Unmossed Siberia.

I’m reading Pisemsky’s “Плотничья артель” [The carpenters’ cooperative], an 1855 story narrated by a landowner who has hired a mysterious fellow named Puzich to build a barn for him — he seems comically self-important, but turns out to be a moneylender who holds his fellow workers in his thrall. When the work is done and Puzich has left, the narrator gives vodka to the others, and the suddenly talkative Pyotr tells him his father was more intelligent than he is. Of course he asks why, and Pyotr says: “А потому он умней тебя был, что уж он бы, брат, Пузичу за немшоные стены не дал ста серебром — шалишь!” [He was smarter than you because he, brother, wouldn’t have given Puzich a hundred silver rubles for nemshonye walls — that’s nuts!] I hadn’t seen the adjective nemshony, but I guessed it had something to do with moss (мох [mokh]; compare the adjective мшистый [mshisty] ‘mossy’), and that turned out to be correct; Dahl has Мшить ‘to caulk the framework of a log house with moss,’ and adds: Сибирь немшеная, дразнят сибиряков [Siberians are teased/mocked with “unmossed Siberia”]. On the other hand, the insult went the other way as well; this site has: Расея немшёная, бран. – о жителях России, которые из-за бедности не строили домов на мху, как в Сибири» [“unmossed Russia,” insulting; said of inhabitants of Russia, who out of poverty did not build houses with moss as they do in Siberia]. I’ve learned a number of new words from this story (щурята are young pike — who would have guessed the offspring of a щука was a щурёнок?; красна = кросна ‘woven cloth’; мелево ‘grain to be ground’ or, figuratively, ‘windbag’), but this is my favorite so far.

Comments

  1. “who out of poverty did not build houses with moss as they do in Siberia”—I don’t get it. Why can’t poor people get moss?

  2. I wondered about that too. Any aficionados of log-house construction want to weigh in?

  3. marie-lucie says:

    Y, LH: “who out of poverty did not build houses with moss as they do in Siberia”

    I can’t read Russian, and the Russian sentence may be clear, but the English translation can be ambiguous about the status of “as they do in Siberia”: do “they” build with moss (as caulking) or not?

    The English mostly suggests that “they” do, but if Siberia is called insultingly or teasingly “unmossed”, then Siberian houses are not built with moss. So the poorest Russians, like the Siberians, are not using moss. Perhaps the moss in question is a specific type, or the Siberian landscape is mostly devoid of trees and therefore of moss, so that moss would have to be brought in from afar and the expense would be too much for the poorest inhabitants? (Other things can be used as caulking, including old rags, or some kind of plaster).

  4. I understand that any kind of caulking work was described by a verb “Мшить” – not just literally with moss but with any other fibrous material used for gaps between logs in a log-house ( “Пакля” may be rough flax or hemp fiber commonly used for this purpose).

    A log house without properly sealed gaps isn’t necessarily a measure of poverty, more of a haphazard take on life, of not taking ownership of one’s problems, of being a loser and not giving a damn. The word “немшоные” lends itself all the easier for derogatory use because of it the “sh” sound in it, all but required for a properly sounding cussword.

  5. PS: I was a bit surprised by the translation of артель as “cooperative” … you mean, there isn’t a more precise word in English? In some sense “artel” is a co-op, but a very specific kind of it – it’s a group of professionals contracting out a work project, usually away from home so they need to organize their logistics together, housing, cooking along with work duties. Need to make sure there are no slackers and the pay is fair, too. Some artels were paid by customers and many more were prospectors’ or fishermen coops paid by what they mine or what they catch. You mean that in the Western world, construction crews in the boondocks, or prospectors for precious metals, were never teamed up like this? “Cooperative” nowadays means a member-owned something and the artels hardly ever owned anything – their focus was on group survival in inhospitable conditions away from home.

  6. I was a bit surprised by the translation of артель as “cooperative” … you mean, there isn’t a more precise word in English?

    Nope. The Oxford dictionary says “артель f. artel (co-operative association of workmen or peasants).” So my alternative was to render it “artel,” which is ridiculous — if you know what an artel is you can probably read Russian anyway. At least “cooperative” gives the general idea.

  7. At least “cooperative” gives the general idea

    as compared with “crew”? People team up for work projects away from home in any country… and if the job is in construction, then my understanding is that this would be called a crew… (“cooperative association” is far too formal for a carpenters’ artel, which never even had any written documents or incorporation / ownership paperwork)

  8. Doubtless. But a crew would be all employees of a general contractor, which doesn’t fit the situation either.

  9. I hadn’t thought of “crew”; I don’t know that it’s better, for the reason JC gives, but it’s certainly worth considering.

  10. @m-l: The Russian can be read both ways, like the English, but my understanding is that here both the European Russians and the Siberians call the other side “unmossed”, so the sentence has to be read “the (European) Russians build their houses unmossed out of poverty, while the Siberians build mossed houses.”

  11. I took it the same way Hans did.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks Hans and LH, but why are Siberians called “unmossed” if they do in fact build “mossed houses”?

    And why is “moss” so important in the construction if it can be replaced by other substances? Is it an older tradition?

  13. The character of Puzich remained a mystery to me – everybody has a fate-given disposition in these stories, and you are supposed to understand how a person is by what’s the main gist of one’s upbringing or earlier life story – but it turns that Puzich is “explained” by his ethnicity (an Orthodox Tatar)

  14. @m-l: It’s that kind of denigrating the other group that doesn’t need to be based on fact – Russians saying “You Siberians are poor / sloppy and live in unmossed buildings” and the Siberians saying “No, you Russians are poor / sloppy and live in unmossed buildings.” I don’t think that there is more to that.
    @ Dmitry: Isn’t that simply an appeal to the prejudice, that Tatars are clever and a bit shifty (хитрые)? So more background isn’t needed?

  15. It’s that kind of denigrating the other group that doesn’t need to be based on fact – Russians saying “You Siberians are poor / sloppy and live in unmossed buildings” and the Siberians saying “No, you Russians are poor / sloppy and live in unmossed buildings.” I don’t think that there is more to that.

    Exactly! Compare the various attributions of syphilis to various nationalities.

  16. SFReader says:

    I checked Dahl and it says there something very different

    Сибирь немшоная, дразнят сибиряков, потому что никто из инородцев тамошних не мшит изб.

    It’s Siberian natives (инородцы) who don’t use this method, but presumably Siberian Russians do, just like in European Russia.

  17. SFReader says:

    Perhaps the insult went the other way, because peasants in European Russia were indeed much poorer than in Siberia and simply couldn’t any longer afford to use this old Russian method of construction.

  18. marie-lucie says:

    SFR, then what method did they have to use?

  19. SFReader says:

    They just skipped this step, I presume and lived in huts suffering from cold wind coming through the walls.

  20. Michael says:

    I have zero knowledge of Siberian log barns in the 1850s, but googling log houses in general, it looks as if you have two basic choices: either you scribe the underside of each log so that it sits snugly over the one below and is supported along its whole length, which is a lot of work, but doesn’t need much caulking; or you use logs more or less as found, but support them only at the ends, where they’re notched into the next wall, which allows you to leave horizontal gaps between them wide enough to take up any roughness or warping. This would be quicker and less work to build, but need lots of high maintenance filling (and not just with moss).

    Which doesn’t entirely explain ‘without moss’. But if local traditions varied between these extremes, there would have been plenty of room for accusations of sloppiness or bad workmanship. Were walls ‘without moss’ just walls where the caulking was inadequate or had fallen out? Perhaps in this case the moss was needed because Puzich’s carpenters were leaving gaps that shouldn’t have been there?

  21. @Michael: I understand that the standard method for a Russian log house is to make a groove in the underside of the upper log that looks like an arch (good) or an angle (bad) in cross-section. In this thread, one guy claims he can make that sort of U-groove with an axe alone (another one says he uses an axe with a bent blade). There’s also a consensus that caulking (mossing?) will be necessary in any case and that without the grooving, there’s no point in caulking at all.

    Nowadays, one can simply board up the walls from the outside and/or the inside, where you can also use plywood. But that was not an option for a poor settler in a remote area in the 19th century.

  22. Michael says:

    @ Alexei K: interesting that there’s evidently still some room for disagreement about methods, if only about the degree of machining – I don’t suppose anyone with access to power tools would ever be likely to be using logs in anything like a raw state, unless they were reviving an old tradition for its own sake.
    Googling images of pre 1900 log buildings, the gappier more rough and ready ones all seem to be American and the Russian ones generally better tailored (reflecting less cold winters, or more interest in preserving pioneering structures?). But unless you had a saw mill within easy reach the expense and skilled labour needed to make everything fit nicely together without gaps must often have been out of the question, especially, as you say, for a poor settler in a remote area.

  23. Very interesting — I’ve learned a lot from this thread!

  24. You can see some pictures of log houses here (English version doesn’t seem to have a link to that gallery). You can see caulking in several of them, e.g. here.

    As a kid (late 70s, early 80s) I did collect moss to renew caulking/mossing in the grandma’s house (it was boarded outside, you still need to moss it) and for the new баня (sauna).

  25. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks Uwe for this link! Amazing pictures of wooden churches too!

    In Canada there are quite a few log houses old and new. As in the Russian pictures, in some of them the logs are round, in others squared, and the house corners are shaped accordingly. New log houses are quite popular outside of town centres. There are companies specializing in providing the logs, cut to the required dimensions and plan. I have been in some of these houses, which are comfortable in both summer and winter. The air inside is also very pleasant to breathe. In some of them, inhabited for some years, I have seen rags stuffed between some of the logs.

  26. Amazing pictures of wooden churches too!

    Yes, I have a whole book of photos of such churches in Northern Russia, and I wish I could see some of them in person. Truly gorgeous architecture.

  27. marie-lucie says:

    juha, interesting wooden mosque, but not a “log mosque”.

  28. No, it isn’t, but it was also built without using nails or other iron parts.

  29. Finally, have a look at Norwegian stave churches.

  30. J.W. Brewer says:

    Would “uncaulked” be a more clear and/or idiomatic English translation than “unmossed”?

    FWIW there’s a separate tradition of wooden-church construction in the Carpathians, with this site listing examples built in the U.S. and Canada by the Ruthenian/West-Ukrainian diaspora: http://iabsi.com/gen/public/american_wooden_churches.htm. (Pretty old list; the one in Danbury Ct listed as just underway was in fact completed several years ago.)

  31. Would “uncaulked” be a more clear and/or idiomatic English translation than “unmossed”?

    Sure, but I was being super-literal to reflect the Russian word.

  32. The Old Ship Church (Unitarian) in Massachusetts and the Third Haven Meeting House (Quaker) in Maryland are the oldest surviving church(-like) wooden buildings in the U.S., both still with active congregations. 1681 is a long time ago by U.S. standards.

    There are about three dozen wooden houses in the U.S. that are older, notably the Loomis House (1640) in Windsor, Connecticut, and the Wyckoff House (ca. 1652) in Brooklyn. All the Loomises and Wyckoffs in the U.S., respectively, are thought to be descended from the original occupants of these houses. The Pickering House (ca. 1651) in Salem, Mass. was occupied by ten consecutive generations of Pickerings, probably a record for Euro-Americans. The House of the Seven Gables (1668), also in Salem, was made famous by Hawthorne’s 1841 novel of the same name. The Nothnagle Log House (ca. 1640) in New Jersey and the Lower Swedish Cabin (ca. 1645) in Pennsylvania are our oldest log houses, both within the former colony of New Sweden (most of which is now Delaware).

    Perhaps older than any of these is a nameless carpenter’s shed on Gardiners Island, a small island off the coast of eastern Long Island, N.Y. between the North and South Forks. Gardiners is itself an interesting place: King Charles I granted it as a separate proprietary colony to Lion [sic] Gardiner and his heirs forever in 1639, and it remains in the Gardiner family today, though now politically part of the Town of East Hampton, Suffolk County, New York. It is the only property still held by an undivided English Crown title in the U.S.; the current owner, Alexandra Gardiner Creel, has some claim to be the 17th Lady of the Manor. The shed was apparently built during the first year of the Gardiners’ occupation.

    WP’s list of the oldest U.S. buildings; you can see which ones are in wood by eyeballing the pictures. All but a few are now house museums, though the White Horse Tavern (1673) in Rhode Island is once again a restaurant.

  33. Why no picture of “A carpenter’s shed”?

  34. Private property, and no good way (short of overflight or satellite) to get a picture. Google Earth imagery: feel free to search for it visually.

  35. Sure, but the damn thing’s been there for almost 400 years and photography (or precursor) has been around for almost 200; you’d think somebody somewhere along the line would have taken a picture. Or for that matter done a drawing.

  36. David Marjanović says:

    1681 is a long time ago by U.S. standards.

    It’s noticeable by European standards, too! The Thirty-Years War lasted from 1618 to 1648, “Empress” Maria Theresia reigned from 1640 to 1680…

    The Qīng dynasty took over China in 1644.

  37. Trond Engen says:

    Мшить ‘to caulk the framework of a log house with moss,’

    Norw. møsje. Scandinavians got the technique of laft from Eastern Europe. I remember an exchange with Dmitry on this very subject a couple of years ago.

    Swedish Wikipedia tells me that imber houses were introduced to colonial North America by Swedish/Finnish settlers along the lower Delaware river, and that some of those original houses are still there.

  38. I remember an exchange with Dmitry on this very subject a couple of years ago.

    yes, every time I think about the traditional “chasha” (bowl) seam between loghouse logs, I am tempted to re-tell the story of River Kus’ carpenters, but then I remember that I already shared it 🙂

  39. It’s a great story, and I urge everyone to go read it!

  40. J.W. Brewer says:

    Why is John C. slighting the notability of the Fairbanks House? You’ve gotta admit that “oldest surviving timber-frame house in North America that has been verified by dendrochronology testing” is a pretty carefully-phrased claim as these things go …

  41. I’m not, I just picked the ones that had features that interested me. That house didn’t quite make the cut.

  42. There is a film of log construction in present day Russia here: they’re bedding each log in the moss like mortar, as they go, literally ‘building with moss’ (as opposed to packing it in afterwards, as the word caulking maybe suggests), and a more impressive Finnish one, using hand tools and squared logs.

    But what happened when there wasn’t a plotnik, or you couldn’t afford him?

    Annoyingly, I can’t find any Russian examples of not so elegant log construction, only lots of American ones. One example is the Lower Swedish Cabin in the WiPe list, which is built with logs that are barely worked at all beyond notching the ends, leaving gaps much too wide to stuff with moss. Fort Misery also, though if you’re building a fort, I guess speed is a priority.

    It does seem that moss goes with skilled, painstaking construction. If you’re rushed or unskilled and it’s 1850, then you’ll have gaps that need something more substantial to fill them, stones or branches and mud or mortar.

    If allegedly they weren’t using moss in Siberia, or Russia, then that was because they either lacked the skill to cut bowl seams, or couldn’t afford to. Or were, unlike Uwe’s family, too feckless to do repairs.

    Perhaps the point about Puzich’s nemshony walls is, if it’s done right, you don’t see the moss.

  43. Just followed that link to Dmitry’s comment. He mentions the campaign against kulaks which made me look up the word in Wikipedia. I’d always thought that it was a term made up by the Bolsheviks, but apparently it had been used for quite some time before the revolution.

  44. Oh, yeah, it goes way back. It’s in Dahl, as that link says, Pisemsky in 1852 writes “Это был не кулак-мужик,” and Gogol has it many times in Dead Souls: “«Экой кулак!» ― сказал про себя Чичиков,” “Нет, кто уж кулак, тому не разогнуться в ладонь!,” “«Кулак, кулак! ― подумал про себя Чичиков, ― да еще и бестия в придачу!»,” “По два с полтиною содрал за мертвую душу, чертов кулак!” The only earlier example I’ve found is from Документы следственных дел Ваньки Каина и других московских преступников (1741-1752): “…он , Савелий, Иван Стромынской, да Парусной фабрики матрозы Василей Заболдин, Никифор Суета, да незнаемо чину Сидор Евдокимов, да незнаемо какова чину кулак, которой торгует хлебом, а как ему имя, не знает, и были при них палки.”

    (I don’t know what the exact shade of meaning is in each of these cases, but it clearly refers to people and not fists.)

  45. What I have learned from this thread is that some kind of moss is one of the ingredients (perhaps the main ingredient) in the traditional log house sealant in Russia. Surely it was not used as a filler, it must have some insulation value and/or glue-like properties.

    “There is a film of log construction in present day Russia here: they’re bedding each log in the moss like mortar, as they go, literally ‘building with moss’”

    This method would require enormous quantities of the moss-mortar. The moss-gathering must have been extremely time consuming so I suspect the mortar cost a great deal more than the timber.

    I would really like to see pictures of this very special moss.

  46. Michael says:

    @AThRd: pictures on the link. They slather it on, then cut off the surplus. In fact the Finnish guys may be using something else – hair or rags possibly. Moss can be squashed into gaps and is available free in forests, but I wouldn’t want it to take over a language thread!

  47. marie-lucie says:

    Michael, it is true that “moss is available free in forests”, but some areas have very few trees, and some mosses must be better than others for the job (there are many, many moss species).

  48. Michael says:

    marie-lucie, AThRd, I’m sorry if I sounded dismissive – I was concerned that my comments on moss as a building material were becoming tedious. Like lichens and grasses I find mosses very beautiful and can well see how someone might spend a lifetime studying them, but I’m deeply ignorant about them. The Russians were using what looked to me like a kind of Sphagnum, but the Finns had something drier and more fibrous, more like animal hair. I think its function was just as packing, to enable joints to fit tightly together as a structure and keep out draughts, without wasting effort on excessive precision. Nobody seemed to be using a great quantity, or being careful about how much they used. I’ve no idea how sustainable the supply would be; I’d guess any synthetic alternative would cost a lot more. I believe insulating board can be made from compressed moss, or used to be, but I may be making that up.

  49. Trond Engen says:

    I don’t think the insulation effect of the moss was significant. It was used as an elastic filler. Norwegian Wikipedia says that Norwegian tradition used a V-shaped trace on the upper log, carved with a special tool to track the curve of the lower log. Husmose “housemoss” (Hylocomium splendens) and some related species were used to fill the V-shaped trace and the remaining gaps between the logs. This moss is slightly expansive when drying, so it was laid out wet on the log and compressed by the next log before the surplus was cut off.

  50. Michael says:

    Thanks, Trond!

  51. Moss was also the main caulking material for the planked boats which plied the White Sea as late as the 19th century.

  52. Dmitry Pruss’ 2013 plotniki comment has interesting information on the carpentry term lafet, which we discussed here in 2010.

    It also mentions the guild’s preferred technology: “traditionally dismissive of any tools other than ax.”

  53. I got that from a secondary source. For reference, the authority on this kind of boat is an 1859 work by Bogosławski, in Russian, very rare but digitized here. It has lots of obscure boat terms, for those who would wallow in such.

  54. Trond Engen says:

    To wallow in Norwegian boat terms, let me add this interesting thesis on caulking materials in Scandinavian boatbuilding from 500 BCE to 1700 CE. It came up as the very first hit when googling in Norwegian for moss in shipbuilding, since I had never heard of.that. (The first paragraph of the introduction states that wool and animal hairs are considered typical of Scandinavian traditon while moss and other plant materials were common elsewhere.)

  55. Trond Engen says:

    on caulking materials

    That would be “on caulking and luting materials”, upon closer reading. In precise terminology it’s luting where the boards overlap. Caulking corresponds to No. drev, transparently from the verb drive, while luting corresponds to si, a word I vaguely knew but have no idea how to etymologize.

    Edit: It must have something to do with Icel. ‘simi’.

  56. To wallow in Norwegian boat terms, let me add this interesting thesis on caulking materials in Scandinavian boatbuilding from 500 BCE to 1700 CE.

    Take me, I’m yours.

  57. A bit off topic. Have you seen this lecture on Dahl and his lexicography?
    http://arzamas.academy/materials/1100
    I was particularly amused by the final chapter, about the editors of a Russian law enforcement’s secret dictionary of prison slang lifting whole layers of language from Dahl’s more obscure entries, with numerous funny mistakes added for good measure.

  58. Thanks very much for that! The more I’ve used Dahl over the years, the more I’ve come to appreciate and love that wonderful compilation of a living language. One thing I don’t understand is why Russians universally seem to cling to the Soviet reprint of the second edition (preferred by the Soviets because of the lack of obscenities); the third edition (1903-09, enlarged by the linguist Baudouin de Courtenay and reprinted as the fourth ed. 1912-14) is far superior from a linguistic point of view, and it includes мат, so why wouldn’t modern Russians use a post-Soviet reprint version of it, like I do?

  59. This anecdote has already made me laugh loudly and repeatedly (I’m laughing now as I think of it):

    С детства советский читатель узнавал, как юный офицер Даль начал собирать словарь, услышав от ямщика необычное слово «замолаживает». (В свою оче­редь, рядом с этой историей появился ёрнический анекдот: «Замолаживает, — повторил ямщик и добавил: — надо бы потолопиться, балин. Холошо бы до ве­чела доблаться. Но-о-о!»)

  60. I laughed louder at this passage about the “police lexicographer” unaware of both old spelling rules and Dahl’s system of abbreviations:

    Так, слово агрегат стало значить «слежка» (в смысле полицейское наблюдение), хотя у Даля контекст такой: «что либо по внешности целое, но бессвязное, составное; сбор, избор, подбор, скоп; спай, слежка, сгнетка». Перед нами типичная для Даля попытка подо­брать среди исконных слов синонимов-замену для иностранного, и слежка (через е) здесь значит «нечто слежавшееся» (а слѣжка от слова слѣдить писа­лось через «ять»). Совсем анекдотичен мнимый арготизм скрин — «ночь»; плагиатор не понял далевской записи скрин, скринка, -ночка, то есть «скрин, скринка или скриночка». И значит это слово не «ночка», а «сундук»

  61. I hadn’t gotten to that yet, but yes, that’s hilarious!

  62. An interesting bit that’s worth translating:

    В узком кружке коллег-врачей, который собирался у Даля в Нижнем Новго­роде, разговаривали по-латыни и играли в шахматы вчетвером.

    In the narrow circle of his fellow doctors who gathered at Dahl’s place in Nizhny Novgorod, they spoke Latin and played chess four together.

  63. I liked the story of Baudouin de Courtenay listing “King of Jerusalem” as his occupation on the police paperwork.

  64. “Скриня” means “chest” in Ukrainian (“скрынка” in Belarusian). A. K. Tolstoy wrote in Ilya Murometz:

    Душно в Киеве, что в скрине…

    A folk etymologist could argue that it’s dark in a closed chest – children playing hide-and-seek can attest to that – so “night” is only a step away.

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