For those of you who might be wondering about the progress of my march through Russian literature, it has taken a sudden swerve. I had gotten up through the year 1968 (I enjoyed the Strugatskys’ Сказка о Тройке [Tale of the Troika], but it was essentially a rather silly satirical fantasy, not on the level of their great, somber sf novels) when I suddenly decided to reverse course and go back to the beginning of modern Russian literature (arbitrarily taking that to be the Tale of Frol Skobeev, a delightful piece of roguery which I enjoyed as much as Turgenev did). There were several motives coalescing in this decision, but probably the most basic was a desire to get to Dostoevsky sooner rather than later. After Frol Skobeev I read Mikhail Chulkov‘s 1770 Пригожая повариха [The Comely Cook], an early Russian picaresque novel which Prince Mirsky called “a sort of Russian Moll Flanders“; it too was very enjoyable, though pure fluff. Now I’m most of the way through Radishchev‘s famously controversial Путешествие из Петербурга в Москву [Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow], a brave manifesto against serfdom and arbitrary rule which got its author exiled to Siberia; alas, it’s not particularly enjoyable, and in places almost as unreadable as the second appendix to War and Peace. Long stretches of it are of the form “O my compatriots! can you really feast in comfort on your imported delicacies while your brothers groan under the yoke of serfdom, while your sisters are forced into unsuitable marriages? can you not see how much better it is to earn your bread by honest toil, rather than to live off the dishonestly acquired fruits of the labor of men placed under you by unjust laws…” (That’s a pastiche, not a quote, but you’d have to be a dedicated Radishchev scholar to tell the difference.) I’m reading it because it influenced everybody from Pushkin to Venedikt Erofeev, but I’ll be glad to put it aside and move on to Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, which I’m reading because it influenced everybody from Pushkin to Shklovsky. Then it’s on to Karamzin‘s 1792 story «Бедная Лиза» [Poor Liza], which comes highly recommended by its heroine’s namesake Lizok.

I must say, reading eighteenth-century prose is a lot easier for me now, with the internet handy (and of course a lot more Russian under my belt), than it was when I bought my copy of Radishchev in Prague in 1998; I remember struggling with the archaic vocabulary and the recondite allusions. Now I can find pretty much anything I want, from the location of Sofiya (the first stop on the journey, which turns out to be essentially a suburb of Tsarskoye Selo that had only recently been founded by Catherine the Great and was to be rejected, like most of her initiatives, by her awful son Paul), to the majestic but impenetrable (and misquoted) epigraph from Trediakovsky, which turns out to have its own Russian Wikipedia entry. It’s a good time to be alive and reading Russian literature.


  1. “Mister Ward, don’t yur blud bile at the thawt that three million and a half of your cullèd brethren air a clanking their chains in the South? — Sez I, not a bile! Let ’em clank!” —Artemus Ward (1862)

  2. 18th century Russian is quite unreadable to Russians themselves.
    It was a period of great language change brought by Peter the Great’s reforms. Russian finally took its current form only from Pushkin’s time.
    I personally find it easier to read 17th century documents or even literature (Protopop Avvakum’s autobiography is great and amazingly modern-looking in language).

  3. Imagine how boring reading “Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow” can get when you are, say, 13 or 14.
    Well, you can either imagine or ask any of over a hundred million people who had to live through the toils.
    Which reminds me of a somewhat similar book I did enjoy reading back in school — and rereading several time since.
    Have you already got to Saltykov-Shchedrin’s “The History of a Town” (“История одного города”)? I’ve searched through the archives and couldn’t find any mention of it.
    Probably the best thing about it is that it has been continuously perceived as modern and topical by every generation ever since it was published in 1869-1870. In the art of constructing grotesque but believable characters he was probably second only to Gogol (think “Dead Souls”, think “The Government Inspector”).
    Shame it’s not better known in the US; you could pick any incompetent bureaucrat, corrupt governor of Illinois, libertarian pundit, or Republican presidential candidate — and find a character just like them in the book.
    You can get a quick taste of Saltykov-Shchedrin’s language from the extraordinary section where he simply lists all the consecutive mayors of the town of Glupov:

    4) Урус-Кугуш-Кильдибаев, Маныл Самылович, капитан-поручик из лейб-кампанцев. Отличался безумной отвагой и даже брал однажды приступом город Глупов. По доведении о сем до сведения, похвалы не получил и в 1745 году уволен с распубликованием.

    7) Пфейфер, Богдан Богданович, гвардии сержант, голштинский выходец. Ничего не свершив, сменен в 1762 году за невежество.

    10) Маркиз де Санглот, Антон Протасьевич, французский выходец и друг Дидерота. Отличался легкомыслием и любил петь непристойные песни. Летал по воздуху в городском саду, и чуть было не улетел совсем, как зацепился фалдами за шпиц, и оттуда с превеликим трудом снят. За эту затею уволен в 1772 году, а в следующем же году, не уныв духом, давал представления у Излера на минеральных водах.

    14) Микаладзе, князь, Ксаверий Георгиевич, черкашенин, потомок сладострастной княгини Тамары. Имел обольстительную наружность и был столь охоч до женского пола, что увеличил глуповское народонаселение почти вдвое. Оставил полезное по сему предмету руководство. Умер в 1814 году от истощения сил.

    17) Иванов, статский советник, Никодим Осипович. Был столь малого роста, что не мог вмещать пространных законов. Умер в 1819 году от натуги, усиливаясь постичь некоторый сенатский указ.

    22) Перехват-Залихватский, Архистратиг Стратилатович, майор. О сем умолчу. Въехал в Глупов на белом коне, сжег гимназию и упразднил науки.

  4. Speaking of Saltykov-Shchedrin. In 2009, you asked why he’s remember by that double-barrel surname, when the first one was his real name and the second one he wrote under (
    Well, I can’t say why it had stuck, but he had certainly started it himself. I asked google for Салтыков-Щедрин “первое издание” and those that popped up are all from later in his life and say something like “Сочинение М.Е. Салтыкова (Щедрина)”.

  5. “Бедная Лиза” is a bit sentimental for my taste, but that was, of course, the style of the times – I remember some critic writing that the Russian writers only borrowed Sterne’s sentimentality and tearfulness, not his irony and humour, until Pushkin came along. Actually, if you have read Pushkin’s “Станционный смотритель”, you’ll know what “Бедная Лиза” is about – I’ve always seen “Станционный смотритель” as its mirror image, a play with the expectations and plot conventions that Karamzin’s story established.

  6. Protopop Avvakum’s autobiography is great and amazingly modern-looking in language
    Yes, I read a good chunk of it quite a while ago and loved it. (I mentioned it here in a discussion of Grossman.)
    Imagine how boring reading “Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow” can get when you are, say, 13 or 14.
    I shudder to think! Really, it’s unconscionable to force a book like that on schoolkids.
    Which reminds me of a somewhat similar book I did enjoy reading back in school — and rereading several time since. Have you already got to Saltykov-Shchedrin’s “The History of a Town” (“История одного города”)?
    No, but I’m looking forward to it; it’s often been recommended to me.
    say something like “Сочинение М.Е. Салтыкова (Щедрина)”.
    Yes, but that’s different; that’s the equivalent of “the works of Saltykov (who published under the name Shchedrin, with which you may be more familiar).” Similarly, one might write Landau (Aldanov), but nobody calls the writer Landau-Aldanov.

  7. I’ll be interested to read your impressions of “Бедная Лиза”, Languagehat… even if you don’t like it, it’s definitely worth reading to get a feel for those expectations and plot conventions that Hans mentions.

  8. Imagine how boring reading “Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow” can get when you are, say, 13 or 14.
    That’s how it’s got into modern literature allusions, as an unreadable entry from the grade school curriculum with a totally preposterous title. I don’t think we had to read more than short excerpts and comments; the comments I recall started out from explaining that yes, the title was absurd.
    The most recent, and truly wonderful, reincarnation of Radischev’s travelogue may be Psoy Korolenko’s “intellectual opera” “Casagne” (that’s Казань). Radischev’s monologue by this fellow linguist can be listened to here

  9. Victor Sonkin says

    18th-century Russian is quite readable.

  10. I first read Путешествие at 14. I’ve reread it since, piecemeal, and have even started to enjoy the travelog. An interesting patchwork of colloquial, Slavonic and German-inflected Russian. But it’s all perfectly decipherable.

  11. Oh, yeah, it’s not hard Russian, but my Russian wasn’t that good in 1998, and words like токмо and зане thrown in didn’t help.

  12. David Marjanović says

    Перехват-Залихватский, Архистратиг Стратилатович

    Whoa. That’s a glorious name.

  13. Архистратиг?? ‘Arch-strategist’?

  14. Well, it’s a literary joke name, so anything goes.

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