THE LIVING AND THE DEAD.

I’ve finished Konstantin Simonov‘s famous WWII novel Живые и мёртвые [The living and the dead], first published in 1959 and available online (along with its two sequels) here, at the amazing Военная литература site (to which, like the novel, I was alerted by Sashura), so I thought I’d say something about it. It’s a tremendously powerful and convincing evocation of what the last six months of 1941 were like for well-educated true believers in the Red Army (see Catherine Merridale’s Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945 for a more comprehensive factual account of an army that was three-quarters peasant and wretchedly ill-prepared for war). As a novel, it starts out strong but eventually dissipates its energy somewhat; it begins with its central character, journalist-turned-officer Sintsov, and his wife Masha learning of the German attack as they have just arrived in the Crimea for a vacation having left their infant daughter back home in Grodno—now occupied by the Germans—with Masha’s mother, and [warning: spoilers ahead] after a quick return to Moscow Sintsov heads west to join his newspaper at the front and try to find out what has happened to his family. In the chaos of the invasion he is soon turned into a political officer attached to a division that is trying to fight its way out of encirclement, with no way to get a message to his wife, and the first half of the book is filled with the tension of wondering what will happen to him and what has happened to his wife. About halfway through, after harrowing adventures (which involve losing his documents), he makes it back to Moscow and has a quick reunion with his wife before heading off to the front again (now frighteningly near the capital) to try to prove himself as a simple foot soldier and earn reacceptance into the Party. From this point on, the novel takes us through the defense of Moscow and the Soviet counterattack of early December; there are many good scenes, but the basic narrative drive is dissipated unless you care a lot more than I can make myself care about the restoration of his precious Party card. To find out what happens to his wife (and the daughter who is barely mentioned again after the first chapter), you have to read the sequels, which I will probably do eventually.
A point of linguistic interest is Simonov’s careful attention to forms of address, particularly the use of formal and informal pronouns. In Chapter 10, Efremov says “Get up!” using the informal pronoun to the sleeping Sintsov, then switches to the formal when Sintsov wakes up:

Вставай, ну, вставай же! — тормошил его Ефремов, не считая нужным обращаться на “вы” к еще не проснувшемуся человеку. — Вставайте! — сразу перешел он на “вы”, как только Синцов спустил с лавки ноги. — Комбат вас к себе требует!

And later in the same chapter, it is explained that Sintsov and Lyusin use the informal with each other, despite not knowing each other long, because the pressures of war have produced instant intimacy.
One scene that struck me was when a badly wounded character is transported away from the front and realizes that he is being removed from the intense life he has been living and the company of the men he has been fighting with and will soon be in an entirely different world. It’s a situation and an emotion that to my mind was explored most memorably by David I. Masson, among whose few brilliant stories from the 1960s was the unforgettable “Traveller’s Rest,” which if the Force is with you you can read at the last link on this page.

Comments

  1. he is soon turned into a political officer attached to a division that is trying to fight its way out of encirclement
    What was the purpose of this position? I remember reading that Khrushchev was the political commissar at Stalingrad. The only direct action I read of him undertaking was the evacuation of industrial machinery, yet he seems to have worked together with Zhukhov during the siege and to have been equally responsible for making tactical decisions. But a political officer at this low level, what could he do? Exhort the soldiers to fight harder?
    I’ve just found a paragraph, in Antony Beever’s Stalingrad book, about the political use of poetry:

    Since the fall of Rostov, any means of arousing resistance had become permissible. A picture in Stalinskoe znamia, the Stalingrad Front newspaper, on 8 September showed a frightened girl with her limbs bound. ‘What if your beloved girl is tied up like this by fascists?’ said the caption. ‘First they’ll (violate)* her insolently, then throw her under a tank. Advance warrior. Shoot the enemy. Your duty is to prevent the violator from (violating)* your girl.’ Such propaganda – almost a repeat of the theme in Konstantin Simonov’s poem ‘Kill Him!’ – was undoubtedly crude, yet its symbolism closely reflected the mood of the time. Alexey Surkov’s poem ‘I Hate’ was equally ferocious. The German violation of the Motherland could only be wiped out with bloody revenge. (There can be little doubt that the ‘violation’ propaganda in the late summer of 1942 contributed significantly to the mass (violation)* committed by the Red Army on its advance into German territory in late 1944 and 1945.) On 9 September, an advance unit from the Fourth Panzer Army came across copies of Red Star with Ilya Ehrenburg’s appeal to to Soviet soldiers, which ended: ‘Do not count days, do not count miles. Count only the number of Germans you have killed. Kill the German – this is your mother’s prayer. Kill the German – this is the cry of your Russian earth. Do not waver. Do not let up. Kill.’

    I can’t imagine the propaganda authorities in Britain or the USA utilising such violent Italian-Futurist-style poetry during WW2. Indeed, I can’t imagine they would have considered anything described as “poetry”, and not “songs”, to be useful, but maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps they were never that desperate, but I’m guessing they wouldn’t have dared.
    *Trouble with the hat censor.

  2. What was the purpose of this position?
    A very good question indeed, which the soldiers asked themselves many times. Yes, they were supposed to inspire the soldiers’ dedication to the war by reminding them of its ideological/political basis (on the rare occasions when Russian soldiers got a chance to talk with captured Germans, they were shocked to find that German proletarians did not, in fact, regard the Soviet Union as the homeland of the world’s proletariat, as their politruk had told them); they were also the eyes and ears of the Party, ever alert for ideological deviation and the potential for sabotage/desertion. Merridale describes them as follows (pp. 63-65):

    As well as working as the party’s spy, an individual politruk was likely to combine the functions of a propagandist with those of army chaplain, military psychiatrist, and school prefect. “The politruk,” the army’s orders stated, “is the central figure for all educational work among soldiers.” The range of topics they taught was wide indeed. Politruks were present at classes in target shooting, drill practice, and rifle disassembly. They were the individuals who typed up individual scores, noting how many men were “excellent” in any field and inventing excuses for the many who were not. They wrote monthly reports on their units’ discipline, on morale, and on “extraordinary events,” including desertion, drunkenness, insubordination, and absence without leave. They were also the men behind the party’s festivals, including the anniversary of the October Revolution…, Red Army Day (23 February), and the workers’ carnival on the first of May. Enlisted men looked forward to these holidays. The lecture they had to sit through from the politruk was just a prelude, after all, to a bit of free time and some serious drinking.

    A politruk who really thumped the propaganda drum was bound to meet resistance. It is impressive that some — earnest, ambitious, or just plain devout — tried everything to mold their men according to the rules. They kept up a barrage of discussions, meetings, and poster campaigns. They read aloud to the troops in their spare time… Some managed small libraries, and almost all ran propaganda huts where posters were designed and banners hung. Political officers in all units taught basic literacy, too, as well as investigating complaints and answering the men’s questions about daily life. Their work was never easy. Like every other type of officer, the politruks battled with shortages. “We do not have a single volume of the works of Lenin,” one man informed his commissar in 1939… Although they seem absurd in retrospect, some of these politruks … believed in their mission and made real sacrifices in its name. Maybe a few soldiers appreciated their presence… But more looked at the politruks’ clean boots, smooth hands, and unused cartridge belts and sensed hypocrisy.

    The politruks were hated, too, because they had an overall responsibility for discipline. Denunciations often originated with them, and it was usually their reports that brought the military police, the Special Section, into a messroom or barracks. Their obligation to inform was in direct conflict with another of the politruks’ roles, which was to foster an atmosphere of mutual trust.

    That should give you some idea. (Commissars operated at regimental and batallion levels; at lower levels, the equivalent was the politruk.)

  3. You would never know, of course, from reading Simonov or other officially approved war literature that there was any resentment of the politruks, who are portrayed as earnest, high-minded, courageous men who are good buddies with their fightin’ comrades.

  4. Thanks, Language. It sounds in some ways like the equivalent of the chaplain’s role, which must have improved general morale or it would have been abolished, presumably. And just because Stalin was paranoid doesn’t mean he didn’t have good reason to try and keep the army in its place. I wonder if the Germans had political officers, chaplains, both or neither?

  5. thanks, for taking my recommendation, I’m glad it was worthwile.
    re. formal/informal you. Informal ‘ty’ was used not only for frontline buddiness, but also to show trust, the major theme in the novel. Addressing someone with ‘vy’ would be saying ‘I don’t quite trust you’. This is also why Sintsov’s ‘paper chase’ is followed throughout the novel. In one scene he shouts at the regimental commissar: ‘tell me, what’s more important, the papers or the people?’ This is a distinctively post-Stalin, 50s thaw theme.
    I don’t know Merridale’s book, but her description of politruk (it stands for politicheskiy rukovoditel’ – political supervisor) as propagandist, chaplain, psychologist and prefect is close to the point.
    I’d only add that they were a separate branch in the Red Army with their own system of ranks and insignia and had mostly propaganda functions. Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam would be classed as a politruk in 1941 terms.
    The job of the commissar was reintroduced in the army in 1941 as professional officers were blamed for the chaotic retreat. Politruk is a generic term, but commissar is a job. Colloquially they were used synonymically, but technically they were different. What adds to the confusion is that senior politruks, from batallion level, had the word ‘commissar’ in their military title. There is a good article on wikipedia on the subject (commisar)
    To understand what a commissar could do, just watch the scene in Enemy at the Gates, when Bob Hoskins makes the army commander shoot himself. Fiennes there portrays a classic politruk.
    You would never know, of course, from reading Simonov or other officially approved war literature that there was any resentment of the politruks
    no, but note how officers always sound each other: what’s the commissar like? what’s the commander like? It tells something.

  6. Having read the “Ivan’s war”, I second Hat’s recommendation of this book as a useful supplement to any Soviet-era war book.
    And Simonov isn’t my favorite – he in fact shows a journalist’s view of the war, with all the handicaps that his Party allegiance carried mixed with the handicaps of someone who was not involved in the actual fighting and was, at best, ultimately relying on self-censored tales told by others, censoring them in his turn. I’d recommend Baklanov for a Soviet-era war fiction inspired by first-hand experience instead.
    But if one takes the novel not as a war account, but as a document in itself, an inevitable long novel in Tolstoy’s tradition by someone who was also a “mild Stalinist” (this was the term Simonov himself used in his diaries “был сталинистом, но не заядлым”) turned a “thaw-era” progressive, a Stalin’s Prize laureate, a Central Committee member and, oh, a romantic poet to boot, it becomes very, very interesting.
    There is another aspect that is increasingly emerging in recent arguments about the war, and Merridale doesn’t say anything about that, let alone Simonov. This is the exact nature of the famous Soviet “unpreparedness” that caused the frightful defeats of the Red Army in the first years of the war. This was always a bit of a mystery. And this is somewhat pertinent, because this is also what Simonov is trying to explain in his novel.
    What Simonov offers, over and against the Stalinist orthodoxy, is a picture of the Red Army being caught unprepared, under-equipped and badly led by a freshly purged officer corps, and Stalin being personally responsible for ignoring all warnings of the German attack. This is also a typical “thaw-era”, “anti-personality-cult” position: it’s all the fault of the purges and the surprise attack, the latter having been made possible by Stalin himself. Very convenient for some, but also very controversial in its day, because not all Stalinists in position of authority were mild and not all of them turned progressives. What is important is that this theory still makes the “surprise attack” a mystery: it ignores a lot of facts and makes the Soviet leadership too stupid even for their pharaonic way of ruling.
    What is being increasingly emphasized lately (e.g. by Mark Solonin) are facts about the pre-war Red Army having had an overwhelming superiority over the Germans in numbers and equipment, the latter having been produced in gigantic quantities at the price of starving the peasants in the 30s. What emerges is a picture of an over-confident leadership that was preparing to attack and was so sure of its military might that it thought it could afford to ignore the possibility of German surprise attack and either attack first or use the propaganda value of being the victims of a surprise attack (who cares about the losses?). What it did not expect was that the Red Army that, on paper, had more modern tanks and as many planes as the rest of the world, was going to totally collapse when attacked: being part of the command system stiffened by fear, it could not count on any degree of initiative in the ranks at all levels. That the average soldier was a peasant, typically with no love lost for the Soviets, and that that soldier’s father had perhaps safely returned from the German POW camps of WWI a generation earlier, also adds to this picture.
    What followed was a rapid German advance and a vicious 3-way fighting between pro-Soviet, pro-German and some nationalist forces on the occupied territories behind German lines. A book by Solonin calls this “a second Civil War”, responsible for a big part of the uncountable and uncounted human losses of the Great Patriotic War.

  7. Germans had political officers, chaplains, both or neither?
    The Nazi Party, and in its extreme the SS, had those sort of paramilitary ranks. Other branches of the armed forces still retained the old religious chaplains, despite the objections of hardliners. For example, here is one officiating at a distance wedding on the front. And, as you know, the whole story of the Catholic Church then is a more than bit messy.

  8. Maxim’s comments here are very apt.
    Hat mentioned here before Istoricheskiye Khroniki TV-series by Nikolai Svanidze/Marina Zhukova. Their 1941 episode is called ‘Constantin Simonov’ and builds a theory that Stalin planned the attack on Germany for 1942. The Winter War with Finland was part of those preparations.
    Simonov’s writing is criticised as ‘officer’s literature’. It’s not so much that he hadn’t enough first-hand experience, he may have had more than a soldier’s due – the Serpilin regiment fighting off the nazis assault is practically a witness account. But the emotions, observation and thoughts are all of a member of military intelligentsia, soldiers play a supporting role.
    I second Baklanov and don’t forget Grossman.
    Quality of Soviet weapons varied wildly. T-34s and infantry sub-machine guns were few at the beginning of the war, as were heavy KV tanks superior to Germany’s. In 1941-42 Vehrmacht captured hundreds of 76.2 mm divisional guns and adopted them for their own use, I’ve seen them here in Normandy. The Germans were still in the process of re-appraising the success of their famous 88-mm guns in Spain and not quite realised their multi-purpose capability.
    re ‘three-way fighting’: there is another factor – the war split and effectively ended the ‘white emigration’ with most white army leaders refusing to support the Germans.

  9. What emerges is a picture of an over-confident leadership that was preparing to attack and was so sure of its military might that it thought it could afford to ignore the possibility of German surprise attack and either attack first or use the propaganda value of being the victims of a surprise attack (who cares about the losses?).
    But that does not explain the refusal to accept the fact of the attack when it came. Even as Soviet cities were being bombed, Stalin was claiming it was a “provocation” and issuing orders that German planes not be fired on, etc. This is what I object to about “revisionist” history: not that it exists (more angles on events are always needed, and obviously the “Stalin as omnipotent demonic overlord” was due for correction) but that it so often throws the baby out with the bathwater. You can point out all the mitigating factors you please, but you can’t argue away the fact that vital time was lost while Stalin was refusing to believe the attack, and also that the defense of the country was compromised (very nearly fatally) by Stalin’s insistence on the idiotic “Attack! always attack! fight on the enemy’s soil!” doctrine so beautifully illustrated in the film «Если завтра война» [If tomorrow there's war], which would be funnier (with its tachanki, its mass cavalry battle, and the proletariat rising up in the enemy capital and raising the red flag) if it didn’t so accurately reflect the strategic thinking of the Soviet leadership. There was literally no preparation for defense within the borders (since people who talked about it were treated as defeatists and could be shot), and the refusal to allow retreat of any sort led to entire armies being surrounded and millions taken prisoner (over three million of whom died). This is not just about overconfidence.

  10. Oh, and thanks very much for the Solonin site, which looks well worth investigating!

  11. There was literally no preparation for defense within the borders
    This was also the case in Poland, as I learned recently from a German documentary. The French had signed an agreement in May 1939 with the Poles to attack Germany from the west in case the Germans attacked Poland, thus pulling Germany into a war on two fronts. The French advised the Poles to position the main part of their forces behind the natural line of defence formed by the Narew, Bug, Weichsel and San rivers. The Poles thought it was a better idea to retreat to this line only later, if forced to. This was because important armament industries were located within the area to the west of this line, in the former German territories of East Oberschlesia, and the Poles did not want to risk losing them immediately. So they positioned the main part of their army right at the border with Germany. The Polish generals had not quite grasped how inferior their armed forces were as compared with the Wehrmacht. (This summary is from the WiPe, starting there at Frankreich hatte der polnischen Regierung im Mai 1939 vertraglich zugesichert … )

  12. You can point out all the mitigating factors you please, but you can’t argue away the fact that vital time was lost while Stalin was refusing to believe the attack, and also that the defense of the country was compromised (very nearly fatally) by Stalin’s insistence on the idiotic “Attack! always attack! fight on the enemy’s soil!” doctrine so beautifully illustrated in the film «Если завтра война» [If tomorrow there's war], which would be funnier (with its tachanki, its mass cavalry battle, and the proletariat rising up in the enemy capital and raising the red flag) if it didn’t so accurately reflect the strategic thinking of the Soviet leadership. There was literally no preparation for defense within the borders (since people who talked about it were treated as defeatists and could be shot), and the refusal to allow retreat of any sort led to entire armies being surrounded and millions taken prisoner (over three million of whom died). This is not just about overconfidence.
    I regret having come across saying “it was just overconfidence”.
    What I think I was trying to say is that overconfidence, and a very real material superiority of the Red Army, look like the pieces that had been purposefully dropped from the puzzle.
    What you write about is very real, but can be seen in a new light with these additional factors.
    The seemingly well-founded belief of the leadership in not just numerical superiority of the Red Army, but also in it having superior equipment in overwhelming numbers, is the piece that explains the initial reaction of the leadership and the insistence on attack, not retreat. That their system was not supplying the leadership with adequate information and that part of the things they thought real only existed on paper was not something they could gauge well. And when they suspected as much their reaction was – and only could be – that of “more terror”, something that further deprived the system of the element of initiative.
    Solonin seems to me to argue that what the leadership – predictably – could not foresee was that the Red Army of 1941, being a part of their command system, was not really able to act in circumstances that were not mentioned in Politburo and Stavka directives. Coupled with initial lack of motivation at the low level, this produced a monster that was only able to achieve objectives when unopposed, and would totally collapse when attacked, despite its superior numbers and equipment.
    The sad truth is that this was probably a more important factor than the purges in explaining the initial phase of the war in the East. Any Soviet-style leadership was likely to fall in the same trap.
    The Pharaoh did have many more chariots; so many, in fact, that he thought that losses don’t count. He thought – rightly so, to a degree – that his problem was motivating the charioteers that, he thought, had betrayed him, their great leader. And, tragically, after millions had to die, he seemed to have succeeded in that, too, on his monstrous terms, because the foe was no better and didn’t offer any alternative.

  13. Thanks, your further explanation is convincing.
    the foe was no better and didn’t offer any alternative.
    It is remarkable that both the Whites in the Civil War and the Germans in WWII turned out to be so pointlessly and excessively brutal and so unwilling to make even minimal concessions that they fatally alienated populations who had been willing to welcome them with open arms because they hated Bolshevik rule so much.

  14. the Germans in WWII turned out to be so pointlessly and excessively brutal
    Kolchak’s offensive in 1918 collapsed largely because of his brutal reprisals against the peasants.
    As for Germans, there is a remarkable account of Rommel’s telephone conversation with Hitler’s ‘lackey’ Keitel. Fuhrer’s aid is asking ‘what shall we do now?’ after the Allies successful landed. ‘Make peace, you fools!’ shouts Rommel. Later, Rommel tells the same right to the face of Hitler when he visits another of his ‘wolf’s layers’ in Normandy. But it is too late, Hitler simply can’t seek peace after all he’d done.
    And Maxim’s comments about the stiffening influence of centralised control apply to Germany too. In Stalingrad Beevor points out how direct orders over radio and telegraph ham-strung commanders’ initiative on the ground. The same in Normandy.

  15. ‘wolf’s layers’
    Sashura, perhaps you mean ‘wolf’s lairs’ ? If you’re thinking of Wolfsschanze, there was only one, near Rastenburg in East Prussia. It was part of a bunker system that was operational headquarters of the German chiefs of staff, the part where Hitler spent most of his time from 1941 onwards. The military Schanze, however, is not a lair but a defensive, semi-entrenched earthwork in the battlefield.

  16. A Wolfsschlucht is a kind of ravine or lair to which wolves repair. I had to check, because I don’t know much about animal behavior. My first thought had been Wolfsbau, along the lines of Fuchsbau, but that didn’t seem right.

  17. As regards the title – “The living and the dead” – it has always struck me as one of the best novel titles I have seen, although it doesn’t sound as good in English.
    It also reminds me of the idea that war literature is bound to give a distorted perspective of any war, because it is inevitably written from the point of view of someone who has lived to tell the story. This makes the readers, even in spite of themselves, to imagine how they, too, would have lived. Applied to the Soviet part of WWII, this is a blatant distortion. It should be described from the point of view of the dead, because that’s what we would be, most likely, had we been under arms in 1941, unless we had a rare amount of luck or a gift for survival. The readers should feel how they would be about to die, with little gain for their cause or totally in vain, forgotten by the historian and the high command, and even such death wouldn’t be, and by far, the worst that could happen to them and their families.

  18. ‘wolf’s lairs’
    yes, of course, thanks for correcting me.
    There was also Werwolf to the North of Vinnitsa in the Ukraine and Wolfsschlucht 2 in Margival, near Soissons in northern France – that’s where the 17 June 1944 meeting took place.
    Шанец (shanets) has the same meaning in Russian as in German.

  19. the Germans in WWII turned out to be so pointlessly and excessively brutal and so unwilling to make even minimal concessions that they fatally alienated populations who had been willing to welcome them with open arms
    It’s a little more understandable when you remember that the chief material and ideological aim of the war as far as the Nazis were concerned was to eradicate those populations and replace them with ethnic Germans. An ideology that granted even limited rights of the local populations to be agents of their own destiny probably would never have started a war with the Soviet Union in the first place.

  20. J. W. Brewer says:

    Re Maxim’s point, does the title of the novel echo, to a Russophone ear, “живым и мертвым” in the Slavonic version of the Creed? The traditional English wording of the same piece of the Creed (“the quick and the dead”) seems to have ended up as a title for novels by such literary luminaries as Ellery Queen and Louis L’Amour. Mailer’s war novel “The Naked and the Dead” has by contrast perhaps a non-ecclesiastical inspiration.

  21. does the title of the novel echo, to a Russophone ear, “живым и мертвым” in the Slavonic version of the Creed?
    Well, it must, for those who had to learn the Creed by heart at some point. It very likely did for the author, who had been attending church services in his childhood. Furthermore, several characters in the novel use other Christian allusions, and the title phrase is actually uttered by one of them in the scene of an improvised court-martial as “and we, sinners, dead and alive” (“и мы, грешные, живые и мертвые”); this is very curious psychological trait of the atheist and the communist, perhaps a testimony to the religious overtones of Communism.

  22. so unwilling to make even minimal concessions
    Under normal circumstances, humans don’t make concessions to subhumans. “Boys throw stones at frogs in jest, but the frogs die in earnest.” This applies very clearly to the Nazis, but also to the Whites.

  23. J.W.Brewer -
    thanks for pointing that out, how exciting. I am Russian, but I’ve never thought that the title has a religious source. I’ve always thought of it as parallel to War and Peace – war/dead, peace/living. Now that you mentioned it, I think it most certainly does. It’s not just Simonov’s own background, it’s also that the Church was used during the war to stir patriotic feelings.
    This is the phrase in Russian:
    и опять имеющего придти со славою судить живых и мёртвых, Царству Которого не будет конца.
    Modern English:
    He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
    How come ‘quick’, in older versions, means ‘living’?

  24. politruk/commissar
    In 1942 Simonov serving in the army as a war correspondent had a rank of senior battalion commissar.

  25. J.W. Brewer says:

    Sashura, I respectfully refer you to the “etymology” and “archaic” subpieces of the wiktionary entry on “quick,” as well as some of the derived terms like quicksand and quicksilver. For the opposite side of the same metaphorical connection (movement = being alive, so absence of one = absence of other), see “still” as meaning “dead” in stillbirth/stillborn, and also in “still life” as a genre of paintings (possibly a calque of “nature morte”). There’s also a wikipedia article on “The Quick and the Dead (idiom),” but it doesn’t add much.

  26. It’s a little more understandable when you remember that the chief material and ideological aim of the war as far as the Nazis were concerned was to eradicate those populations and replace them with ethnic Germans. An ideology that granted even limited rights of the local populations to be agents of their own destiny probably would never have started a war with the Soviet Union in the first place.
    Oh, sure, it’s quite understandable; it’s a good illustration of how self-defeating the ideology was.

  27. How come ‘quick’, in older versions, means ‘living’?
    Because that was the original sense of the word; it’s related to Latin vivus and Greek bios.

  28. The Quick and the Dead
    thanks, I can see the light!
    if you look at the Russian wiki article on the film of that title with Sharon Stone, you’ll see a proof that the religious allusion is indeed lost to modern russophones. They tranlsated it as Быстрый (fast) and in singular – but so did all other languages I could read.
    I’ve seen an alternative translation of the title, Alive and Dead.

  29. J.W. Brewer says:

    as a fixed phrase in religious contexts it can already be found in Wycliffe’s 14th century translation of the Vulgate into Middle English, which renders Acts 10:42 as “And he comaundide to vs to preche to the puple, and to witnesse, that he it is, that is ordeyned of God domesman of the quyk and of deede.” Piers Plowman’s verse paraphrase of the Creed (maybe two decades later than Wycliffe) has “To demen þe quyke and þe dede.”

  30. actually, the Russian word живой also has a secondary meaning – quick, lively.

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