers Karamazov (see this post: “And now I have finished my Long March through 19th-century Russian literature…”). First I reread the Strugatskys’ Улитка на склоне (Snail on the Slope), enjoying its grim brio (how did they get away with alluding to so much of the repressed underside of Soviet life in the late ’60s?), and now I’ve started Valentin Kataev’s 1926 novella Растратчики (The Embezzlers), since it’s short and funny (I’ve got a nasty cold and am not up to anything Dostoevskian). I haven’t even finished the first page, but I had to post, because I ran across a letter of the alphabet that startled me more than perhaps any single letter ever has. The novel opens with a “citizen,” very proper-looking and no longer young, approaching a cigarette vendor on the steps of a Moscow telegraph office; the vendor takes one look at him and hands him a package of “Ira” cigarettes. This in itself is a nice touch; that brand was well known in tsarist times, and Mayakovsky wrote a famous couplet for a 1923 ad:

        оставленное от старого мира —
папиросы «Ира».

The only thing
        left from the old world
is Ira cigarettes.

(You can see the ad, designed by Rodchenko, here.) If you’re thinking “Ad? Tsarist cigarette brand? What kind of Soviet Union is this??” the answer is that this was the heyday of NEP, the New Economic Policy that brought a watered-down version of capitalism to Russia for a few years and saved the economy from collapse. So our vendor has identified the citizen as the kind of fellow in the market for a classy holdover from the old days rather than a crude proletarian competitor.

But that’s not what startled me. Here’s the first bit of dialogue in the novel, with the translation by Charles Rougle (Ardis, 1975):

– А не будут они мокрые? – спросил гражданин, нюхая довольно длинным носом нечистый воздух, насыщенный запахом городского дождя и светильного газа.
– Будьте спокойны, из-под самого низу. Погодка-с!

“They’re not wet, are they?” the citizen asked, and he sniffed the dirty air, saturated with the smell of rain in the city and lamp gas, with his rather long nose.
“Don’t worry, I took ’em off the bottom. Boy, what weather we’re having!”

It’s not a bad translation, except that it ignores the letter that shocked me, that final -с [-s]. As I said in this 2004 post, it’s “a contracted form of sudar’ ‘sir,’ omnipresent in prerevolutionary literature as an indication of politeness or servility, depending on the situation.” In the Addendum to that post I quoted the third edition (1903-1909) of Dahl, who calls it “a mark of special politeness of former times,” and of course I assumed that if it was “former” in the first decade of the century it had surely died out entirely by Soviet times. But here it is being casually used by a vendor to a citizen on a Soviet street, for anyone to hear! I’m not sure whether it’s taken from actual city life, with holdovers from the old days (less than a decade after the Bolshevik Revolution) using the old forms out of habit, or whether it’s a bit of hyperbole by Kataev to show how NEP was turning the clock back, but in any case the translator should have thrown in at least a “sir,” if not “your honor,” to render the effect.


  1. I vaguely remember that in Soviet times Улитка на склоне wasn’t published in book form at all; the two parts of the novel were only published separately, in two more or less obscure journals. The German translation I read back in the 1970s (long before I learned Russian) may have been the first edition to print the chapters in the sequence the Strugatskys intended.

  2. Since you mention reading while sick… Many years ago I was living in a somewhat dank basement apartment and came down with a nasty cold that kept me indoors for several days. I decided it would be a good time to read The Gulag Archipelago, and I think my condition and environment gave me an extra smidgin of empathy for the characters in the book and the squalor and misery they endured.

  3. I vaguely remember that in Soviet times Улитка на склоне wasn’t published in book form at all; the two parts of the novel were only published separately, in two more or less obscure journals.

    It was as published as a book in 1972, in censored form (in full not until 1988). The issue of Baikal where part of it was published in 1968 was taken out of circulation and the editors fired, but as far as I know nothing happened to the brothers (except, doubtless, a stern warning); they continued publishing their novels. And this was just two years after the Sinyavsky–Daniel trial. I guess it didn’t cause much trouble because it was only entertainment for kids, not “real literature.”

  4. The ads were a fixture of the Soviet times, always a laughing matter of a mix of a political poster with a product commercial. Some of them advertised monopoly providers (Fly Airflot! – not as idiotic as it seems because it probably meant, instead of taking a train) or generic services (“Read a newspaper, read a magazine!”). Many advertised products which the government sincerely wanted its citizenry to consume more (various good-for-you fake-sausage themes). Many were used in the decor of the retail stores to replace the actual merchandise and food.

  5. Valetin Kataev, that takes me back. “Son of the Regiment” was a novel I enjoyed enormously when i was 10 or 11, and plenthy of my did as well. His book was still on the curriculum in 1990 in Yugoslavia, but I can’t imagine he’s read very much abroad anymore, and honestly he seems not to be read or even that well known in Russia anymore either, judging by the blank stare on a Russian friend’s face when I asked him. That’s a pity – people probably expect leaden socialist realism but I remember it as more of a fairy tale/adventure quest, somehow different than the very similar (and tedious) homegrown WWII literature, though possibly I was responding to the change of setting.

    And as for the -s, It’s not particularly surprising to hear old-fashioned if not outright archaic forms of address from a street peddler? But also incredibly efficient of the Russians to shorten gosudar to just a single letter (via sudar). It almost seems like a mockery of polite address.

    And finally, you touch on something that I find interesting and that is the seemingly widespread perception that under Communism there was only one brand per product (assuming it wasn’t just distributed in bulk withhout packaging). Though I have to admit that this particular ad/branding strategy goes well outside what I would assume was an acceptable degree of nostalgia for the Tsarist regime, though I suppose in this case the branding also served to identify any potential wreckers and capitalist roaders or whatever.

  6. And as for the -s, It’s not particularly surprising to hear old-fashioned if not outright archaic forms of address from a street peddler?

    Not in general, of course, but in the Soviet Union, where just a few years back people had been shot for even a whiff of restorationism and in just a few years they would be shot as class enemies, it would seem to be pretty dangerous to use “a mark of special politeness of former times.”

  7. A collection of Soviet cigarette advertisements from the 1920s is at

  8. Valentin Kataev volunteered for the front during WWI at the age of eighteen, earned three war medals, wounded twice and poisoned by German gas attack once, became officer of the Russian Army in 1917, during Civil War served in White Army of general Denikin, in 1920 – member of the anti-Soviet resistance group in Odessa.

    After 1920, hid his anti-Soviet views, lied about his participation in the Russian Civil War (inventing service in the Red Army) and pretended loyalty to Soviet authorities, his writing always was politically correct in Soviet sense, only in his latest work in relatively safe late 1970s he came out about what he really did during the Civil War and what he thought of the Bolsheviks, causing a major scandal. Soviet ideology chief Suslov called him an anti-Soviet writer in 1980 and prohibited publishing of his latest works.

    Valentin Kataev, master of survival and mimicry, died in 1986.

  9. David Marjanović says:

    A collection of Soviet cigarette advertisements from the 1920s

    Ира is halfway down the page. 🙂

    Three after that is a Mongolian one.

  10. There’s a wikipedia article for it –Словоерс

    “Sir” in that translation sounds a bit too much, though I may be be missing the overtones…

    Lev Uspensky discusses словоерс in his “Слово о словах” at length. (search, it’s a bit down the page).

  11. “Sir” in that translation sounds a bit too much, though I may be be missing the overtones…

    Hard to say, but there’s nothing directly equivalent (obviously), and you need some “indication of politeness or servility.” I personally think “sir” is, if anything, a bit too little, since it’s still used as a mark of routine politeness, with nothing like the Old Regime connotations of the slovo-er-s.

  12. Funny, in 1924 Rodchenko used a similar setup including the exclamation mark, and possibly to better effect, for an “airline” poster. I’d love to know why, whether there’s a bureaucratic or ideological connection.

    Thanks, Jonathan Morse! Number fifteen (three from the end) is The Cigarette Girl from Mosselprom (Папиросница от Моссельпрома), which is also a silent movie. The poster character may have become a meme; something like Bibendum, the Michelin man.

    My favourite graphic artist A.M.Cassandre (b. Ukraine) must have been influenced by these, though he’s the better draughtsman.

    That Mongolian one is a weird one, with the narrow face, wispy cig and yellow tint. It says “Joy”? But they all are, in their way (the smoking horse & cow?).

  13. ~ Soviet ideology chief Suslov called him an anti-Soviet writer in 1980 and prohibited publishing of his latest works. Valentin Kataev, master of survival and mimicry, died in 1986. ~

    Where’s this from? Suslov had been a life-long patron of Kataev. It was he who ordered ‘Werther Is Already Written’ to be published in the flagship literary journal ‘Novy Mir’, not banned, and it was Andropov (KGB chief) who later ordered that it should not be mentioned anywhere anyhow. And Kataev was not sanctioned in any way all the way to his death in 1986, aged 89.
    When I think of him as ‘master of survival and mimicry’, I immediately tell myself – that’s awfully condescending. Sashura, you try and sit in 1920 in a Cheka cell waiting to be shot; you put yourself back in 1937, being a nobleman and a former White Army officer, and help, quite openly Mandelstam, who was about to be arrested by the NKVD; you found and edit a monthly literary magazine in 50-60s that published young unknown dissidents; you try and reinvent yourself endlessly, from chauvinist poet to left avant-gardist, to socialist realist and to modernist again, you write endless scripts and popular plays, and children’s stories and novels, you try and stand up to the rising tide of vulgar nationalism in the 70-80-s, and write a letter or to in defence of enemy of the people Solzhenitsyn; you try, throughout your life to give away your ideas, almost complete stories to your younger brethren; – then, Sashura, you can dismiss Kataev as a master of survival and mimicry.

  14. Oh, I got them mixed up. Anyway, getting labelled anti-Soviet by the chief of KGB in 1980 was quite an achievement. At the age of 83 at that.

    Andropov, by the way, had similar biography of mimicry and survival being from rich capitalist family (his grandfather owned jewelry salon in Moscow).

    And, I suspect, given his background, Andropov had strong anti-Soviet views himself.

    Didn’t prevent him from becoming head of KGB and later leader of the Soviet Union.

    That’s Soviet Union where everything and everyone was fake and not what it pretended to be.

  15. – и люстра венецианского стекла! (‘Venetian chandelier’ at retail price of 34 rubles 17 kopecks, made by the Klara Zetkin artel in Voronezh, from ‘Mimino’)
    ps: I forgot how to insert inline links?)

    @SFR – yes, I was going to mention Andropov’s fake biography, but then decided not to overload the comment)

  16. In praise of Kataev, I must say I still regard him as one of the best, if not the best Russian stylist of the 20th Century.
    Few, if any, can give a portrait of a person in one or two strokes, create a mood or give a landscape. His plots are always solidly constructed, and his creative energy is absolutely awesome.
    I have read and re-read again and again, myself and to my children, his Tsvetik-Semitsvetik (The Seven Magic Petals), and I remember what a sensation his semi-fictional ‘My Crown of Diamonds’ (Алмазный мой венец) came out in 1978.

  17. Soviet joke. To a corner tobacco stand comes a miner and requests “professional” cigarettes. The seller gives him “Miner’s”. Next comes a pilot; requests “professional”; gets “Aeroflot”. Then comes a burly guy with tasteless tattoos and asks “professional”. The seller gives him a blank stare. “Do you think Belomorcanal has been build by Young Communists?”

  18. In praise of Kataev, I must say I still regard him as one of the best, if not the best Russian stylist of the 20th Century.

    I’m really enjoying him so far, and am looking forward to reading more (I’ve got Время, вперед!, Святой колодец, and Трава забвенья in hardcopy, and of course I can download anything I want for my Kindle).

  19. @D.O.: In the 90s the last guy would have got “Kent” 😉

  20. PlasticPaddy says:

    English Wikipedia has him serving in Red army, Russian mentions this and that it seems to be incorrect (and the fact is what SFR has above) with a reference to a book by Sergey Shargunov.

  21. Shargunov’s is the latest biography of Kataev, good, sensitive, taking into account the fluidity of the loyalties of the time, the Russian Civil war. Kataev, and Kaverin, and many others wrote about it, how easy, spontaneous it was to switch sides. But for most of the time during the Soviet period it was lost, it was even dangerous to go beyond the red-and-white picture.

  22. But for most of the time during the Soviet period it was lost, it was even dangerous to go beyond the red-and-white picture.

    Really? Petlura and Makhno were never forgotten in (the) Ukraine. Neither by the people, nor by authorities, the latter obviously considered them enemies.

    By the by. Ukraine is perennially on the edge. Russians cannot quite decide whether it should take “in” or “on” preposition and English speakers cannot make up their minds whether it is arthrous or an.

  23. I’m agnostic between Ukraine and the Ukraine, though I find the stated reasons for preferring the former unpersuasive, and in general I don’t think it’s the job of any government to police language use, much less a foreign language. But I draw the line at Kyiv – the city already has a perfectly good name in English and I’m allergic to this kind of nationalist nonsense.

  24. J.W. Brewer says:

    A very old perfectly good name in English:

  25. § 262. Basa Subeetai-Baaturi: umereši—Kaŋlin, Kibčaut, Baĵiğit, Orosut, Maĵarat, Asut, Sasut, Serkesut, Kešimir, Bolar, Lalat—ede harban nikan aimaq qarin irķen-tur ķurtele, Idil ĵayaq usutan muret ketulun, Kiwamen kermen balağasun-tur ķurtele — Subeetai-Baaturi ayalaulba

    The Secret History of Mongols tells us that Genghis Khan sent Subedei-Bagatur to conquer 11 nations (including Russia and Hungary), cross Volga (Idil) and Ural (Jayaq) rivers and reach the city of Kiwamen-kermen (Kiev).

    Maybe that’s how we should call it.

  26. Kiwamen-kermen (Kiev).

    Kamen-kremen i.e. Flint?

  27. kermen is a Mongol word for a wall.

    A walled, fortified city, in other words.

    There is a strong likelihood that Crimea is derived from it.

  28. January First-of-May says:

    kremen i.e. Flint?

    I believe the relevant Russian(-ish) word in this context is kremlin (now usually seen capitalized in reference to the one in Moscow).

  29. At least two Turkish dictionaries have “fortress” for kermen/kirman(?)/germen. I thought it was Turkic but it could be a Mongol loan of course. The name of the town of Akkerman, not far from Odessa (in the so-called Budjak or Bucak), comes from ak kermen rather than Ackermann, even though German colonists did use to plough some of the land beneath the castle.

  30. January First-of-May says:

    Similarly, Inkerman, a suburb of Sevastopol, is apparently in kermen “cave fortress”.

    Entirely unrelated, but too similar to not mention, is cromlech “megalithic altar” (literally “stone circle”, from Brittonic crom “circle” and lech “stone”).

  31. PlasticPaddy says:

    @jan fom
    crom means more “bent” or “leaning” and is a Germanic borrowing (compare German krumm). Although we have in Irish cearr “wrong, crooked” as well as crom.

  32. Several Turkic languages have a few related words like “kermen/kirman/germen” and “qirim/kyrym” with the same basic meaning – enclosure, fortress, wall.

    Note how the final “n” drops out for some reason without any change in the meaning.

    That’s classical sign of Mongolian nouns with “disappearing final n”.

    Mori/morin, mod/modun, kherem/khermen and so on and on (there are thousands of them).

    It is thought that “disappearing final n” in some Mongolian nouns is a sign of an obsolete grammatical case (perhaps ergative), which had meaning in Old Mongolian, but is now completely forgotten (so Mongolians can’t tell what is the difference between mori and morin).

    Turkic languages don’t have this feature, so it’s presence in kerman/qirim strongly suggests borrowing from Mongolian.

  33. David Marjanović says:

    (compare German krumm)

    Wiktionary says the etymology of that is “uncertain“, postulates a PIE root extended in a suspicious *b (though I haven’t checked if Kümmel’s laws might offer a way around that), and the descendants it lists are all limited to West Germanic – so maybe it’s a Celtic loan into West Germanic.

    (perhaps ergative)

    How about singulative?

  34. PlasticPaddy says:

    There are not many native (or non-native!) Irish adjectives ending in om. By analogy with trom “heavy” etymology, i could speculate crom is native and came from PIE *ker “to turn” suffixed to form *kerwm/krewm. But if borrowed from Celtic, where does Germanic b in *krumb come from (or is the b based on some kind of dialect/ spelling artifact, like climb in English)? The advantage is that Irish cearr might be related to *ker also.

  35. David Marjanović says:

    What is the regular Irish outcome of *-mbʰ- or *-mp-?

  36. PlasticPaddy says:

    PIE p > PC [PHI]
    PIE p + later p > PC k[w] + later k[w]
    PIE p + nasal > PC w
    PIE p + l > PC b + l
    *p[H2]ter > *[PHI] at[ASPIRATED]ir =Irish athair pronounced ahar’
    *pempe > *k[w]enk[w]e = Irish cuig
    PIE b > PC b
    PIE b [ASPIRATED] > PC b
    *[H2]ebol > *abalom = Irish ull (old Irish uball)
    *b[ASPIRATED]el + suffix > *ballo = Irish ball “member”, compare Greek phallos
    *[H2]mb[ASPIRATED]I (prefix) > *ambi
    So I think PIE mp or mb would be unchanged for PC in an environment like PIE (?)*krewmb/p.
    However Old Irish seems to sometimes delete the b in PC mb, but Modern Irish may restore it (as b or p)
    *ambisuweti > O.Ir. imm soi > M.Ir iompaigh
    For more modern instances there are borrowings like sampla (from old French) in Irish. The link Cumbria < Welsh Cymru is no good, because the b is not original.

  37. David Eddyshaw says:

    My immediate thought was that Cymru/Cymry does contain b because it’s “fellow-countrymen”, from the root seen in bro; but I see you’re right, as that is from *mrog-, cognate to Latin margo. So we are the marginal people (Ukrainians, in fact …)

  38. PlasticPaddy says:

    *krumbo is given by Matasović in his Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic as PC. He states that Proto-German *krumba is either borrowed from *krumbo or both are borrowed from the same non-IE source.

  39. PlasticPaddy says:

    These type of words depend on your point of view. As an exonym I suppose * [kum]-mrogo could mean “[co-]frontier/marginal” and as an ethonym (endonym?) it could mean “[co-]regional”.

  40. David Eddyshaw says:

    I’m OK with being marginal. My fellow-marginals and I get to decide the election …

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