Veltman’s Displaced Prison.

I’m getting closer to the halfway point of Veltman’s Приключения, почерпнутые из моря житейского (Adventures drawn from the sea of life — see this LH post), and I want to translate the beginning of Book Three (it’s pretty long, so I won’t provide the Russian; you can go to the linked text and Ctrl-F for “Часть седьмая” and read what follows):

My readers probably have some idea of Moscow either from various “Voyages en Russie” or from a journal of impressions. From the former, they will doubtless have formed a clear idea of its outward appearance, and from the latter, of its inhabitants, mores, and customs. From these descriptions you know that the Kremlin stands beside the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, that the Sukharev Tower is by the Tver Gate [on Tverskaya Street], that the Tver Gate is on Prechistenka Street, that the Moscow River flows right under Zamoskvorechye, and so on. There is, therefore, no need to describe Moscow for you; you know it as well as befits a Russian person. I’ll get down to my story.

One foggy August day a carriage pulled by four horses rolled up to the Krestovskaya barrier-gate. The sentry was about to lower the barrier, but a servant called out “From the Moscow region!” and the carriage passed freely.

In the carriage sat two gentleman. One, thickset and appearing to be a Moscow landowner, was leaning back in a corner and dozing; the other — thin, squinting, with a pale face and a significant look — appeared to be a Petersburg department head or official for special assignments; in a word, his face was significant, and in his personal opinion even of statesmanlike significance.

“At last I am in Moscow!” said the latter, raising a lorgnette to his eye; “Let us see what sort of a beast Moscow is! Please point out to me anything of interest.”

As soon as there appeared on the right a Gothic building enclosed in battlements and towers like a knightly castle of the Middle Ages, the young man again held his lorgnette to his eye and cried:

“Is that the Kremlin?”

“Yes,” answered the thickset landowner, not opening his eyes. The Petersburger flew past. Let us leave the Petersburger and follow the crowd of shackled prisoners being led along the street. A woman in simple peasant dress was being carried along behind them on a cart. When this whole consignment [транспорт] neared the locked gates of the castle, before which there was no drawbridge, the sentry waved toward a small gate with a little barred window; the corporal escorting the consignment was the first allowed in, and then they opened the hell-gate, which, opening like the jaws of a beast of the Apocalypse, swallowed the whole consignment and closed with a gnashing of teeth.

In the interior courtyard of this castle were strolling what in reality were not people but dark shadows. We will not describe the human form distorted by passions and crimes. Someone in a worn overcoat and peaked cap separated himself from the ugly crowd and, hands in his pockets, walked quickly down the courtyard. From his face and glances you could see that he too had staked his soul, but his appearance did not show any deep impressions of crime, nor was there an answer in his eyes to anyone else’s soul. He was still, it appeared, a newcomer, looking at the high walls surrounding him and the “honored company” without surprise but with a certain special curiosity, as if he were asking himself where the devil he had wound up.

More than meets the eye is going on with that first paragraph. Not only is it amusing in itself, muddling up the sights of Moscow (the Sukharev Tower is nowhere near the Tver Gate, which is nowhere near Prechistenka), but it sets up the Petersburger’s mistake of thinking a building he sees shortly after entering the city is the Kremlin. However, I think Veltman is doing something else as well. The mistakes follow a pattern: you have to go counterclockwise from the Sukharev Tower to get to the Tver Gate, and from the latter to get to Prechistenka. As far as I can tell, there is no battlemented building just inside the Krestovskaya (also called Troitskaya) barrier-gate, in the center of the north wall of the city (a застава, what I am calling a barrier-gate, is where internal passports were checked to make sure the bearers had the right to enter the city), but if you go counterclockwise from that gate, the next one is the Dmitrovskaya or Butyrskaya (there’s a useful map and listing at this Wikipedia page), and if you enter that gate, not far ahead to the right was (and still is) the Butyrka, Moscow’s famous (and dreaded) central transit prison. I suspect that is what Veltman is describing, cleverly displacing it to avoid arousing the attention of the censors. I also can’t remember encountering an earlier description of a prison (the passage goes on to an account of a new arrival being threateningly accosted by an inmate); I had thought Dostoevsky’s Записки из мёртвого дома (Notes from the House of the Dead or Notes from the Dead House; see this LH post) was the first account of prison life in Russian literature, but now I’m thinking it was Veltman’s. I’ll be curious to hear what those who know more about Moscow and Russian literature think of these surmises.


  1. Protopop Avvakum’s autobiography ought to be the first. It contains many passages regarding prison life and it was written in prison in Pustozersk.

  2. I cannot help with earlier description of prison life in Russian literature, but Veltman almost certainly describes Butyrka. Moscow geography according to Veltman (or, if you wish, according to “Voyages en Russie” and “impressions”) is indeed hilarious. Few minor points.
    and in [my? his?] personal opinion. Certainly his. This high-ranking bureaucrat is the one who thinks even more highly of himself. And according to him he is even a statesman not a person of public importance. Veltman writes about 19th century Russia. Even the notion of “public” in the meaning of general public probably didn’t exist then and there. You cannot lump together landed aristocracy, people in state service, peasants (free and serfs), townsfolk, business people, clergy, etc.

    official on special assignment should be official for special assignments [чиновник по особым поручениям]. It was a fixed position in Russian bureaucracy, not a one time job.

  3. And one more thing. I think that “zastava” for entering the city was for the purpose of alcohol tax collection. Alcohol excise taxes were a major source of revenue and so high that Russians prefered to make their own drink (I’m not sure Russia was all that different from the rest of Europe and even the US at that time in this respect). The government didn’t object if it was not sold on the market, so the land-owners could have private distilleries for their own (and their guests) consumption. And if they were from around Moscow, they also had a right to bring their samogon to the city to drink themselves. Everyone else had to pay and was subject to search at the entry point.

  4. D.O.: Thanks very much, that’s all extremely helpful! I’ll fix the personal opinion, statesman, and special assignment bits; as for the zastava, Wikipedia (linked above) says that from 1754 to 1852 they involved “полицейские посты внутреннего паспортного контроля,” and in this and other novels Veltman shows people faking their way past the posts in order to get into the city, so although I’m sure you’re right that alcohol was an important issue, I think passport control was a primary function.

  5. “Из подмосковной!” is more specific than “from the Moscow region” – it is “from a suburban estate / landholding”.

    The city “geography for the non-local readers” is a hoot. And the old Butyrka is indeed a Neogothic classic, and the only Muscovite prison formally known as “замок” (Castle), and it’s reasonably close to the former Krestovskaya Zastava, but it doesn’t have turreted walls (~ обнесенное зубчатыми стенами) – it is only the castle towers which have turrets. Perhaps it had matching wall in Veltman’s time?

    I stumbled on the word “не кобянься” ~~ “don’t be pretentious” (?) in the dialog which follows – we just wondered about its etymology / original meaning a couple weeks ago, for a completely different reason…

  6. “Из подмосковной!” is more specific than “from the Moscow region” – it is “from a suburban estate / landholding”.

    Yeah, but there’s a limit to how much information you can cram into a single shouted phrase of dialogue.

  7. BTW I don’t think the prison is displaced in the story – it is the Kremlin which is displaced in the imagination of a silly out-of-towner, but Butyrka Prison emerges in its correct place, as if you take Suschevsky Val from Krestovskaya and continue into town, the Prison Castle would be on your right indeed. It’s out of sight today, hidden behind a newer building, but in those days its outer fence abutted the street.

  8. Are you sure you’re thinking of the right zastava? Look at this map from 1850 or this one from 1836; the Butyrka is clearly visible at the upper left, and there is no easy way to get to it from the Krestovskaya zastava (marked Troitskaya on the maps). There was no Suschevsky Val in those days, just the Kamer-Kollezhsky Val, and there is no indication that the carriage veered hard right immediately upon passing the zastava and galloped a long way to the next zastava and then veered hard left — why on earth would anyone have done that? No, they went straight ahead (on Meshchanskaya according to the fake geography of the passage, but actually on Novoslobodskaya, the corresponding street leading to the center from the Miusskaya/Butyrskaya/Dmitrovskaya zastava) and the Butyrka was just ahead on the right, where the text says it was.

  9. Right, I was being totally anachronistic, not only was Kamer-Kollezhsky Val far from becoming a chain of streets in Veltman’s time, but in fact Suschevsky used to stop more than half mile short of Krestovskaya Sq even in my days! (To get my bike to Riga R.R. I would pedal it to Kuntsevo first, then hop on a commuter train crossing town to Rzhevskaya Station, but occasionally there were cancellations on the inner city branch, and then the brand-new Suschevsky Val section offering connection between with Belorussian and Riga Terminals was like godsend)

  10. > […] the Butyrka, Moscow’s famous (and dreaded) central transit prison.

    Stupid question: what is a “transit prison”? The phrase gets plenty of Google-hits, but none of them seems to define it. Is it where those condemned to deportation (to Siberia?) are temporarily locked up?

  11. official on special assignment should be official for special assignments [чиновник по особым поручениям]. It was a fixed position in Russian bureaucracy, not a one time job.

    Besides variations on “official/public servant/bureaucrat/officer/civil servant for/on/with special assignment(s)/duties,” that position has been translated as “troubleshooter” and (by Charles Moser and at least one other) “special agent.” I like “special agent,” even if it sounds a bit cloak-and-dagger.

  12. Yes, “transit prison” (Russ. пересыльная тюрьма) houses prisoners waiting for transportation to their final destination, usually hundreds / thousands miles away from home. In Czarist times the prisoners had to walk all the way to Siberia, stage-style, some 15 miles a day. In the second half of the XIX c. Butyrka took on the role of the Central Transit Prison, collecting prisoners from all over European Russia before they were set on foot Eastward. But from 1937 on, the transit function has been transferred to Krasnaya Presnya Prison, which abutted Presnya RR Station, and the prisoners were transported by rail.


  1. […] Languagehat’s latest foray into Vel’tman (the comments and the post are both delightful) includes a link explaining the Palladius system for rendering Chinese characters in the Russian alphabet (the syllable hui doesn’t follow the general system for reasons of taboo avoidance). There’s also a passage in Vel’tman with some deliberately and amusingly distorted Moscow geography. […]

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