The Podlipnayans.

Russian literature is constantly surprising me. Sometimes I start a novel I’ve been looking forward to and give up in disgust after a hundred pages; sometimes I think I’ll just cast an eye at something because it was famous or controversial in its day and wind up getting hooked and reading the whole thing. Such is the case with Fyodor Reshetnikov‘s only well-known work, the 1864 Подлиповцы (The Podlipnayans). Reshetnikov was a provincial with a decidedly unliterary background: his father was a drunk who ran off shortly after his birth; his mother died shortly after taking him to Perm when he was less than a year old; he was left in the care of an uncle who worked for the post office and expected him to follow the same career, flogging him when he was playful or distracted and unable to concentrate on lessons; he went to a seminary where he was beaten so badly he almost died; he ran away, lived with workers and beggars, and began to read whatever materials he found lying around. He eventually found employment as a clerk in Perm and started trying to write; he got an article published in a local paper, moved to Petersburg, and wrote The Podlipnayans.

It’s one of the strangest novels I’ve ever read. It’s said to be a realistic novel about barge-haulers (бурлаки), and that’s not untrue, but no barges are encountered until two-thirds of the way through and nobody hauls one until nearly the end (when the boats are going upstream from Perm). It’s actually a detailed and occasionally surrealistic account of the miserable lives of Pila and Sysoiko (the nicknames by which they are univerally known — at one point when they get arrested and the police ask their full names, they are unable to provide them). They are an inseparable pair of friends who have roles rather than personalities; they reminded me of of Vladimir and Estragon. The story begins in the tiny, wretched village Podlipnaya, north of Cherdyn in Perm province; it has half a dozen huts in a state of collapse, the soil can barely produce crops, the people and animals are constantly on the verge of starvation, and no one has any initiative or apparent desire to keep living except Pila. When he gets fed up with the misery and deaths he persuades his best friend Sysoiko to try life as bargemen, and off they go, joining a stream of similarly desperate villagers converging on the Chusovaya River, where they hear men are being hired.

That first part of the novel is so grim (it’s a good example of chernukha, the literature of the dark side of life Lizok is so fond of) that I might have given up if it hadn’t been for the eerily matter-of-fact way it’s written — it reminded me of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, although Reshetnikov isn’t a patch on Solzhenitsyn as a literary artist. Increasingly awful things happen, but they are just aspects of life in this godforsaken part of the world; there is no finger-wagging or explicit moral drawn. Eventually they get out, and things improve… for a while.

The portrayal of these utterly ignorant peasants is riveting. Peasants, of course, had been frequent characters in Russian literature for decades, but they were usually under the command of owners and overseers, with at least some knowledge of the wider world. Pila and Sysoiko have never seen any settlement larger than the nearby town where they occasionally go so the deacon can bury their dead (for which he demands an exorbitant fee, though he then feels sorry for them and treats them to drinks and a meal); when they get to Usolye they gawk at the urban life (and wish they had the good luck to get a job in the salt works, where at least you’re warm), and when they hit Perm itself, they feel it must be the biggest city in the world. I felt I was getting an insight into a truly primitive worldview (one with which the author was intimately acquainted — it is drawn with no tinge of mockery or condescension).

But there’s something more, something weirder (it started reminding me of Platonov). Pila and Sysoiko draw closer and closer, spending all their time together and asking what they would do without each other. At one point they’re talking about death, and the following exchange occurs:

– И мы, поди, не помрем? – спросил на это Сысойко.
– Как не помрем – все помирают. А все бы теперь лучше…
– А ты живи: я-то как без тебя?
– Ну, и ты помри.

“And we, I guess, won’t die?” asked Sysoiko.
“What do you mean we won’t die, everybody dies. And it would be better now anyway…”
“But you have to go on living; what would I do without you?”
“Well, then you should die.”

And later Pila says “Сысойко, зачем ты не баба?” [Sysoiko, why aren’t you a woman?]. I have no idea what Russians made of that in the 1860s.

There are various elements of linguistic interest. Reshetnikov was one of the first Russian authors to present dialectal speech realistically (for which he was castigated by purist critics); characters say “Бают, баско там” for ‘They say it’s good there,’ and there are fine local words like лонись ‘last year.’ There’s this pleasing passage:

На ругань не обращалось внимания ни отцом, ни прочими бурлаками, так как бранное непечатное словцо было для всех обыкновенным, как в дружеской беседе, так и при удивлении, и как ласка; им выражалась и злость, и досада.

Neither their father nor the other bargemen paid attention to their cursing, since unprintable curse words were common to all of them, in friendly conversation, to show surprise or tenderness as well as anger and annoyance.

They spend time with non-Russians, who are quoted in their own languages; a Komi says Кыдче мунан ‘Where are you going?’ and Илыся лок тысь ‘From far away?’ And there’s a passage starting “В кучках сидят преимущественно люди разных названий: татары с татарами, черемисы с черемисами, подлиповцы с подлиповцами и т. д., так что воздух оглашается разными наречиями…” [Different kinds of people sat in groups: Tatars, Cheremis, Podlipnayans, and so on, so that the air resounded with different forms of speech…]. I can’t say it’s a great novel, but (for me, anyway) it was a great read, and I recommend it if it sounds like it might be one for you.


  1. I think you should mention that these people are not ethnic Russians, they speak Komi-Permyak language and apparently are still pagans to boot.

    The Podlipnayans speak Permyak language. Bad at understanding our words, they can pronounce them, but in a warped way. Their Russian speech is like a speech of peasants of Vyatka and Vologda provinces.

  2. I am, indeed, fond of чернуха and this book does sound interesting, Languagehat. Beyond what you write about the novel and Reshetnikov’s obvious love for language, his brief bio is intriguing: prosecuted at age fourteen for stealing mail and sentenced to a three-month term at a monastery!?

    On a side note, I’d never heard the expression “isn’t a patch on” so thank you for that, too!

  3. You’re welcome, and I look forward to your report if you get around to reading it!

  4. In modern Permyak Komi (or Komi-Permyak) that’d be кытчӧ мунан? ‘Where are you going?’ and ылісь локтіс ‘S/he came from far away’. Theoretically it could even be Yazva Komi, as Cherdyn is close to the Yazva area, but the corresponding forms are slightly different (көччө мунан? өлисянь локтіс, with a different separative case in the word meaning ‘from far away’), so Permyak is more likely (and has always had many more speakers anyway).

  5. Wow, I didn’t expect to get a detailed analysis of the quoted Komi — thanks, and I’m impressed it’s so accurate!

  6. I wondered how the translator dealt with the Komi and dialect forms, so I tried to check, and apparently I was mistaken about there having been a translation — I was misled by a reference to Thomas J. Stacy’s 1974 PhD dissertation “F. M. Reshetnikov’s The Podlipnayans.” Glad I got that cleared up (but now I wish somebody would translate it).

  7. Worldcat has the same problem: it correctly tags Stacy’s work as a dissertation, but it lists Reshetnikov as a co-author! That would make anyone assume it’s a translation.

    “Data without context is lies.”

  8. I mean, maybe he included a translation as part of his diss? It’s not a long novel, and that’s a long dissertation. But I can find no mention of it.

  9. J.W. Brewer says:

    I had been wondering about the title, since “The Podlipnayans” is rather more of a transliteration than a title, and you’d think someone hoping to increase sales of a commercially-published English version might come up with a different title that would sell better. Although for all I know the title is just as uncommercially opaque to Russophones?

  10. Glad to be of service. Подлиповцы (Podlipovtzy) is a standard way to say “people from Подлипная (Podlipnaya)”. Or, more precisely, one of the usual possibilities. The English title is obviously reproduces similar place-name to demonym change. Под-лип-н-ая means something like “under the lime tree”

  11. Cherdyn is at the very edge of linden tree areal so I’m quite surprised that a village there would be called “Under-lindens”, a common place name typically associated with South-Central Russia.

  12. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    The Podlipnayans sound like they belong in Gulliver’s Travels.

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