Stalin’s Languages.

I’ve started reading Kotkin’s Stalin (thanks, jamessal!), and was struck by this passage on his linguistic accomplishments as a youth:

At the same time, Georgia was a diverse land and the future Stalin picked up colloquial Armenian. He also dabbled in Esperanto (the constructed internationalist language), studied but never mastered German (the native tongue of the left), and tackled Plato in Greek. Above all, he became fluent in the imperial language: Russian. The result was a young man who delighted in the aphorisms of the Georgian national poet Shota Rustaveli (“A close friend turned out to be an enemy more dangerous than a foe”) but also in the ineffable, melancholy works of Anton Chekhov[…].

Of course, in later years Stalin would execute Esperantists en masse, as we discussed here.

Addendum. Another linguistic tidbit:

Many of Russia’s Muslims spoke a dialect of Persian, but most spoke Turkic languages, giving Russia several million more Turkic speakers than the “Turkish” Ottoman empire.

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    It was, ostensibly at any rate, Stalin himself who finally put a stop to N Y Marr, the Lysenko of Linguistics, with the Pravda article

    https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1950/jun/20.htm

    Maybe shows some glimmering of appreciation of linguistic reality, perhaps a faint echo of an earlier life.

    Whether condemnation of Marr by the architect of the system which threw up such creatures in the first place deserves much praise …

    At least Marr didn’t cause any famines.

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    Put a stop to Marrism, I should say. Man himself was long dead, honoured to the end. His Wikipedia article seems to have been sanitised somewhat.

  3. J. W. Brewer says:

    I imagine the Stalinist regime persecuted speakers of minority languages ranging from Abkhaz to, um, Yukaghir? (Probably both alphabetical extremes could be outflanked with some googling time.) No doubt some identifiable ethnolinguistic groups experienced a significantly higher casualty rate than others, but it is hard to identify a safe one (I guess maybe Russophones qua Russophones didn’t get persecuted, so if you were a persecuted Russian-speaking ethnic-Russian you must have gotten in trouble for reasons other than language or ethnicity?), much less to have figured out in advance which it would be.

  4. Are there any recordings of Stalin speaking Georgian (or any language besides Russian) ?

  5. Good question — I’d like to hear one!

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    Not as far through the alphabet as Yukaghir, but

    Nikolayeva and Tolskaya, “A Grammar of Udihe”, pp 26-27

    “In 1938 most of the books already published were destroyed, the teaching of Udihe in schools came to an end, and Schneider [inventor of the orthography and writer of school texts in Udihe] himself was shot.”

  7. “Who the hell are the Udihe?” thought I to myself; a little investigation (thanks, Google Books!) informed me that they were the People Known (Vaguely) to Me as Udegei and to Wikipedia as Udege. I understand the various reasons for the confusing nomenclature, but it’s still irritating.

  8. David Eddyshaw says:

    The grammar helpfully explains that in nineteenth century literature they were variously called Oroch, Orochon, and Taz; in Korean they are called Olčan; in Evenk, Lamka or Lamunka; in Nanai (ie Goldi) they are called Namunka; in Nivkh, Tozung; and in Manchu Kjaka.

    Orochon means “reindeer-breeders.” (But they don’t.)

    I hope that is clear now.

  9. David Eddyshaw says:

    For a wonder, “Udihe” does *not* seem to mean “the real people.” On the other hand, nobody seems to have much idea what the devil it *does* mean. Apart from “Udihe”, of course.

  10. I find Stalin’s Russian very easy to understand and I have always wondered whether my basic Georgian could pick anything out.

  11. J. W. Brewer says:

    If only everyone could agree to use the Esperanto terms for the language and its speakers: https://eo.wikipedia.org/wiki/Udega_lingvo

  12. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Many of Russia’s Muslims spoke a dialect of Persian, but most spoke Turkic languages, giving Russia several million more Turkic speakers than the “Turkish” Ottoman empire.”

    Never actually thought about it before, but actual speakers of Turkish must have been a minority in the Ottoman Empire by quite a margin. Even Anatolia had a good many people who spoke primarily Armenian or Kurdish or Greek, and that’s before you start taking into account all the Arab lands – especially Egypt.

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    @JWB:

    Down with oppressive Esperantist linguistic imperialism!

  14. J. W. Brewer says:

    Googling suggests that one key Yukaghir victim of Stalin’s regime was Nikolai Spiridonov a/k/a Teki (or Tekki) Odulok (1906-1938) who may not have constituted the entirety of his people’s intelligentsia but was at least reportedly the first one to have received a Ph.D.

  15. J. W. Brewer says:

    I believe my anti-Esperantist bona fides ought to be pretty well-established (I don’t even like the metric system), although under most circumstances i don’t think it should be a capital offense.

  16. David Eddyshaw says:

    Actually I’m fond of the *idea* of Esperanto, but put off by its actual instantiation.

    Like (as everyone here will already know)

    http://www.xibalba.demon.co.uk/jbr/ranto/

    I just wish he weren’t (basically) right.

  17. For what it’s worth, Claude Piron responded to some of allegations in the “Ranto” essay: http://claudepiron.free.fr/articlesenanglais/why.htm

  18. SFReader says:

    Stalin studied in Tiflis Theological Seminary and presumably was taught Latin, Greek and Old Church Slavonic.

    Hebrew was not a required subject, though

  19. Trond Engen says:

    Not that I know the least of any of the languages mentioned or how they used to interact, but many of those forms could be united in something like *(V)Lãca-. Orochon looks like a folk etymology.

  20. @David Eddyshaw: I’m with you. There are perhaps some quibbles to be made with JBR’s piece (for example, one could dispute his claim that “kaj” is a spelling derivation, since it was pronounced that way in Ancient Greek), but I do agree with the bulk of it. I think Ido was a substantial improvement, but my own preference is for Interlingua.

  21. As a village priest in training and a husband of an ethnic Georgian wife, he must have been fluent in Georgian. His family name is supposed to be ethnic Ossetian but probably he was not speaking the language (his father is reported to speak Georgian, Armenian, Turkish, and Russian, but apparently not Ossetian). Anyway being fluent in several languages was a relative norm in the cities of the Caucasus and nothing remarkable, so some people claim that Stalin spoke 39 languages including Abkhazian while others, that he didn’t speak *any* languages (yes, really 🙂 )

  22. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Dmitri Pruss:

    I thought the -shvili part at least was specifically Georgian?

  23. David Eddyshaw says:

    Elsewhere JBR Ranto-man links to this interesting page.

    https://web.archive.org/web/20080411141100/donh.best.vwh.net/Esperanto/EBook/app02.html

    referencing inter alia Esperanto translations of several works of the Strugatskys (Malfacilas esti dio) and an apparently highly appreciative notice of the language from JRR Tolkien (no less) which I haven’t got to yet.

  24. SFReader says:

    It can be attached to surname of any origin.

    Eg, Saakashwili (derived from Armenian surname Saakian).

    Another former Georgian ruler had surname Ivanishvili, which as I understand is derived from Ivanov.

  25. SFReader says:

    Stalin’s school certificate

    http://www.e-reading.club/illustrations/1009/1009734-i_007.jpg

    Russian and Church Slavonic – 5 (A)
    Greek – 4 (B)
    Georgian – 5
    Russian Church Singing- 5
    Georgian Church Singing- 5

    No Latin, apparently only one classical language was required.

  26. -shvili (son of) is present in surnames and patronimics, either Georgian or Georgian-ized. There is little doubt that Soso’s gramps hailed from South Osetia, and some sources list his original name as Dzhugaev, but there are tons of opinions there, some weirder than others (“it means worthless” / “it means Jewish” / “it means Man of Steel ~~ Stalin”). Another thing is generally agreed on, though, that there is no Georgian personal name “Dzhuga”.

  27. Eg, Saakashwili (derived from Armenian surname Saakian).

    I’ve always assumed that Saakashvili is just the Georgian version of Isaacson. Isaac is a common Biblical name. Why would it need to have anythig to do with Armenia?

  28. SFReader says:

    Georgian version of Isaacson would be Isakadze, I believe, from ისააკ (Isaak)

    Saakashwili derives from Saakian which is an Armenian surname formed from personal name Սաակ (Saak).

  29. Bathrobe says:

    There are Orochens (鄂伦春) in China, too: Profile of Octogenarian Orochen: Folk Song Singer, Folk Tale and Dictionary Compiler. Both inspiring and depressing at the same time.

  30. SFReader says:

    Wikipedia says their ethnic name is of Mongolian origin (from Mongolian гөрөөчин/guruuchin – deer hunter)

  31. SFReader says:

    And funny, but depressing anecdote from Wiki:


    Until the early 1950s the main religion of the nomadic Oroqen was shamanism. In the summer of 1952 cadres of the Chinese communist party coerced the leaders of the Oroqen to give up their “superstitions” and abandon any religious practices. These tribal leaders, Chuonnasuan (Meng Jin Fu) and Zhao Li Ben, were also powerful shamans. The special community ritual to “send away the spirits” and beg them not to return was held over three nights in Baiyinna and in Shibazhan.

  32. David Eddyshaw says:

    This is the Tolkien bit on Esperanto:

    https://web.archive.org/web/20080318112535/http://donh.best.vwh.net/Languages/tolkien1.html

    He makes essentially two points:

    (a) Esperanto is the only constructed international language with any realistic prospect of success, so if one supports the idea at all it’s best to stick with Esperanto for all its faults

    and (more interesting)

    (b) those very imperfections are part of the charm of the language, and what make its beauty more like the beauty of a natural language.

    Of these (a) is all too vulnerable to JBR’s criticism that Esperanto by being nearly but not quite good enough has in fact killed the whole project by ensuring that better competitors can now never get off the ground – something a good deal more apparent now than when Tolkien wrote.

    (b) is interesting though (and characteristic Tolkien); I’ve sometimes felt myself that the appeal of Esperanto is really not at all in the perspicuity, logic, simplicity and what-have-you that the fanboys allege, but in the very quirkiness inherent in the one-man creation of the oculist from Bialystok.

  33. The Last of the Udege was Alexander Fadeyev’s second novel, never finished. Like The Rout, it is hinged on the Civil War in the Russian Far East (where Fadeyev grew up) but is far more sprawling in time and subject.

    Fadeyev was a monster but as a writer, I think he was always fascinated by the land he was transplanted to as a boy and its people. Interestingly, his Udege protagonist, Sarl, has dark-green eyes, “sharp as a sedge,” and claims the Chinese have “eyes like soil” while the Udege have “eyes like grass.”

  34. David Eddyshaw says:

    “their [Orochens’] ethnic name is of Mongolian origin”

    According to Nikolaeva/Tolskaya, it’s Tungus “oron” “reindeer” and -čen “a common Tungus suffix of Nomina Actionis”; so “reindeerers” (apparently a misnomer as far as the Udihe themselves are concerned.)

    Given the Wanderwort nature of words like these and the longstanding nature of the Altaic Sprachbund, I imagine that both explanations might perfectly well be correct.

    N/T say “Taz” is from Chinese t’a cze < Jü-pi T'a-cze "Fish Skin Aliens" which sounds more exciting than is presumably intended.

    魚皮他者 presumably (guessing from Japanese – I know no Chinese.) The transliteration looks wrong.

  35. I’ve just finished Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator by Oleg Khlevniuk (translated by Nora Favorov) and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys the historian-as-trial-judge approach, as I do. At times, it goes like this: “Claim A is well supported by documents in the archives. Claim B is only supported by hearsay. Claim C will require more archives to be opened for proper adjudication.” Perfect in my book.

    My understanding is that Stalin mastered Russian at the Tiflis seminary because it was the language of instruction, and it remained his primary linguistic achievement. Shostakovich mocked Stalin’s monotonous, repetitively cliched Russian in Antiformalisticheskiy Rayok but for all practical purposes, Stalin’s Russian was rather good.

    Stalin tried to learn other languages, including English, but never got very far. He didn’t even read European or American newspapers in the original language.

  36. “N/T say “Taz” is from Chinese t’a cze < Jü-pi T'a-cze "Fish Skin Aliens" which sounds more exciting than is presumably intended."

    This sounds like the mainstream Russian view, I think, going back to V.K. Arsenyev (of Dersu Uzala fame) or earlier. The Taz are considered a separate ethnic group, descended from Chinese-speaking Udege and/or Nanai and/or children of mixed Udege- and Nanai-Chinese couples. Russians also distinguish between the Orochs (settled) and the Udege (nomadic).

  37. Tolkien bit on Esperanto

    Here’s his shorter bit, the first paragraph of “A Secret Vice”, Tolkien’s talk (usually miscalled an essay) on conlanging.

    Some of you may have heard that there was, a year or more ago [in 1930], a Congress in Oxford, an Esperanto Congress; or you may not have heard. Personally I am a believer in an ‘artificial’ language, at any rate for Europe — a believer, that is, in its desirability, as the one thing antecedently necessary for uniting Europe, before it is swallowed by non-Europe; as well as for many other good reasons — a believer in its possibility because the history of the world seems to exhibit, as far as I know it, both an increase in human control of (or influence upon) the uncontrollable, and a progressive widening of the range of more or less uniform languages. Also I particularly like Esperanto, not least because it is the creation ultimately of one man, not a philologist, and is therefore something like a ‘human language bereft of the inconveniences due to too many successive cooks’ — which is as good a description of the ideal artificial language (in a particular sense) as I can give.

    historian-as-trial-judge

    As scientist, I would say. “In our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.” — David Hume, frequently echoed here by David Marjanović, Marie-Lucie, and me. However, it’s the essence of a judge’s profession to make firm decisions even when the factual evidence is insufficient.

  38. What language did Stalin use to gept around when he was in exile in Vienna? Basic German? I suppose he mainly interacted with fellow Russian speaking exiles.

  39. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Vanya:

    It’s surprising how possible it can be to cope without any effective knowledge of the local language at all. Most of us here wouldn’t know, because we would find it virtually impossible not to learn *something.*

    When I was an undergraduate in the 1970s I lived upstairs from a Hungarian who came to the UK in 1956, presumably as a refugee. He spoke practically no English at all, not even everyday greetings. All his friends were Hungarian, and presumably looked after his necessary interactions with the Magyar-challenged natives.

    We communicated by playing Nine Men’s Morris. He was very good at it.

  40. ~~ grins ~~

    My mother taught me how to play “mills”; she was very good at it too. I never was any good at look-ahead, strategic games. I like ones where you see what to do and do it, without any damned strategy about it. (In Klingon, the word for “strategy” also means “sorcery”; you scream and you leap.)

  41. J. W. Brewer says:

    “IN 1970, THE BRITISH EMPIRE LAY IN RUINS, FOREIGN NATIONALS FREQUENTED THE STREETS – MANY OF THEM HUNGARIANS (NOT THE STREETS – THE FOREIGN NATIONALS).” One can well imagine that after an unfortunate incident or two caused by a criminally inaccurate Hungarian-English phrasebook one might refrain from further attempts at interaction in English for the rest of the decade.

  42. David Eddyshaw says:

    @JWB:

    Indeed. Eels.

  43. Is the parrot still resting?

  44. Perhaps. It wants the Romany to go the house.

  45. In Ivan Chonkin there’s a reference to Stalin’s voice on the radio (announcing the beginning of the German attack on Russia), speaking “with a slight Georgian accent”, as I recall from the English translation. Is that true? What does Russian with a Georgian accent sound like?

    I heard a story that in meetings of the Council of Ministers or such, Stalin and Beria would sometimes lapse into chatting in Georgian, which would cause some understandable discomfort among the non-Georgians present.

  46. SFReader says:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gp7IQRZ6MTI

    Stalin speaking with Georgian accent

  47. What does Russian with a Georgian accent sound like?

    Stereotypically, not enough palatalization or vowel reduction, among other things.

  48. Stereotypically, not enough palatalization or vowel reduction, among other things.

    It’s my impression that when Georgians speak Russian they front the А vowel too much.

  49. @David Eddyshaw: “However, it’s the essence of a judge’s profession to make firm decisions even when the factual evidence is insufficient.” In a criminal trial, less so because of the reasonable doubt standard. For a historian, I imagine, this high hurdle would stultify all meaningful analysis. Perhaps the “preponderance of evidence” standard of civil trials is more appropriate.

    Those historians who manage to make the right inferences from limited inputs deserve to be counted among the greatest, but only after their conclusions have been vindicated by newly discovered data. It seems remarkable to me that the partial opening of Soviet archives in the 1990s confirmed the key theses of anti-Stalinist historians, including this: Stalin was phenomenally gifted in one department only, obtaining and retaining power. Other than that, he was OK to below average.

  50. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Alexei K:

    The attribution of those words to me is incorrect.

    As it happens, my own work continually involves the necessity of making decisions on the basis of strictly inadequate information, and on first principles I would imagine that that very much the rule rather than the exception, at least for jobs of any great intrinsic interest. I agree with you however that whether it is appropriate depends greatly on circumstances.

    This particular instance (of a judge in a criminal case) puts me in mind of a probably apocryphal conversation between a British and a Chinese legist:

    UK-man: In our country, we think it is better for ten guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to be wrongly punished.

    PRC-man: Better for whom?

  51. David Eddyshaw says:
  52. @David Eddyshaw: I apologize for the misattribution.

    My previous comment was in response to John Cowan.

  53. David Eddyshaw says:

    Can’t say I mind being mistaken for John Cowan. It’s only a step away from being mistaken for Hat Himself.

  54. @SFReader,

    Interesting tidbit I learned recently – Apparently, Stalin was actually not speaking in Red Square – his voice was dubbed later onto the footage. (https://books.google.com/books?id=wVgeAAAAQBAJ&pg=PA117&lpg=PA117&dq=stalin's+voice+dubbed+later&source=bl&ots=LnziOnmzyl&sig=eVYmw3yW6Bi6uQreuiCKxnf06kw&hl=en&sa=X&ei=WbCeVbLsC4KuogSdzoHoBg&ved=0CCQQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&amp😉

    And just because I feel like it – a gratuitous Georgian joke: Armenian Radio is asked –How come the Armenian Republic has a Ministry of the Navy even though it has no outlet to the sea? Armenian Radio answers –It’s not so unusual. Don’t they have a Ministry of Culture in the Georgian Republic?

  55. a gratuitous Georgian joke

    Kinda like those Hungarian Navy knives . . .

  56. David Eddyshaw says:

    One of my favourite paintings, ever since I saw it on my honeymoon in Vienna:

    http://www.belvedere.at/en/ausstellungen/rueckblick/anton-romako—tegetthoff-in-der-seeschlacht-bei-lissa-e592

    Well, *Austro*-Hungarian Navy ..

  57. counted among the greatest

    Perhaps merely the luckiest. Even a stopped clock, as the saying goes, is right twice a day.

    As it happens, my own work continually involves the necessity of making decisions on the basis of strictly inadequate information

    Sure. I didn’t mean to imply that only judges need to exercise judgment (in this particular sense of the term), just that they are an obvious and prominent case, and had already been mentioned by Alexei. Other cases that come to mind are doctors, lawyers, and managers.

  58. David Eddyshaw says:

    I perhaps should explain that in this picture Admiral Tegetthoff is steering his vessel directly into the enemy’s with the intention of ramming it. There are variants in which the men around the steersman look distinctly more alarmed and considerably less resolute about it all.

  59. That’s quite a remarkable painting, and apparently there’s a whole book about it. Thanks for calling it to our attention.

  60. “Apparently, Stalin was actually not speaking in Red Square – his voice was dubbed later onto the footage.”

    According to Khlevniuk, who cites this article in support, Stalin did speak but the speech was not (properly) recorded so the whole speech was reenacted, with elaborate props:

    This [the parade] was a risky undertaking since a few days earlier, on 29 October, German planes had dropped a large bomb right on the Kremlin. A total of 146 people were injured and 41 were killed.78 The Luftwaffe could certainly strike again. In anticipation of this possibility, a parallel parade was held in Kuibyshev (today’s Samara), the city chosen as the reserve capital should Moscow fall. In case of an attack during the Moscow parade, radio coverage of the celebration would switch to Kuibyshev.

    A “just in case” military parade in Samara while the Germans were 20 miles from Moscow. The bit below is also typical of the time and place.

    Stalin addressed the parading troops with a short speech delivered from atop Lenin’s Mausoleum…

    The military parade on Red Square was captured on film, but for some reason Stalin’s speech was not. It was decided to stage the speech in an improvised studio. A mockup of Lenin’s tomb was built in one of the halls of the Great Kremlin Palace, and Stalin repeated his speech for the cameras on 15 November.

    In December, movie theaters began showing [the film]… including the reenactment of Stalin’s speech. Over seven days, beginning December 4, two hundred thousand viewers watched the film in Moscow alone.

  61. J. W. Brewer says:

    Stalin not the only one whose Esperantism was inconsistent: “Ayatolla [sic] Khomeini, too, waffled on Esperanto. Shortly after the Iranian Revolution, he urged his people to learn the language as an anti-imperialist counterpoint to English, and an official translation of the Qur’an followed. But adherents of the Baha’i faith had been fans of Esperanto for decades, and Khomeini was definitely not a fan of Baha’i, so his enthusiasm dimmed.” http://www.theverge.com/2015/5/29/8672371/learn-esperanto-language-duolingo-app-origin-history

  62. David Marjanović says:

    It was, ostensibly at any rate, Stalin himself who finally put a stop to N Y Marr

    It was probably Arnold Chikobava who ghostwrote the article; but it obviously was Stalin who had it published under his name and thus put a stop to Marrism.

    For what it’s worth, Claude Piron responded to some of allegations in the “Ranto” essay: http://claudepiron.free.fr/articlesenanglais/why.htm

    Well. It’s true that Rye hardly presents any data about contemporary usage of Esperanto, about current practice as opposed to the theory of old textbooks.* However, Piron hasn’t noticed that cryptic word classes – where a root belongs primarily to one word class, and related senses that belong to other word classes are derived rather than equally basic – were introduced into Esperanto very soon after its creation, while Rye mentions it; Piron is furious that Rye doesn’t offer a better alternative to Esperanto, which is completely beside Rye’s point that Esperanto still isn’t good enough and could have been improved; and he has missed the fact that Rye not only mentions the automatic derivation**, but criticizes it at quite some length.

    * The one example I can give is that he points out how rare it is for natural languages to have a distinction between /h/ and /x/. Wikipedia says ĥ /x/ is almost extinct, in that only about six words with it remain in common use.
    ** Once a root exists, every possible combination of that root with any and all affixes is considered to exist and to have a meaning.


    Until the early 1950s the main religion of the nomadic Oroqen was shamanism. In the summer of 1952 cadres of the Chinese communist party coerced the leaders of the Oroqen to give up their “superstitions” and abandon any religious practices. These tribal leaders, Chuonnasuan (Meng Jin Fu) and Zhao Li Ben, were also powerful shamans. The special community ritual to “send away the spirits” and beg them not to return was held over three nights in Baiyinna and in Shibazhan.

    A decidedly nicer way to get rid of the gods than the Klingon way.

    Personally I am a believer in an ‘artificial’ language, at any rate for Europe — a believer, that is, in its desirability, as the one thing antecedently necessary for uniting Europe, before it is swallowed by non-Europe

    Oh dear. 🙂

    Indeed. Eels.

    Two weeks ago I was at a conference in Poland. After the farewell dinner, a polyglot American now based in Cambridge got a Hungarian colleague to teach him how to say “my hovercraft is full of eels” in Hungarian.

    Stalin speaking with Georgian accent

    Interesting. I notice:
    1) Front [a] as juha said. Unexpected in a language with a plain a-e-i-o-u five-vowel system.
    2) Something seems to be off with /r/, though I can’t figure out what.
    3) Even word-finally, /v/ is an approximant; not sure if [ʋ] or [β].
    4) /x/ is [χ].
    5) /t/ isn’t loud enough. I think Stalin started from his native ejective and took the ejection away; that lands you at a voiceless lenis, not at a fortis. (Old World ejectives generally seem to be lenes, while New World ones generally seem to be extreme fortes.)
    5) Not enough vowel reduction or palatalization, as mentioned above.

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