A couple more philological/cultural digressions from Svetlana Boym’s Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia (see this LH post); first, on the two words for ‘truth’:

In Russian there are two words for truth — pravda and istina — and no word for authenticity. Pravda evokes justice, fairness, and righteousness; istina derives from “is” (est’), and means that it is a kind of truth and faithfulness to being. In the Orthodox saying, “pravda comes from the heaven, istina comes from the earth,” but the two words often sometimes reverse their meaning. By the nineteenth century pravda is the more colloquial term, while istina belongs to the literary language. Russian proverbs and folk sayings, as well as the Soviet anecdotes, are ambiguous when it comes to truth. (They only discuss pravda, never istina, which belongs to a different kind of talk.) On the one hand, there are warnings for truth-seekers: “truth is good but happiness is better,” or “if you tell the truth, you give yourself trouble”; and “every Pavel has his own truth”; or, on the grim side, “there was truth at Peter and Paul’s.” This last “truth” does not refer to the evangelical doctrine but rather to confession under torture in the infamous prison at the Peter and Paul fortress in St. Petersburg. On the other hand, pravda is also heroically celebrated: “truth does not burn in fire and does not drown in the water,” or “Varvara is my aunt, but truth is my sister.” Yet this common ambiguity about truth from Russian oral culture is rarely echoed in the writings of the Russian intelligentsia. In this respect Russian writers and intellectuals are unfaithful to the Russian folk tradition; many of them considered truth to be much better than happiness. They searched for the essential istina, the word that does not rhyme easily. [A footnote cites Nabokov’s essay “Leo Tolstoy.”] One feature, however, remains the same — truth has to be “Russian.” In the proverbs found in Dal’s dictionary, “Russian truth” is positively qualified, as opposed to “Gypsy truth” or “Greek truth” (“If a Greek is telling the truth, keep your ears open”). The affirmation of Russian truth and truthful behavior is one of the important cultural obsessions inherent in the intelligentsia’s discourse on Russian identity since the nineteenth century. It is closely linked to the relationship between Russia and the West and the attitudes toward Westernized conventions, rules and laws of behavior, conceptions of legality and the legal system, and boundaries between social and antisocial, lawful and unlawful, private and public. Truthful behavior is frequently seen as sincere behavior, defined in opposition to Western conventional manners.

The “is” etymology is disputed (Vasmer provides various other possibilities), but I’m interested in what readers familiar with Russian culture think about the rest of the quote.

And here’s a short bit about the words for ‘silence’:

Bakhtin distinguished between two Russian words for silence — tishina and molchanie, one referring to the silence of the world, where nothing makes sounds, and the other to the silence of people, where nobody speaks.

Succinct and convincing.


  1. I’m far less familiar with Russian culture than you are, but certainly those EU banks who lent to Greece are picking up a bit of the Russians’ attitude to them. By the way, is there a Dai’s dictionary, or should that be Dahl?

  2. Other languages also make the silence distinction. German: Stille/Schweigen, Italian: silenzio/tacere — but silenzio can mean both, and in other Romance languages including English, silentium has won.

  3. Anna Wierzbicka has an excellent article “Russian Cultural Scripts: The Theory of Cultural Scripts and its Applications” (2002) that discusses in detail pravda (noun), pravda (predicate), istina, nepravda, lož, vran’e, iskrennost’, and their relatives. There’s a nice exemplar of the distinction on p. 16: while the witnesses in a court swear to speak pravda, the court seeks to establish istina. Boym’s book is in fact cited on p. 21.
    You don’t have to know about (much less believe in) Weetabix semantic primes to follow this article.
    As for silence and stillness, the latter is high-register in English, but by no means obsolete.

  4. why, there are exactly the same words in English, right vs. true. And authentic is most commonly “подлинный”, literally “holding up even under torture”. And there is at least one idiom with “istina” in it, Платон мне друг, но истина дороже. By the way, speaking of meanings and connotations of правда: Russian Truth (perhaps better translated as Russian Code of Justice) is the original codex of Yaroslavl the Wise. Russian words for “rule”, “jurisprudence”, and “correction” all share this same root too.

  5. nepravda, lož, vran’e … another quite interesting synonym is кривда

  6. The tishina/molchanie distinction exists also in Romanian.
    There is on one hand the adjective “silenţios” (referring to machinery mostly) and on another hand “tăcut” referring to humans. A third attribute is appropriate for referring to an environment, “liniştit” as in calm, soundless, undisturbed.
    I’m not really sure, however tishina looks like it could be related to “tihnă” (complete silence, stillness) while molchanie might have given “molcom” (mild, calm, temperate) via the bulgarian “mŭlkom”.
    If I’m terribly wrong feel free to correct me. Thanks.

  7. why, there are exactly the same words in English, right vs. true. And authentic is most commonly “подлинный”, literally “holding up even under torture”.
    I think this steamrollers over the subtle, but crucial denotations of the two Russian words. “Right” is a poor translation for “правда” in almost every circumstance: “говорить правду” is best translated as “to tell the truth,” for example. Bringing in право/правило to explain modern usage and connotations is at best an example of etymological fallacy.
    In my own understanding, “правда” is related to honesty and is a human quality. “Истина” is not a human quality, but something closer to “natural fact.”
    Finally, “подлинный” captures one meaning of “authentic,” namely “real/the opposite of fake.” But I think “authentic” is being offered here in the sense of “possessing an essential quality,” as an inadequate translation for “истинный.”

  8. “правда” is related to honesty and is a human quality. “Истина” is not a human quality, but something closer to “natural fact.”
    So the failure of English to make this distinction allows the equivocators amongst us to lead us up the garden path:
    Stella: Michael, I just want you to tell me the truth!
    Michael: But what is the truth, Stella? The more you look for them the more you will find there are no eternal truths.
    Stella: @!*&(?

  9. This reminds me that in Christopher Hitchens’s memoir Hitch-22 that I’m reading, he says of Ronald Reagan:

    There was, first, his appallingly facile manner as a liar. He could fix the camera with a folksy smirk that I always found annoying but that got him called “The Great Communicator” by a chorus of roadies in the press, and proceed to utter the most resounding untruths. (“South Africa has stood by us in every major was we have ever fought,” he declared while defending a regime whose party leadership had been locked up by the British for pro-Nazi sympathies in the Second World War. The Russian language contains no word for “freedom” was another stupefying pronouncement of his: Who knows where he got it from, or who can imagine a president whose staff couldn’t tell him of the noble word svoboda? On two separate occasions, he claimed that, having never quit the safety of the Los Angeles movie backlots, he had been present for the liberation of the Nazi deathcamps. It could get worrying.)

  10. By the way, is there a Dai’s dictionary, or should that be Dahl?
    Scanning error (to save typing, I sometimes let Google Books help me with the quotes); thanks for catching it. (She actually spells it Dal.)
    However, “often sometimes” is in the original text. Tsk.

  11. John Emerson says

    Judging by examples given (and knowing no Russian), while there probably is a general distinction between pravda and istina, in specific contexts and in set phrases this distinction is not always honored.
    Otherwise, if “right [pravda] vs. true [istina]” is generally accurate, I don’t see how you get “witnesses in a court swear to speak pravda, the court seeks to establish istina”.

  12. tishina and molchanie
    it is also ‘stillness’and ‘calm’ – покой (pokoy)

  13. In my own understanding, “правда” is related to honesty and is a human quality. “Истина” is not a human quality, but something closer to “natural fact.”
    Good observation, but only “as a rule” / “как правило” LOL i.e. not without numerous exceptions which prove that the dualism of, supposedly, two truths is much more fluid and subtle. Pravda ~~ pravota, i.e. absolute or objective truth is inseparable from pravda as honesty. As in: Не в силе Бог, а в правде; до правды сто верст, и все лесом; искать правду; бороться за правду; “Правды” нет, “Советская Россия” продана, остался “Труд” за три копейки.
    And istina, albeit more high horsey in usage, has elements of human quality too (истинно говорю is a common expression).
    Since the discussion centered narrowly on the English word “truth”, I thought it was important to remind ourselves that Russian “pravda” has much in common with another English word, “right” … therefore I think that it was totally appropriate to mention pravo, pravilo, or pravit’?
    Lastly, Bathrobe’s boy-girl dialog nicely illustrates the purported dualism, thanks! Of course the reallife Michael and Stella would probably start from a different sentence, “don’t lie to me” in English (as in the pines, where the Sun doesn’t e’er shine), or in Russian, “скажи честно”, tell me honestly.

  14. правдоискатель (truth-seeker) is often used in derisive sense, of someone looking for justice that can never be practically achieved.

  15. And there is an old Soviet joke:
    At a news agent, a man asks:
    – Have you any Pravda(truth) left?
    – No, no Pravda left.
    – What about Izvestia (news)?
    – No, no Izvestia.
    – What do you have left?
    – Trud (labour, work), for two kopecks.
    (Pravda, the main communist newspaper, Izvestia/News, Reports, the main government newspaper, and Trud/Labour, the trade union newspaper, which was cheaper than the other main national newspapers).

  16. heh, as a former avid of Izvestia, I have to take an issue with Sashura’s version of the old joke 🙂 I’m sure the 2nd paper was the “Savraska” as we called it. Anyway it probably makes sense to translate my examples of pravda being used as truth.
    God is not with the power, but with the truth
    The road to truth is 100 miles long, and all through the woods
    To seek truth; to fight for truth (this definitely transitions into English “rights” as well)
    And of course the supposed note in the window of the news kiosk, playing with the actual paper names:
    There is no “Truth”, “Russia” has been sold, and all what’s left is “Work” for pennies.

  17. I like Mockba’s version too, forgot about Svaraska (Soviet Russia, a newspaper), at some point in mid-80s a strong liberal voice.

  18. Speaking of silence, and of the liberal voices of the not so distant past… Isn’t it the 20th aniversary of the “putsch” a.k.a. the GKChP coup? Even LH marks this ambigous event with total silence.
    I remember staying there in light rain on a barricade facing the bridge, between the White House and the Comecon, as the engines of Kantemirovka Guards’ tanks revved up again and again … hiking boots and a hard hat for “safety” … and then, for many years later, pondering if it was better for us to loose & to die so Russia would live a decent life. Go figure.

  19. Victor Sonkin says

    As all dicta in the style of ‘language X has no word for Y’, this is rather clumsy; I’m only half-joking when I say that “аутентичность” is a perfectly good Russian word for ‘authenticity’.
    As for tishina/molchanie, well noted; it’s interesting that the two best-known translations of ‘Hamlet’ (Lozinsky’s and Pasternak’s) render Hamlet’s last words, ‘the rest is silence’, as “Дальше – тишина” and “Дальнейшее – молчанье” respectively.
    “Русская правда” is also a medieval law code, where ‘pravda’ meant something altogether different , and I’m sure it has influenced the mutual attraction of the two words.

  20. Victor Sonkin says

    MOCKBA, just to make sure I understand: is your meaning ‘if the GKChP had won, Russia would [make it ‘might’] have had a decent life’?

  21. Even LH marks this ambigous event with total silence.
    I don’t really cover politics here, but Sashura has a good post about it (Russian, English).
    MOCKBA, just to make sure I understand: is your meaning ‘if the GKChP had won, Russia would [make it ‘might’] have had a decent life’?
    I doubt it, but now you’ve got me curious.

  22. There is a great culturology aspect in the events of August 1991. Sashura’s blog approaches exactly from this angle, although peculiarly, I don’t remember anything about the Swan Lake link (there is a possible explanation though, as my family never owned a TV set). In my mind, the barricades of the White House are anchored in 3 other cultural landmarks (Kabakov’s dystopian doomsday scenarios which motivated citizens to go fight for their own lives, turning the resistance from political to personal and visceral; Rostropovich’s music, for his appearance at the scene inexplicably turned the mood; and the ghosts of the 1905 uprising retained in the street names and monuments of the neighborhood, which has become The Place).
    Of course GKChP was a bunch of mediocrities and loosers and it wasn’t expected to last let alone to do anything visionary. Who knows what might have followed in its steps. But our stand against it may have been driven by our visceral fears of the future horrors, and it just let the country slip into different horrors.

  23. Do you mean Ilya Kabakov? Outside of lower Manhattan and since the death of Andy Warhol I’ve never heard of a contemporary artist directly influencing people’s actions. What a country! Of course he lives in New York now, so there’s no point in moving to Russia just to be near Ilya Kabakov.

  24. Victor Sonkin says

    AJP: No, it’s the writer Alexander Kabakov, whose dystopian novel “Невозвращенец” (loosely ‘The Non-Returner’) kind of predicted the coup.
    I sincerely doubt any of the factors listed by MOCKBA seriously influenced the outcome. The press conference of the GKChP is a very revealing sight (available here: which is an interesting project through and through).
    I don’t want to burrow deep into the political domain, but every time I look back, I am amazed how relatively peaceful it all had been. Things could have turned out much, much worse. And the horrors of today, which I neither deny nor condone, are still just a shadow of the Soviet horrors.

  25. a contemporary artist directly influencing people’s actions
    Ai Weiwei?
    It’s still possible for an artist to excite people with little other interest in art, often in a wholly negative way, like Andres Serrano or M. F. Husain. But that’s probably something else and usually requires a catalyst, for whom the art is a stand-in.

  26. How intriguing that the Russian word istina “truth” (in the sense of what is) so closely resembles the Hungarian word Isten: “God”. Turns out that a connexion has been supposed for at least 200 years (see Etymologicon universale, 1811). But there are many competing accounts of Isten (most of them true).

  27. MMcM, There are lots of artists who provoke the public as part of their work – Tracy Emin is hardly ever out of the newspapers for more than about a week at a time in Britain – but, had it been the case that Ilya Kabakov’s dystopian commentaries had an influence on the outcome of the coup attempt, that would be pretty exceptional and at the same time happily consequent. Ai Weiwei’s work is political in the usual “poetic” way with the visual arts: once you’ve been told what, for example, his sunflower seeds represent, you can go “Oh, yeah”. Of course now his case is more one of freedom of speech, but that wasn’t intended (presumably).

  28. In China, (non-comformist) art is always about freedom of speech. For background on the Beijing art scene, read here an article about the artists’ village on the outskirts of Beijing.

  29. Dressing gown, thanks for the article. Though lots of work runs into free-speech trouble, I’m not sure it’s always about free speech. Look at Zhang Xiaogang or Zhang Huan, say – to mention just the Zhangs – and you can see they’re working with other stuff.

  30. …other stuff that’s Western in origin but given new life, like performance or Surrealism, I was going to say (got cut off).

  31. When I say it’s about free speech, you would be amazed at how fuddy-duddy and conservative the powers-that-be can be in China. Well, it’s changed a lot. The Chinese authorities have woken up to the fact that those avant-garde artists they used to give a hard time are a big drawcard for modern Chinese culture. Hence the more recent attempts to pre-empt their work.
    Apart from official disapproval, the other problem is commercialism. Avant-garde work attracts interest, tourists, and money. It then becomes impossible for poor struggling artists to afford the rent and they move out. 798 in Beijing started as an art colony. It’s now a tourist attraction full of blatant commercialism.

  32. I just ran across a nice illustration of the two words for ‘silence’ in Serafimovich‘s «Железный поток» (The Iron Flood; see this post); the leading column has been ordered to halt, and “на секунду наступило не только молчание, но и тишина, великая тишина бесконечной усталости, беспощадного зноя” [for a second there came not only molchanie but also tishina, the great tishina of endless weariness, merciless heat].

  33. John Cowan says

    that got him called “The Great Communicator” by a chorus of roadies

    That gave me a jolt: did Reagan ever “go on the road” in the sense of playing in a band? But no, it’s an OCR vel sim. error for toadies.

  34. In fifth grade, we did a class project, making a quilt with embroidered images of each of the presidents. As standardized sources for their pictures, the teacher got a pack of thirty-nine cards, each with a portrait of one of the forty United States presidents on one side and information about him on the other. Each president had a nickname listed. Reagan’s was said to be “The Great Communicator,” which I had never heard and our teacher kind of scoffed at. However, for Nixon, what it had was not really a nickname at all, but a rather descriptive phrase that must often have been used to refer to him: “The Embattled President.”

    In any case, many political campaigners must have roadies for their barnstorming events. They just aren’t called “roadies.”

  35. Lars Mathiesen says

    Which one was left out? Enquiring minds want to know!

  36. @Lars Mathiesen: I was hoping someone would notice that and fall into my trap!

    None of them were missing, but there was only one card for Grover Cleveland, who gets counted twice because he served non-consecutive terms.

  37. J.W. Brewer says

    @Brett: But that’s the thing. Just because the current incumbent is conventionally numbered #46 does not in fact mean that 45 different persons were his predecessors in that office. So I don’t think the phrasing “the forty United States presidents” meaning Washington-to-Reagan-inclusive is actually defensible as accurate. Maybe forty “presidencies” or “administrations” would be defensible? This sort of issue must come up in monarchies where occasionally incumbents get deposed but then subsequently return to power — unless one retcons the situation to ignore the interlude as that of a usurper that doesn’t really count, you end up with one total number for “reigns” and a lower total number for different individual monarchs with one-or-more reigns to their credit.

  38. Which raises the question: which monarch had the most-interrupted reign? Were there any who were temporarily replaced with more than one interloper?

  39. J.W. Brewer says

    This fellow is said to have been interrupted twice and thus to have had three reigns. Not sure if all relevant historians agree with wikipedia on this or not.

    Earlier in Byzantine history Justinian II had only two reigns but more than one other fellow filled up the gap in between them.

  40. January First-of-May says

    Vasily II of Moscow had three reigns with three interlopers, according to the Wikipedia list. Earlier in Russian history there were many cases of three reigns with more than three interlopers, as the Grand Prince title frequently changed hands, but I couldn’t find anyone with four or more reigns.

    Regnal Chronologies gives eight reigns to Daniel of Galitzia (1201?-1264); Russian Wikipedia gives five. Apparently he declined one more attempt in 1215.

  41. Daniel (re-re-re-re-re-re-restored)………..1242-1264

    Those were exciting times.

  42. Lars Mathiesen says

    So the second coming of Grover Cleveland was left out? Who is with me in claiming that they were all dummies remote controlled by the greys, and they had to make a new (non-carded) GC because the old one had already been recycled, thus making Brett’s initial statement true?

  43. In Russian there are two words for truth — pravda and istina

    Just ran across this quote from Ovadii Savich:

    «…Помни, ты не фотограф, а человекоописатель, твой закон — не факт, а правдоподобие, не статистика, а типичность, не правда, а истина.»

    [Remember, you are not a photographer but a describer of people, your law is not fact but plausibility, not statistics but typicality, not pravda but istina.]

    It’s not clear to me what exactly he’s implying about the two words.

  44. John Cowan says

    “Not the facts, but the truth”, I think.

    As for administration, that doesn’t work: Obama had two administrations, but only one presidency-or-whatever, because they were consecutive. Trying to rationalize the convention is kinda pointless.

  45. Hehe. Both GTranslate and DeepL offer … not truth but truth.

    Don’t they have a meta-rule that repeating yourself that crassly can’t be right?

    Erm but A rose is a rose is a rose.

  46. PlasticPaddy says
  47. Yes, I’m aware of the various and variously subtle distinctions made on various planes between the two (some of which are discussed in the comment thread above), but it’s not clear to me what distinction Savich is making. Usually правда is seen as hearty Russian God’s-own-righteous-truth while истина is more boringly fact-based, but here they seem to be used in the opposite manner.

  48. PlasticPaddy says


    This includes a discussion of Savich and seems to argue that Savich was aiming at an artistic truth (istina) that is more deeply or graspably true than a truth limited to factual (journalism) or literal (translation) presentation (pravda). If this is the case, the distinction between the two words would be, as you say, idiosyncratic to Savich.

  49. Yes, that’s where I got the quote. It does seem to be idiosyncratic!

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