Bely’s Letaev Novels.

I’ve spent the last three weeks reading two of Andrei Bely’s maddeningly difficult novels, Котик Летаев (1917-18, translated by Gerald Janecek as Kotik Letaev) and its continuation, or sequel if you prefer, Крещеный китаец (1921, translated by Thomas R. Beyer as The Christened Chinaman, available online here). I’ve posted about Bely a number of times, reviewing Серебряный голубь (The Silver Dove), Петербург (Petersburg), Симфония (2-я, драматическая) [Symphony: Second, Dramatic], and a translation of all four Symphonies, and while these are in one sense not like any of the others (they focus on the impressions of a small child and have almost nothing in the way of a plot), in another they’re clearly part of the same web of prose: his musical style gets more so, his love of archaic, dialectal, and invented words becomes stronger, and his overriding sense of a dialectic between East and West is sharpened. Here this is personified in the figure of Professor Letaev, the father of little Kotik (clearly modeled on Bely’s own father, Nikolai Bugaev — Andrei Bely, “Andrew White,” is of course a pseudonym); he is a mathematician, with Western rationality, but also a highly eccentric man who represents the “Scythian” East, whence the ridiculous title “The Christened Chinaman” that Bely gave it on its 1927 book publication. The original journal version was called Преступление Николая Летаева [The crime/transgression of Nikolai Letaev], which is far superior, since such plot as there is focuses on the protagonist’s sense of guilt at causing (he thinks) the rift between his rationalist father and his music-loving mother, who increasingly resented her husband and became violent when he seemed to be influencing their son, at one point beating Kotik for showing signs of “premature development” (and having his father’s “big forehead”). I don’t understand critics who claim that the title was changed because he hadn’t gotten around to describing the crime (the later parts of the novel were apparently lost); it’s explicitly said that his “crime” is what I described above. And I don’t understand critics who separate the two novels, or (like Janecek in his essay on Kotik Letaev for the Reference Guide to Russian Literature) discuss one without mentioning the other — they are clearly parts of a single whole, and I could quote entire paragraphs that only a very diligent Belyologist could identify as coming from one or the other.

All that said, do I recommend these novels? I have no idea. The language is very, very difficult; I had to consult the translations and their annotations with depressing frequency, and even then some usages remained incomprehensible to me. And the unvarying dactylic rhythm (perhaps explained by Bely’s perception of the novels as constituting an epic) maddened some critics (like Gleb Struve), who found it boring and mannered; I enjoy it, possibly because I’ve read so much epic verse the meter feels natural to me and sweeps me along. (Also, it’s useful in showing which syllable Bely stressed in some words.) Of course, if you read them in English these will not be problems for you (neither translator tried to reproduce the rhythm); then all you have to deal with is the emphasis on childish perceptions (which sometimes reminded me uncomfortably of The Family Circus), the lack of plot, and the frequent allusions to the anthroposophical theories of Rudolf Steiner. If those don’t put you off, go for it; these are not classics like Petersburg, but they give a striking child’s-eye view of the world and some glimpses of Moscow in the 1880s.

An interesting word I pluck more or less at random is алтабаз [altabaz], more usually written алтабас [altabas], which is a kind of Persian brocade and is apparently from Turkish altynbäz. If anyone (Xerîb?) knows more about it, do tell.


  1. Бязь must be from bäz as well. Altabaz is attested in 17th century so it could came from Polish (altembas etc.)…

  2. John Cowan says

    Altynbäz is apparently Ottoman rather than Turkish. The modern Turkish form is altınbaş ‘muskmelon, any of the reticulata (rough-skinned) cultivars of Cucumis melo‘, what are called cantaloupes in the U.S. and Australia. (The lack of vowol harmono in altynbäz is the giveaway.) In the U.K. and Ireland, cantaloupe is applied to Cucumis melo cantalupensis, after a former Papal estate in the province of Rieti in the Sabine Hills. What the connection between fruit and fabric is, I don’t know.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    “The Christened Chinaman” would be an unexceptional name for an American work of fiction published in the 1920’s, presumably some sort of lowbrow pulp thriller, but would be quite odd for a new work published in 1991 (apparent year of publication for the English translation), even if it had some sort of retro period setting. Does the translator’s choice as to how to English the title reflect a “period” and outdated feel in the Russian title that the translator wanted to echo, or would the Russian title remain cromulent-sounding for a newer work?

  4. The Russian title is perfectly ordinary; the problem is that we do not have a word for a single Chinese person since the term “Chinaman” fell out of use. “The Christened Chinese” would imply a multitude. What would you suggest as an alternative? “The Person from China Who Had Gotten Christened”?

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    The google n-gram viewer does not really support my impression that “christened” has likewise declined sharply in usage. However, a quick skim of COCA hits tends to confirm my backup theory that there has been semantic shift and the most common use of “christened” in more recent AmEng is not as a synonym for “baptized” but as a slangy-but-secular way of just saying “named,” with “dubbed” being a pretty close same-register synonym.* I should think “baptized” or “converted” or “Christianized” might all be lexical strategies for avoiding that misreading. Or in the context of Bely is the overtly religious implication sort of incidental and the real sense is more “Westernized” or “Europeanized”?

    *Illustrative COCA hit (online article in Slate, 2012): “Disaster scientists have christened this phenomenon elite panic.”

    EDITED TO ADD: There’s a separate oddity that you generally don’t refer to someone who has been baptized as “christened” in an ongoing-state kind of way outside the context of the original ritual/sacrament. E.g. there’s an article in an old churchy magazine referring (politely, by its lights at the time, one assumes) to a missionary-to-China who happened to be one of my great-great-aunts-by-marriage as being a “Christian Jewess.” “Christened Jewess” would have been odder in the context.

  6. Oh, your objection was to “christened” rather than “Chinaman”! I did not see that coming. But yes, in the context of Bely the overtly religious implication is incidental and the sense is more “Westernized” or “Europeanized.”

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    Well, really to both, but the archaism or worse of “Chinaman” seemed so obvious that at least it wasn’t confusing. I had forgotten the specific context of that “Christian Jewess” reference to Great-Great-Aunt Regina (although at the time she hadn’t yet married into the family), which turns out (thanks Google Books corpus) to be from a 1917 issue of The Presbyterian Record, specifically the subpart edited by and/or on behalf of The Woman’s Auxiliary. (“MRS. W.C. WINSBOROUGH, SUPT. AND EDITOR”) This would have been a few years before the beginning of her work in China.

  8. It really is a dumb title. Even ignoring the English-translation issues, there’s nothing about China or the Chinese as such in the novel — “Chinese” is just one of a pack of vaguely “Eastern” signifiers like “Scythian,” poetic ways of referring to that side of his father (who in any case is not the main focus of the novel). I guess he’d gotten so far into anthroposophy and other weirdnesses he was no longer capable of grasping how other people would react to things like that, or he just didn’t care.

  9. In other words (just to be maximally clear), the entire semantic import of the title is “This Guy Whose Eastern Nature Has Been Leavened with Some Western Stuff.” China and religion are irrelevant except as vaguely poetic signifiers.

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    The section in the wiki article on “Eurasianism” on the 19th-century backstory amidst alienated-from-Europe Russian intelligentsy includes this Dostoevsky quote: “In Europe we were Tatars, but in Asia too we are Europeans.” You would think “Tatar” would be an objectively better vaguely-poetic signifier than “Chinaman” because you would think the “conquering barbarians coming forth from the steppe on horseback” is key to the non-European side of this sort of Russian self-narrative. The Golden Horde’s antecedents were somewhere out near China, but conspicuously not Chinese, the Chinese proper being (stereotypically) a sedentary folk with no knack for thundering across the steppe on horseback en route to pillaging Europe.

  11. Well, except that Russians didn’t use “Tatar” that way — Tatars were doormen and other menial types. It was the Scythians who were seen in the poetic-historical light you describe, doubtless aided by the fact that they were no longer around to have embarrassing modern-life traits.

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    I am obliged for the clarification. It must be farther West in Europe where the Tatar retained that poetic-historical aura, not undermined by any actually-living Tatars working in the doorman niche of the local economy.

  13. Exactly.

  14. “conquering barbarians coming forth from the steppe on horseback” is key to the non-European side of this sort of Russian self-narrative

    Was there ever such self-narrative?

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  16. J.W. Brewer says

    @drasvi: From earlier this year — ‘One of the visible signs of this grand ideological recycling is a desire “to be Scythian” manifested in attempts to appropriate the actual archaeological objects from Ukrainian museums, and to proclaim Russia the successor of the ancient nomads. A splinter group of Aleksandr Dugin’s right-wing Eurasian movement had chosen the name New Scythians.

    ‘Seventeen days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Dmitry Rogozin, a Russian politician close to Vladimir Putin, released a video of himself reciting the 1918 poem The Scythians (“Yes, we are Scythians, leaves of the Asian tree”) by the Russian symbolist Aleksandr Blok. Many took it as a disgusting abuse of Russian culture, but it was a warning about the coming war.’

    Of course, the claims in this article could all be Atlanticist propaganda and the author (born and raised in the Ukrainian SSR) a NATO shill. I myself FWIW am skeptical of labeling Dugin “right-wing” since he seems to be, shall we say, quite a ways off the conventional linear spectrum.

    Perhaps the Eurasianists should be paying attention to the archeogenetic research I read about here at LH and claiming to be the New Yamnayans?

  17. the 1918 poem The Scythians

    Which I was just quoting a stanza of, if that wasn’t clear.

  18. a disgusting abuse of Russian

    Who wrote “Yes, we are Scythians, leaves of the Asian tree”?

    but it was a warning

    “Legolas Greenleaf long under tree…”

    No, it is not abuse:) Just unexpected. The Russian, word by word:
    “Yes, Scythians [are] we! Yes, Asians [are] we!
    With slanted and greedy eyes”

  19. Actually, as there is a dash here:

    “millions — of-you! Of-us — ⓐ and ⓐ and ⓐ.
    Try, fight with us!
    Yes, Scythians — we! Yes, Asians — we!
    With slanted and greedy eyes”

    What I designated as ⓐ is t’my, plural of
    1. Old Russian for 10 000 or million (Mongolic) 2. darkness

    So it can be read as: “Scythians – that’s we!”

  20. Google books finds the Enlglish translation only here. As the book manages to contain 1. Bely 2. Scythians 3. the Chinese within the page and is about… linguistics, I link it.

    Here is the translation the book quotes.

  21. 1. Old Russian for 10 000 or million (Mongolic) 2. darkness” –

    In modern Russian : t’ma t’mushchaya (“a myriad myriading”) “a very large number”. Still common colloquially, e.g. “on [the] street [there] was t’ma of-people” (“people” : narod, singular partitive).

  22. It must be farther West in Europe where the Tatar retained that poetic-historical aura, not undermined by any actually-living Tatars working in the doorman niche of the local economy.

    But in Western Europe the aura usually comes with an extra “r” (e.g. Buzzati’s “il deserto dei Tartari”, or Marco Polo). I think “Tartar” vs. “Tatar” was discussed at length here at some point.

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    @Vanya: I probably used the “Tatar” spelling initially in this thread just because that’s what the English translation of the Dostoevsky quote had. Perhaps I would have gone with “Tartar” instead given a slight difference in whatever prompt or catalyst might have made me think of the ethnonym. I guess in Italian the extra “r” in the spelling isn’t a relic of non-rhotic Englishmen, like the spelling /r/ in the Korean surname “Pa[r]k”?

  24. It’s presumably contamination from Tartarus.

  25. J.W. Brewer says

    I had somehow managed to forget about this awesome alternative to the conventional-wisdom historical narrative:

  26. I tried Black Tartarian cherries for the first time last summer. They are excellent. I ate a lot of them.


    I love the cautious (and referenced!) “This ignores the well-documented history of Asia.”

  28. @JWB, I thought you meant Bely’s times…

    Usually the Oriental component is seen in our Spirituality.
    Also in many cases our ways are just the point of reference: we either don’t know that some other people may live differently, or see the difference as their peculiarity.

    Some believe that we need authoritarian rule, but I heard that we tend to choose it from those who don’t like it just as often. The idea that Syrians and other more oriental orientals “need” it is more popular.

    I don’t know if the self-narrative changed anyhow, I don’t follow news.

    “Conquering barbarians” actually looks more like a view from the perspective of people who fear the conquest.
    I mean, Kipling might have written a lot about English colonisation efforts (and others wrote how they are so much better at colonisation than the stupid French) but hardly about various peoples in unexplored parts of the world who tremble in fear before colonialism.

  29. We quote/joke about the poem in Russian sometimes, because… it is funny. I also quoted it here, just because I’m Russian speaking to people who are not.

    I learned about the war from worried North Africans slightly before Rogozin read it, so I suppose it was meant to sound threatening, but it was not the only threatening thing said back then.

  30. It puts “The Man Who Would Be King” in a different light if you frame it as Kipling writing about how there really was a vast, secret Masonic conspiracy (including an ahistorical Asian empire) that was so secret that not even the Masons themselves knew about it!

  31. Scythians are steppe people who fascinated Greeks. They were not portrayed as a threat to Europe:)

    Celts, Germanic tribes, Romans, Huns, Arabs and Berbers etc. etc. – they all were a threat (I understand that Celts might find the view that they were a threat to Europe and that Romans were a threat too somewhat unusual, but that is true, they just both won…), but we associate Scythians with the steppe and with lands to the south of it.

    Huns were portrayed very differently (not unlike Tolkien’s orcs).

    Also Scythian art is cool.

    In Bely’s time everyone was obsessed with Aryans, so if Germans have Arminius, what do Slavs have?

    Of course they could say that we are just Slavs – and oh yes, Slavs were a Barbarian threat for the Eastern Roman empire. But Scythians are an option as well.

  32. J.W. Brewer says

    @drasvi: “Oriental” can be kind of deictic term rather than one with an absolute referent. From a sufficiently provincial Frankish point of view, both the Byzantine Empire and the Mongol hordes were “Oriental,” yet they are rather significantly distinct from each other, and in the Russian context “is our culture perpetuating the Byzantine legacy or the Golden Horde’s legacy?” should bring that distinction into fairly sharp focus. Similarly (although here I’m getting out of my depth w/r/t knowledge of the details), when the 19th century Slavophils in Russian intelligentsy circles (and ditto for their more recent successors) opposed “Westernizers,” they necessarily had some implicit mental model of the praiseworthy “non-Western” elements of Russian identity that should not be given up for transitory economic or political advantage, but they may not have actually been in consensus as to what those elements were, much less how far “East” (or “South”) their antecedents extended. Only to the Urals? Or all the way to Furthest Tartary? All the way down the Volga past Astrakhan into the Caspian? Or only upstream from Kazan where there were good Christ-loving Slavs on both banks of the river?

  33. I think “Westernisation” can be contrasted to just “normality”, not necessary to an ideal.

    E.g. education and sciences:
    Commercialisation of education or/and expensive books are “Western” things. They can be no less expensive in many poor countries, but the influence comes from the West, so “Western”
    The Soviet model is “Soviet”, not “Russian” or “Oriental”.
    The Korean model (which I don’t like) is just not very well known here.
    My ideals (distinct from the Soviet model) are not associated with any country.

    And the situation when a scientific monograph costs like a bottle of beer and a poor student can not only buy everything she wants to read now, she even can collect a large library – is just how I grew up.
    It is normality.

  34. The Horde is just people who conquered Russia, so they are seen as conquerors. It is recognised as a part of our heritage, but it is not very fashionable….

  35. PlasticPaddy says

    @drasvi, jwb
    I believe part of the difficulty defining a Russian ethos or ethnos for Russophilia is that (a) the first “Russian”state was centred on Kiev, Moscow only became important much later (and with help from Mongols); (b) the Russian princes of the territory of this first state chose Viking kings and a Greek religion (although maybe both kings and religion had been nativised for several generations).

  36. J.W. Brewer says

    @drasvi: Sure. There are obviously Western critics of Russian autocracy and related phenomena who lean heavily into the idea that it is just perpetuating Mongol-like despotism, but the extent to which Slavophils have reacted by saying “you say that like it’s a bad thing” and embracing the steppe-origin conqueror thing just to be contrarian is unknown to me. One could also in theory embrace the Varangian heritage of Kievan Rus’ and the extremely rough proto-democracy of Viking culture (where every adult male strong enough to wield a sword maybe had some degree of say in communal decisions), but I don’t know if the Slavophils have gone in that direction. Obviously the actual political history of actually-existing Russia being rooted in Muscovite despotism rather than Novgorodite something-else-ism is a distant root cause of a lot of these conceptual quandaries. Not (I should rather urgently add) that it is really my place as an outsider to take positions on the historical shortcomings of Russian political culture and what Russians ought to want instead.

  37. I had somehow managed to forget about this awesome alternative to the conventional-wisdom historical narrative:

    So that (I suppose) is why on Antiterra (the world of VVN’s Ada, what we call Russia/the USSR is called Tartary:

    Ved’ (‘it is, isn’t it’) sidesplitting to imagine that ‘Russia,’ instead of being a quaint synonym of Estoty, the American province extending from the Arctic no longer vicious Circle to the United States proper, was on Terra the name of a country, transferred as if by some sleight of land across the ha-ha of a doubled ocean to the opposite hemisphere where it sprawled over all of today’s Tartary, from Kurland to the Kuriles!

    I had always thought that Nabokov called it Tartary because he considered the Soviets to be barbarians, but perhaps not, or not entirely.

  38. Blok’s poem is sometimes misinterpreted by readers who seem to have never made it past the first stanza. Here’s the second one, in my rough translation:

    For you, centuries; for us, but an hour.
    Like obedients serfs,
    We have held up a shield between two hostile races,
    The Mongols and Europe.

    Then, in stanza 16:

    But as for us, we’re no longer your shield;
    We won’t enter the fight from now on.
    We’ll be watching as mortal combat rages
    With our narrow eyes.

    The first stanza is an implicit response to Europeans who call Russians Asiatics. “OK, we’re Asiatics,” the poem goes, “but we’ve been protecting you from the Mongols and such. We Scythians and you Westerners are in a love-hate relationship. Either we stop the hate or we’ll step aside and watch the Mongols crush you.”

    Not a typical Blok poem and hardly his best but one of his last.

  39. Agreed on all counts.

  40. @JWB, I newer heard about the New Scythians, but this part is real.

    But Zarifullin seems to be more interested in aesthetics than politics and 1500 followers in social networks…. He is hardly very influential. His book was published in Dari.

    I learned from his site something interesting and political which I did not now: namely that Morocco recognised Israel in exchange for South Sahara. Oh. (I said, “aesthetics rather than politics” – the Moroccan artcile is not his, it is a major state news agency and is written by a Georgian)

    As for the gold, i never heard the story either, but it seems it is the episode 2, and the episode 1 was a much larger collection from Crimea. So the publication suggests that Russia did not like that the Crimean collection was returned to Kiev instead of Crimea because Russia is fond of Scythians? :-/

  41. J.W. Brewer says

    Zarafullin seems to get around. Here he is in 2015 touring glamorous Pridnestrovia, where he distributed Scythian-chariot t-shirts to the locals.

    I was not familiar with the namesake of the Gumilyov Center, but wikipedia tells me he “had a reputation for … highly unorthodox theories of ethnogenesis and historiosophy.” Oh, and his mother was Anna Akhmatova.

  42. And his father was Nikolai Gumilev (or Gumilyov), a great poet shot by the goddamn Bolsheviks when he was 35 — one of the many signs of their pointless brutality that you’d think would have kept people from lionizing them but didn’t. And yes, the kid was a kook.

  43. J.W. Brewer says

    Even in countries that refrain from shooting their poets, it does not seem like it would be *that* surprising for the child of two poets to end up being a kook?

  44. Not surprising at all; what surprises me is how seriously his kookery has been taken. He’s greatly respected in Russia, and not just by kooks.

  45. @JWB, as far as I know, orthodox historians are annoyed with his theory but find his books about the Steppe rather good.

    @LH, it is not uncommon for historians who have theories to have theories I disagree with.

  46. I think I should start with the grand theory of the fall of Rome (corruption, lazyness… healthy barbarians).
    But there are several theories of the origin of Slavs and most must be wrong.

    And why people who have Much better things (Racine! Molière!) would respect silly women’s tales (the arabian nights) so much that Aladdin is now famous among Arabs?

    Gumilev wrote interesting books about Steppe peoples. They were published in a large number of copies. And a more complex and interesting picture was added to the traditional perception “the steppe is where Mongols could come from and conquer us”.

    It is an alternative to Soviet history. Soviet history has its own interests and methods, and those methods might not be bad (Racine!!!). But a historian has a choice of what aspect of history to study.

  47. In addition to this he has sort of a theory.

    I poorly remember it, but I think the idea is that somethimes new people get born (out of contact) and earier stage of their history is characterised by an exlosive process (for which he introduces a parameter he calls “passionarity”) – think of Muslim conquests – and then follow other stages – think of Islamic Golden age – and then this passionarity dissipates.

    Up to this moment it is not a theory. It is what we often are seeing, a familiar pattern.
    Whenever we speak of people, we speak rise and fall.

    And sometimes, as with Muslim conquests, we wonder (well, I do not, I mean, this was never interesting and attractive to me) where all this energy comes from, why does it happen that a prophet receives a revelation and so many people become muhajirun and rush somewhere.

    And sometimes, as with Islamic Golden Age we wonder where it come from and where is it today. In this case, I do. Already as a child and long before having developed any specific interest in Arabs – just as a lover of science – I was fascinated and could not understand how it all disappeared and felt sad about this. Stars have Arabic names, algebra has an Arabic name, so why?

    The pattern is familiar without Gumilev, and the above is not as much an explanatory theory (except maybe the part about contact) as just a metaphor for it.

    But then he postulates that the initial stage is characterised by presence of numerous individuals which he calls “passionaries”, be them prophets or conquerors or what.

  48. I can’t say this is a priori nonsensical.

    I can’t exclude even a systematic effect of, say, mixed genetics on human personalities (all I know is that presently genetics doesn’t have much to say about correlation between genetics and character traits, so I abstain of postulating both absence and presence of this) but we don’t really need genetics.
    Culture/society is enough.

    And we even don’t really need an effect on personalities – even a more boring idea that willingness of societies to pick such individuals as role models varies will suffice (though this is not his idea).
    Tying this unremarkable observation to events like ethnogensis is going to be difficult.

    What I’m trying to say is that guy wrote interesting books about steppe peoples, while it is his theory which annoys some people.

    And this theory partly consists of the perception we have anyway – and a direct discussion of this perception would be a good thing by the way – while the remaining part in its most unorthodox element… Is it so terrible?
    It is not flying saucers, I don’t see how it is worse than “corruption” of Rome (the romanticised theory of a similar processl)

    I don’t even know what it is compared to Florin Curta’s theory of origin of Slavs (heterogenous communities along the limes pick common lingua franca and become Slavs), because Florin Curta hardly can demonstrate that his idea IS right. He can make it look plausible.

  49. J.W. Brewer says

    I have not read anything by Gumilev (not sure of extent to which it’s been translated into English), and he died in ’92 and is not necessarily responsible for kooky or unsavory elements subsequently purporting to embrace his ideas as they understand them. I am open to the possibility that the English-language wikipedia piece about him is unbalanced, although I give some weight to hat’s view of his kookery since I assume it’s based on more than just reading a single English-language wiki page. I just stumbled into Gumilev by working backwards from the current Dugin-affiliated Scythian-revivalists.

  50. I’ve read him (I actually have one of his books in Russian), and I would say that he’s got some solid information in among the “ethnogenesis” kookery, but since you can get the solid information elsewhere, I don’t see the need to trawl for it there. I would call him an enthusiast rather than a scholar (as I understand the term).

  51. A historian is not only “a guy or gal who presents to other historians her analysis of unpublished dusty material”. And definitely not just people who invent explanations and paradigms.

    The most famous historians are those who offered large synthesis to people like you and me. I think it is a worthy occupation.

    Gumilev was very successful at that, he changed our perception of the steppe, he made it richier and more interesting. You say amateur… Could you point me at a better book about the Xiongnu in Russian? If his is the only available reading, then if there are serious flaws in this book, i’m ready to call him an amateur.

    (and can you point at a book about the Xiongnu in English, by the way?)

  52. Well, this is not honest.
    Yes, it is posisble that his presentation of his theory is amateurish – absolutely irrespectively of whether his books about the steppe were so.

    @LH, I’m not goint to support his theory.

    It is what I said above: I’m used to historians who offer various “explanations” for processes, and as long as they do without alien abductions, I don’t see why one is a respectable historian and the other is crazy.

    As for his steppe books, I heard from annoyed historians that those are fine, but honestly all I know about them is: they are interesting (and this is why I wrote about the arabian nights – what is interesting to us might not be interesting to someone else) and seriously affected our view of the steppe belt.

    Meanwhile, I never heard ANYONE ever calling someone “a passionary” – I think this element of his theory (which I think is the most annoying to some) simply did not influence us.

    Gumilev was very successful at that ” – I mean, successful in terms of effect on our world view. Of course someone like Tolkien can be successful the same way.

  53. J.W. Brewer says

    I haven’t read any of them, but it’s easy in a quick online search to find plausibly-titled English-language books about the so-called Xiongnu, some looking more scholarly (e.g. an expensive one from the “Oxford Studies in Early Empires” series) and others more popularizing (only $6.32 on Kindle!). These of course are all recent titles from the shameful modern age after Anglophone publishers adopted Communist spelling conventions. You can find earlier works if you look for the spelling Hsiung-Nu, and perhaps there were other alternatives. (It’s a pejorative exonym anyway, but I guess there’s no activist group that’s gotten traction complaining about that?)

    I see that in Russian they’re just the Хунну/Hunni – a seeming cross between the “Huns” with which they were traditionally identified and or mixed up and the sweet stuff Winnie the Pooh likes.

  54. JWB, meanwhile Huns are Гунны (Gunny (not to be confused with a gunnery sergeant or a bag) )

    “Hsiung-Nu” – thank you! The Russian book was published in 1960, (a small number of copies), then another one (“Xiongnu in China”) in 74 (again small) and then in 90s (50 000 – not much either, but).

    So I think in terms of both competitors and available material the landscape was quite depressive.

  55. Well, what about Gimbutas?

  56. What about her?

  57. I guess she was comparable in that she took her ideas well beyond the available evidence, but more of them seemed to be based in something other than her own imagination (though the goddess stuff was pretty silly).

  58. She’s a daughter of an ophthalmologist!

    The main reason to compare them is that I’m basically saying that Gumilev, apart of his ideas, became our poet of the Great Steppe. She too was a poet of somethign and planted some ideas in people’s imagination.

    Also she too maybe has some unorthodox ideas and some of her ideas might be wrong (or insufficiently motivated). Many of her ideas were taken by scholars quite seriously, which is not the case with Gumilev.
    Our historians seem to reject them, they did when they were Soviet, and kept doing so when they changed citizenship to “Russian”

  59. The point is that, the impact of a figure like Gumilev or Gimbutas can’t be evaluated based on quality of argumentation for their least orthodox theories.

    I guess she was comparable in that she took her ideas well beyond the available evidence,
    Yes, this, but this is not the main point. The main point is that she too made people learn some things they would not have learned otherwise. And is quite famous among English speakers interested in history.

    and of course ophthalmology!

  60. Well, we’re coming at all this from different directions. You want interesting ideas and books that can make people learn some things they would not have learned otherwise. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I want reality, whether it’s interesting or not (reality is interesting to me in itself, even if most people find it boring: Old Irish irregular verbs, the details of early Russian bureaucracy), and I’m impatient with far-reaching ideas not based in what I consider to be reality. Anyone can come up with wild ideas, but it’s very hard to figure out what really happened or could plausibly (as opposed to possibly) have happened. I just learned that Bely’s last volume of memoirs, Between Two Revolutions, while dated 1934, actually appeared in 1935; this is exciting to me. I simply don’t care about whatever fires the popular imagination (cf. alien visitations).

  61. J.W. Brewer says

    @hat: But what if the reason for the ’34 to ’35 delay in the volume going to press involved an alien visitation?

  62. That might explain a great many things.

  63. @LH, well, you definitely do value fantasy, or you would not read fiction.
    And it happens that someone takes interest in reality because of fiction.

  64. You misunderstood me. I’m not praising Gumilev, i’m merely explaining why he is important in Russian culture.

    And some of his books, like the aforementioned Xiongnu (or what side of ‘the’ I should place “aforementioned”?) are just history books. It is the only Soviet monograph about the Xiongnu, no more and no less.
    There is no question whether he is a historian.

    Perhaps people were interested simply because his ideas were unorthodox. Marxist history might not be bad, but USSR was quite uniform, and when history becomes so uniform that people are bored – that is bad.

    But it lead to publication of his books in 90s in large number of copies and many people read them. Not just books about his theories but history books too. And they became interested in reality.

  65. altembas

    The Wiktionary entry that drasvi linked to defines Polish altembas using the English word kincob. There is interesting discussion of this word in Paul Pelliot (1959) Notes on Marco Polo, vol. I, p. 145–150, under the heading camocas (109 ᴀ), with scans availabe here (scroll through with the big arrow buttons).

  66. I’m not praising Gumilev, i’m merely explaining why he is important in Russian culture.

    Sure, I understand that.

    But it lead to publication of his books in 90s in large number of copies and many people read them. Not just books about his theories but history books too. And they became interested in reality.

    Maybe some of them, but I don’t think it was that common. Carlos Castaneda was just as popular, and with many of the same people; do you think he got people interested in reality?

  67. Oh, and his mother was Anna Akhmatova.

    And he broke her heart in her final years.

    Emma Gershteyn (who knew him well since the 1930s) called him an antisemite. That alone should be enough to disqualify him as a serious historian in the 20th and 21st century. Gershteyn also wrote at length about the breakdown of the relationsship between Gumilev and his mother (I don’t know if this included is in the highly selective English language version of her memoirs)

    I once read a German book about the Huns, and its author pointed out that Gumilev’s study suffered from basic factual and logical errors and was practically worthless.

  68. That was my impression.

  69. ulr, if you disqualify all xenophobes from historical science, some cats will be left…
    PS I mean, turn on TV and tell how many Arab historians are prejudiced agaisnt Jews, and how many Israeli historians are prejudiced against Muslims. And same about Soviet historians, German historians, those German historians who write books about Goths – how many of them are prejudiced agaisnt someone?

    I don’t mean there is something special about historians (though maybe it is indeed not the best profession in terms of concentration of prejudice). I just mean, prejudice is very widespread among homo sapiens.

  70. PPS, and I don’t mean, of course that having prejudice can’t make you an asshole. Just that if we are concerned with the bias in historical studies, then we are screwed.

    “books about Goths” – Huns, of course.

  71. Maybe some of them, but I don’t think it was that common. Carlos Castaneda was just as popular, and with many of the same people; do you think he got people interested in reality?

    @LH, you said it yourself that numerous Russians who are interested in reality take Gumilev seriously. What matters is not whether they take him seriously, what matters is that they read him. To read his books and to find them interesting you do not need to be specifically interested in fantasies. Enough to be an educated Russian.

    If you are generally interested in reality, then after reading his books you become interested in the real history of the Steppe Belt.
    If you are generally interested in myth, then after reading his books you become interested in the mythical history of the Steppe Belt.

    Yes, I thought about Castaneda too.

  72. @LH, you said it yourself that numerous Russians who are interested in reality take Gumilev seriously.

    No I didn’t, that was you. I think that numerous Russians who are interested in being entertained read Gumilev; some of them take him seriously. And Russians read Castaneda for the same reason (and watched Santa Barbara). I fear you are extending your own quest for knowledge to the larger public, which is generous of you but not warranted by the evidence. Most people, in whatever country, want to be entertained; very few care about facts.

  73. David Eddyshaw says

    reality is interesting to me in itself, even if most people find it boring

    Few fiction writers can match reality for interest (one of the reasons I’ve never got into conlangs, not even conlangs created by people as good at it as Tolkien. They just can’t compare with the real thing.)

  74. John Cowan says

    or what side of ‘the’ I should place “aforementioned”?

    After the. Aforementioned is an ordinary adjective, so appears before its noun. Placing it after the noun is archaic to obsolete, except when a cardinal number is present: the two papers aforementioned is acceptable contemporary English whereas the papers aforementioned is not.

    Carlos Castaneda was just as popular, and with many of the same people

    My mother found C.C.’s books moving and profound (I didn’t), but she may well have read her own thought into his. If you told her they were fictions, I don’t think she would have contradicted you. A translator of Nietzsche is very familiar with such ambiguities.

  75. I suspect that Gumilev’s “passionarity” theory is only a couple degrees kookier than most grand theories of human history. But he was born too late. Toynbee belonged to the generation of his parents (born in 1889, the same year as Akhmatova, and three years after Nikolai Gumilev).

    By the way, Spengler was born in 1880, like Blok and Bely, and died two years after Bely. Blok published The Scythians in early 1918, a few months before the first part of The Decline of the West came out. In Blok’s 1919 article, The Collapse of Humanism, the distinction between culture and civilization seems Spenglerian.

  76. @LH,

    I said “what surprises me is how seriously his kookery has been taken” — I did not say “Russians who are interested in reality.” Russians in the ’90s took all sorts of things seriously, from vouchers to Ponzi schemes (but I repeat myself) to “Ленин – гриб” to Lev Gumilyov. I was close for a while to a very intelligent Russian woman back then who was immersed not only in LG and Castaneda but Daniil Andreyev (also son of a famous writer!), and I think that’s a representative range of serious interests. But they don’t have much to do with being interested in reality. To quote T. S. Eliot, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

  77. In other words, people love to go “Wow, cool!” They don’t much like to undergo a painful reexamination of their assumptions and beliefs (which reality often forces on us).

  78. I took a class with the anthropologist James Howe at MIT, who worked on topics related to “spirit contact” (his term, I think) and rural communities in Latin America. And wow, did Howe hate Carlos Castaneda’s bullshit.

  79. I habitually call him “Carlos Casi-Nada,” but I have to admit that his first shamanovel (a word I didn’t make up) led me to more reliable books on shamanism. (His sequels I found worthless.)

  80. Just ran across this very relevant quote from Yuri Buida (in this interview):

    Мифологическое отношение к истории, по-моему, у нас более распространено, чем научное. Помимо школ и вузов, отсутствует какая-либо система, которая могла бы сделать историю обычным культурным явлением, чтобы люди не бросались в уличную мифологию с протославянами и ведическими книгами. Это совершенно аморальное отношение к истории, я бы сказал.

    A mythological attitude to history, in my opinion, is more widespread among us [Russians] than a scientific one. Apart from schools and universities, there is no system that could make history a common cultural phenomenon so that people wouldn’t throw themselves into lowbrow mythology with proto-Slavs and Vedic books. That is a completely immoral attitude towards history, I would say.

  81. And as I said here: “I realize that in the ’90s Russians were overwhelmed with a suddenly changed and unbearable reality and preferred fantasy and gibberish…”

  82. @LH, you failed to quote the continuation.

    If your point is just that people don’t learn, and don’t learn from G. too because people just don’t learn, then I don’t understand what we are discussing. That they respect him and you don’t like that?

    To read G. it is enough to be from Russian intelligentsia and interested in history. Yes, many in Russian intelligentsia were interested in mysticism.
    But I see no correlation between interest in mysticism and reading G.

    The effect is that apart of the old idea of the steppe as the source of various conquerors they learned that the steppe is interesting.

  83. THAT is bullshit.

    @LH, magic is what we wanted. Badly.

    Suppress eveything, keep teaching that religion is a medieval superstion, keep teaching Lenin, Lenin, Lenin.
    Of course people will develop extreme interest in magic:)

  84. Everyone was a believer before USSR fell apart.
    And nationalist movements began before USSR fell apart.

    The demand for all sort of things you find weird was already palpable.

    You see girls form Gaza every day if you watch TV. They wear headscarves. Now google “Iranian girls”. What do you see? Girls with headscarves on backs of their heads. Because the government tells them to wear those scarves (no, of coruse it is different in provincial towns) and they want to expose as much hair as possible.
    Governement intervention has this effect (though communities are more powerfuL)

    Now go to a Tunisian univirsity somewhere in 2014 (I don’t know what it is now given recent political changes) and you find rebellous girls putting on scarves and even niqabs and university administration fighting against both things (but of course it is agian different in a more traditional setting, where hijab is a sign of a good girl, not bad girl).

  85. I don’t understand what we are discussing. That they respect him and you don’t like that?

    I don’t care who they respect; what I don’t like is the indifference to truth/reality.

    THAT is bullshit.

    WHAT is bullshit?

    The demand for all sort of things you find weird was already palpable.

    Of course. Did I say anything different? But in the ’90s it exploded (in large part because there was no longer any interest in suppressing it).

  86. I have no idea what relevance your hijab stories have. We’re not talking about headgear.

  87. I’m not sure why you’re so defensive about LG; I’m not saying people shouldn’t read him, and I’m glad you got something useful from him. I’m just using him as an example of how people prefer charming bullshit (with some facts mixed in) to actual history.

    The effect is that apart of the old idea of the steppe as the source of various conquerors they learned that the steppe is interesting.

    You learned that, not “they.”

  88. John Cowan says

    Headgear is after all one of our themes: see the top of the page.

    Reality-based headgear is to keep out the cold (Russian-style) or to keep off the rain (Vietnamese-style). Everything else is fantasy. But none the worse for that!

  89. Headgear is after all one of our themes: see the top of the page.

    A hit, a palpable hit!

  90. Stu Clayton says

    Well, I dunno. There’s an art to pulling rabbits out of hats to induce a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately, in certain comments everything including the kitchen sink gets pulled out and plonked on the table, inducing not surprise but bafflement. Not every hat is a hit.

  91. But every Hut is a hat.

  92. Stu Clayton says
  93. @John Cowan: There are other non-fantasy reasons for donning hats. My main reason for wearing hats is to keep the sun out of my eyes.

  94. Stu Clayton says

    Wearing a hat is also altruistic. It enables other people to use the words “don” and “doff” to describe what you do with the hat.

    Whatever else it is in addition, reality is a set of pretexts for talking. It provides referenda.

  95. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Summer hats are for keeping the sun out of my eyes and prevent sunburn to the back of my neck. Winter hats are for keeping the rain off my glasses. Talking of talking, they also get me compliments from young ladies. (Kindergarteners call them cowboyhatte, presumably as opposed to caps which is the predominant kind of male headgear here. Admittedly more practical if you drive a car, but I can’t even).

  96. John Cowan says

    Unfortunately, in certain comments everything including the kitchen sink gets pulled out and plonked on the table, inducing not surprise but bafflement.

    Yes, well, my former plonkee is with me no more, so it’s the Hattics who must bear the burden now.

    My main reason for wearing hats is to keep the sun out of my eyes.


    use the words “don” and “doff”

    Short for do on and do off.

    keeping the rain off my glasses

    Windshield wipers? (Actually, I don’t wear glasses when walking outdoors.)

    but I can’t even

    Another adult thing I don’t do.

  97. (sorry for an offtopik (a Russian noun))

    Are avertisments of popular-among-immigrants jobs (delivery) which feature excessively happy members of otherwise-unusual-in-advertiments ethnicites (who work in delivery) considered good or bad thing in the Western world, and are they common?

    I just saw such an advertisment for the first time. On the one hand it somehow reminded me an advertisment in Auchan (they were hiring kassirshas “female cashiers”).

    On the other, it makes sense, and you don’t see a Kazakh face in a Russian advertisment of expenisive cars, and the reason why this job is popular among immigrants, I suspect, is that the company made it easy for them to get employed, and the salary they are advertising (“up to” 1000$ a month) can well be above the median for Moscow. And it they balanced it with another advertisment with a happy guy from south Russia.

  98. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Sunglasses: With my prescription (+6 on the strongest axis), it’s not really feasible. They would have to add weight to the lenses. And those clip-on ones have a half life of a week for me, I leave them on café tables all the time. So a hat it is. Also: stylish.

    And I can’t walk down a flight of stairs without prescription glasses unless it’s very familiar, so I always wear them going out. The hat also keeps my head warm when the rain is cold, but the glasses thing is the main advantage. Works for snow as well.

  99. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    @drasvi: We get lots of adverts for luxury products here produced (the ads) by multinationals who aim at equal representation by US or UK standards, which is almost but not entirely unlike the actual demographics here. (The ads have more emphasis on East Asian, Indian and African descendants, less on Balkans/North African/Middle East than what you see on a Copenhagen street).

    I’m more or less ad-blind when it comes to web pages, though, and I consume mostly international content anyway. Which is to say, if the delivery services here actually post openings, instead of letting applicants find them, I’m not aware of having seen any such ads, much less the ethnic mix displayed.

    (Distributors of local papers do seem to be in constant need of new employees, but they mostly aim at young teens working after school so their rotation rate must be horrendous. They mostly advertise with text-only flyers that they distribute with the papers and direct people to their home page. Which has no immigrants in sight except maybe on the subpage for English speakers).

  100. I can’t walk down a flight of stairs without prescription glasses

    I, on the other hand, incurred a severe accident eight years ago when I set off down my own basement stairs while neglecting to take my glasses off.

  101. In conclusion: prescription glasses are a land of contrasts.

  102. I used to prefer sunglasses to keep the sun out if my eyes. I have somewhat oversensitive eyes, and some bright days I effectively cannot function outside without something to shield them. However, when I reached the point in my life that I was driving a lot, and often driving long distances, I found that wearing aviator shades too long became fairly uncomfortable. If I wore glasses normally, I would have prescription sunglasses, and I would be used to having the frames on most of the time. However, wearing sunglasses outdoors in the summer was not enough to inure me permanently against their discomfort. Since I also have frostbite damage in my earlobes that makes them painfully susceptible to cold weather, I figured that switching to brimmed hats that I could wear year-round was the best approach.

  103. A hit, a palpable hit!

    i always knew you were a galitsianer at heart!

  104. An interesting word I pluck more or less at random is алтабас… If anyone… knows more about it, do tell.

    I can’t add anything more to what is in the Wiktionary under Polish altembas linked to above, in Vasmer, and in Anikin (p. 168), except the interesting remark of M. Stachowski on the Polish word given below. The Polish word perhaps helps explain the vocalism of the last syllable in Russian (with а instead of е or я) through Polish from original Turkic ä. I suppose Polish a might haved worked for earlier Ottoman ä too, at some time. I can’t get to Stanisław Stachowski (2007) Słownik historyczno-etymologiczny turcyzmów w języku polskim at the moment—perhaps it deals with this point. However, here is Marek Stachowski (2022) “Perceptual etymology. A social aspect of etymological research” Studia Linguistica Universitatis Iagellonicae Cracoviensis 139, on the Polish word:

    A very special case is the Turkish term altın bez ‘gold cloth, cloth of gold’, a type of fabric interspersed with golden strands (< Turkish altın ‘gold; golden’ + bez ‘cloth, fabric’), and its Polish reflexes. The term was borrowed into Old Polish as altembas (first attested in 1496 as ‹altabassa› = altãbassa, presumably genitive altambasa; cf. 1500 ‹altambasz› = altambasz id.), but more interestingly, beside being borrowed it was also translated into Polish as złotogłów (< złot-y ‘golden’ + głów &lt; głowa ‘head’). Why should a type of cloth be called “golden head”? The original Turkish phrase altın bez was first distorted to altambas ~ altembas ~ altambasz and then, it seems, misinterpreted as a reflex of an erroneously reconstructed Turkish phrase *altın baş (< Turkish baş ‘head’) and, thus, translated as złoto-głów into Polish (S. Stachowski 2014: 17sq.). That was, of course, a case of folk etymology put into practice. Above, I have announced this example as a very special case. It is because three aspects can be observed here: (1) the linguistic, scholarly etymology: Polish < Turkish altın bez, literally ‘golden cloth’ (2) folk etymology: Turkish > Polish złotogłów, literally ‘golden head’; (3) perceptual etymology: the deep belief of Polish historians and art historians that this is a Turkish word, just translated. This shows that even a word composed of Polish elements and motivated by a Polish folk etymology which was inspired by a distortion in Polish, can still be viewed as a “(principally) Turkish term.”

    I could not find الیون بز altınbez ‘gold cloth’ (or السون ساش altınbaş) in any Ottoman-era dictionaries I consulted, which is not surprising, since the meaning of the compound as ‘gold cloth’ would usually be transparent in context. (The Ottoman spelling السون ⟨ʾltwn⟩ with و ⟨w⟩ reflects the formerly rounded vowel in the second syllable.) There is, however, an attestation of altun böz already in an Old Uyghur text fragment (Old Uyghur böz, ‘cloth’, translating Sanskrit caila- ‘cloth’ and paṭṭa- ‘strip of cloth, frontlet, headband’).


    In Republican Turkish, altınbaş ‘gold-head’ is usually used in reference to a popular variety of melon with mottled bright yellow skin and pale flesh. This appears to be a recent designation—at least, the cite for this meaning in A. Tietze’s etymological dictionary of Turkish is quite recent. Altınbaş kefal, literally ‘gold-head mullet’, is also a name of the golden grey mullet (Chelon aurata), and here the reference is obvious too. (It is also called sarıkulak kefal, lit. ‘yellow-eared mullet’.)

    However, there is some trace of use of السون ساش altunbaş as a kind of cloth. For example, records of cloth merchants in Damascus selling cloth imported from India apparently mention a kind of شاش šāš ‘muslin’ (such as used for winding turbans) called šāš altunbāš. Colette Establet-Vernin, ‘Indian ‘Textiles in the Ottoman Empire: The Example of Damascus around 1700’ (in P. Malekandathil, ed., (2016) The Indian Ocean in the Making of Early Modern India), offers an possible explanation of this term (p. 347):

    Altunbāsh: altun means gold in Turkish and bāsh head; Legoux de Flaix and Roques often make references to muslins (or fine cotton fabrics) with one or both edges made of gold threads

    (Alexandre Legoux de Flaix, born in Pondicherry around 1740, was a French Orientalist and military engineer in India. Georges Roques was an agent of the French East India Company who wrote a valuable commercial report from Ahmedabad between 1678 and 1680.)

    Also note Establet-Vernin, p. 360, describing some cloth merchants inventories and prices:

    The shāsh were turbans also named destār and sarik, ‘long pieces of muslin or silk wrapped around the crown of the turban’, specifies Barthélémy. Turbans were mostly made from muslins (altunbāsh, four to five piastres, jūtī, four and a half piastres, kūsha, ten piastres, sūsī, four p., hazārī, four p.); their value was four times as high as the value of turbans made from ordinary cloth.

    So did altun bez and altun baş collide in commercial contexts on the way to Polish?

  105. Wow, amazing stuff — thanks for sharing the results of your excavations! You yourself could be said to have a golden head.

  106. Xerîb, yes, in Russian the world is attested since the 17th century, which is when Polish words entered Russian quite often.

    It is tempting to explain -bas (cf. b’az’) with Polish mediation, but I don’t know how Polish vowels work. Disappearance of -n seems to indicate Polish.

  107. On Gumilev’s political thinking – back in the 90s, I gathered a small collection of his writings; living in Kazakhstan, I became interested in the history of the steppe people and his books were widely available (Nazarbayev seems to have been a fan; there even is a university in Astana named after Gumilev. In any case, Gumilev’s Eurasianism with his assertions of a special connection and common cultural space shared by Russians and the steppe people were a good fit for his political goals of avoiding ethnic conflicts in Kazakhstan and maintaining a good-neighborly relationship with Russia.) Among those is a book with non-historical writings, reminiscences, interviews, etc., from which you can gather a lot about his political views. Not very appealing – seeing a West fundamentally antagonistic to Russia, democracy as an aberration and sign of the decline of an ethnos, whitewashing of pre-revolutionary feudalism (not just an understandable “Czarist Russia was not the total hellhole Communist propaganda makes it”, but implying that the simple people actually liked the feudalist order) – ideas that would make him fit right in with the current ideologues at Putin’s court. These ideas may have been bold when he formulated them in the Soviet period, but that doesn’t make them good ideas.

  108. Yup, that’s LG all right. Eliot Borenstein talks about “the Eurasianist ethnic fantasies of Lev Gumilev and Alexander Dugin” (and of course Dugin is notoriously in high favor in the Putinist world).

  109. The idea that people may like some unappealing order is quite often true. Most people in Russia think Putin is all right. And if Tehran reminds me Moscow of 80s (young educated people), I’m not sure that people in Iranian province are just as fed up.

  110. J.W. Brewer says

    I don’t know what sort of reliable social-science data we have about the attitudes of ordinary people in 19th-century Russia, although there is certainly anecdotal evidence that when alienated/nihilistic urban intelligentsy went out to the countryside to promote revolution among the peasants, the peasants were often uninterested. It seems *plausible* (not certain) that many/most people born into a hierarchical social order with little social mobility or equality of material condition are socialized/habituated to view that as the natural order of things rather than dreaming of utopian alternatives and thus focus instead on how to be most happy in the particular location in that social order in which Fate (or God or Whatever) has placed them.

    In Western societies over the last very few centuries, the ubiquitous possibilities (at least in rhetorical theory) of social mobility and not being stuck in the same occupational/economic niche as our father and grandfather etc. have become so ubiquitous and so self-evidently desirable and just-seeming, we may have trouble imagining that our view of the world is not necessarily shared by those born and raised in non-WEIRD societies.

    Of course in any given society it’s possible that most people in such-and-such not-very-elite subgroup were mostly accepting of their lot while most people in such-and-such other such subgroup were unaccepting and resentful of their (not necessarily objectively worse) lot.

  111. It seems *plausible* (not certain) that many/most people born into a hierarchical social order with little social mobility or equality of material condition are socialized/habituated to view that as the natural order of things rather than dreaming of utopian alternatives and thus focus instead on how to be most happy in the particular location in that social order in which Fate (or God or Whatever) has placed them.

    No, a lot of peasants were not at all happy with the order of things in the 1870s (the “going to the people” period you’re talking about) — they had expected to get land along with their freedom, and when Alexander II issued his emancipation decree and they were told that not only did they not get the land, they had to keep paying their former owners for years to compensate them, they were quite upset and assumed (as one does) that the Little Father had intended they should have the land but was being thwarted by the usual Wicked Advisors. They were ripe for a Pugachov-style rebellion (though the material conditions were not), but they had no interest in a bunch of crazed university students trying to talk to them about “sotsializm” and other mysterious entities. They turned them over to the police en masse, and quite right too.

  112. J.W. Brewer says

    Fair, but that’s the “revolution of rising expectations” scenario – the hierarchical social order into which they’d been born had just recently been changed (and changed by decree from above rather than slow evolution), which is exactly the point when “hey, how come change A isn’t accompanied with change B” questions will arise in the minds of those who might not have been agitating for change against a more static background.

  113. Stu Clayton says

    the “revolution of rising expectations” scenario

    Aka “too much of a good thing is never enough”. That’s a sentiment I wouldn’t call revolutionary. Oh, and also “appetite comes with eating”. Especially with chocolate and other things that are not good for you. So vulgar, my dears.

  114. “Give him finger and he all hand [will] off-bite”, as the Russian saying goes.

  115. “other things that are not good for you”

    That is, not especially with Guinness.

  116. Stu Clayton says

    “Give a finger to other people and they take the whole hand.” This does not happen when you give them the finger.

  117. I suspected it must be international, but did not know the English version, thank you. In Russian it is usually disapprovingly describes a specific (third) person.

  118. Stu Clayton says

    “Bite the hand that feeds you” sounds similar. And yes, that too is often said of a specific person, not “other people”.

  119. @drasvi: That’s not the English version of that saying. A “hand” version might exist dialectically, but the canonical English expression is: “Give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile.” (The pronouns can be changed to singular ones if appropriate.) German does, however, have a “Hand” version: “When man dem Teufel einen Finger gibt, will er die ganze Hand.” I have often wondered, how many other languages’ expressions reference the devil specifically?

  120. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Rækker man Fanden en lillefinger, tager han hele hånden. Where the Devil stands for whichever greedy/entitled person you’re talking about.

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