Towards the end of Nabokov’s Истребление тиранов (“Tyrants destroyed,” mentioned previously here) the protagonist, who has been agonizing over how to rid his country—and, more importantly, himself—of the dictator he had known as a young man, hears a procession in the street celebrating the tyrant’s fiftieth birthday. It has been established that the evil ruler is extremely fond of turnips (at one point, praising a 70-pound turnip an old woman has grown in her garden, he says “Вот это поэзия, вот бы у кого господам поэтам учиться” [“Now, that’s poetry, the poets should learn from it”] and “angrily” orders a bronze cast to be made from it), and one of the stanzas of the poem (by “our best poet”) resounding from all the radios of the city goes like this:
Вообразите, ни реп нет,
Ни баклажанов, ни брюкв…
Так и песня, что днесь у нас крепнет,
Задыхалась в луковках букв.
Imagine, [without our ruler] there are neither turnips,
nor eggplants, nor rutabagas…
Thus even the song which now burgeons among us
was stifled in bulbs of letters.
The ruler’s jubilee song self-presented as a root vegetable: how that must have warmed his cold, cold heart! At any rate, the word брюква [bryúkva] ‘rutabaga’ has always struck me as humorous, though that may partly be carryover from rutabaga itself. I’m not the only one who sees the American term (and consequently the vegetable itself) as hilarious, because the OED—which informs us the word is from “Swed. dial. (W. Götland) rotabagge“—includes among the citations these:
1951 O. NASH Family Reunion 107 We gobbled like pigs On rutabagas and salted figs.
1975 New Yorker 10 Nov. 176/2 Pertly written by pertly pretty housewives who have discovered organic gardening and how to rub two rutabagas together to feed four happy, whimsical tots—such books glut the shelves.
And—oho!—another citation suggests a possible source for Nabokov’s mock-poem:
1820 SHELLEY Œd. Tyr. I. 47 Hog-wash or grains, or ruta-baga, none Has yet been ours since your reign begun.
The Shelley poem (online here) presents a chorus of pigs complaining of the downward turn their lives have taken since Swellfoot came to rule over them; Nabokov’s tyrant is clearly a descendant of this same Swellfoot, who has provided his subjects with rutabagas even if he has extracted their freedoms.
But I digress. I went to Dahl to see if there were any quaint Russian sayings employing the word брюква, and discovered it had almost two dozen dialectal synonyms: брюкла, буква, бухма, бушма, бушня, калива, калига, голань, галанка, ланка, ландушка, немка, бакланка, баклага, грухва, грыжа, грыза, желтуха, землянуха, дикуша, рыганка, синюха. (Interesting that the second of these is буква, which in standard Russian means ‘letter (of the alphabet)’ as used in the quatrain above.) It must have been much more of a staple in nineteenth-century Russia than it has been since in English-speaking lands (the entire entry in Waverley Root’s wonderful compendium Food reads: “rutabaga, or swede turnip, a root more admired a century or two ago than it is now”); no wonder that the sole saying given by Dahl is Надоел ты мне, что брюква: ‘I’m as sick of you as of rutabaga.’