As part of my ambitious attempt to understand what happened in Russia in the years before 1917, I’m reading The Years by Vasily V. Shulgin, the memoirs of an aged reactionary looking back on his Duma days from a distance of half a century. I thoroughly disapprove of his principles, but he’s a charming writer and was probably a lot of fun to hang out with. In the chapter “War,” he describes how he heard about the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand on June 15(28), 1914; he was interrupted by a telephone call from the newspaper he edited while he was in the middle of a drinking bout at a Kiev cabaret. He had just been having the following interaction with one of the gypsy singers:
Then the gypsy with the high cheekbones, who was awfully nice, a stranger, but already a close friend, would smile broadly and repeat something over and over in the gypsy language.
Ah, in the gypsy language? I’m no worse than she. And I answered her in the gypsy language with the only phrase I knew: “Tu nadzhinəs someə takə norakirava. A mə takə ser-so səu mussel.”
The first words mean: “You, dear friend, do not understand anything.”
The rest is in such an old dialect that many gypsies nowadays do not understand it. And it is better that the reader not understand it. But Ducia, the gypsy with the high cheekbones, understood it, and Niura also. And they, and the others after them, began to carry on so, that I decided I must put an end to it….
I, dear friends, do not understand anything. And you can imagine my frustration. I know it’s a long shot, between the “old dialect” and the octogenarian memory, but can anyone decipher those tantalizing sentences, with their oddly exact-looking schwas?