Butkov’s Attics.

Over six years ago I wrote about “an obscure mid-19th-century Russian writer called Yakov Butkov” (Russian Wikipedia), an ambitious, self-educated writer from Saratov who made his way briefly into the Saint Petersburg literary world but died young and poor; ever since then I’ve been wanting to read his best-known work, Петербургския вершины [Petersburg attics], and having found it on Google Books (and downloaded it as a pdf for my Kindle — what a great world!), I’m making it my final read before plunging into Dostoevsky. It’s by no means great literature, but it’s enjoyable reading and is clearly the product of the resentful, somewhat paranoid, hanging-on-by-his-fingernails scrivener described in the Milyukov piece. Thumbnail sketches of the stories I’ve read so far will give you an idea: in “Poryadochny chelovek” [A respectable man], poor Chubukevich wins a fortune at cards and becomes “respectable,” happily cheating others; in “Lentochka” [The ribbon], Ivan Anisimovich gets a promotion and a ribbon (because he can copy documents in a fair hand without understanding a word) and hopes this will help him win the hand of the fair Wilhelmina (“Minchen! Minochka!”), but when he shows it off to her she barely notices it and tells him happily she’s engaged to another man; in “Pochtenny chelovek” [The estimable man], the narrator (trying to evade his creditors) runs into his old pal Luka Pachkunov, who tells him how and his wife make money from fake charities; in “Bitka” [Smart guy], Samson Samsonovich, once an up-and-coming “smart guy,” now spends his time cadging drinks in a German-style tavern called Kitai [China].

Since the last-named story starts with a bit of linguistic humor, I’ll quote the opening here:

It’s a shame that from day to day the Russian Language loses the meanings and even the use of many ancient, powerful, accurate words that have been driven out by foreign ones, supposedly because our language is poor and inexpressive! Nowadays, for example, the word genius is very much in fashion. It’s worth inquiring about who gets called a genius, and why. A contributor to a magazine whom the thrifty editor or publisher doesn’t feel the need to pay for his work is called a genius by way of encouragement, when in fact he’s no genius, he’s just an unskilled laborer of the literary world. In an office, a man who has perfectly mastered officialese, who knows how to confuse a matter with clerkly flourishes and can write and copy with equal perfection passes for a genius, when he’s nothing but a pettifogger […]

Furthermore, they call someone a genius who can’t be called a unskilled laborer, or a pettifogger, or a thief, not to any extent, someone who is nothing other than a smart guy.

This story is about a smart guy.

The Russian:

Жаль, что день отъ дня теряютъ свое значеніе въ Русскомъ Языкѣ и вовсе выходятъ изъ употребленія многія древнія, сильныя, мѣткія слова, тѣснимыя иными чужеязычными словами, будто потому, что языкъ нашъ бѣденъ, невыразителенъ! Нынѣ, напримѣръ, въ большомъ ходу слово геній. Стоитъ освѣдомиться, кого и за что величаютъ геніемъ. Журнальный сотрудникъ, которому разсчетливый редакторъ, или издатель журнала, не находитъ нужнымъ платить за трудъ, называется, для поощренія, геніемъ а между тѣмъ онъ не геній, а только литературный чернорабочій. Въ канцеляріи, человѣкъ, совершенно владѣющій казеннымъ слогомъ, умѣющій запутать дѣло подьяческими крючками, съ одинаковымъ совершенствомъ пишущій и переписывающій слыветъ геніемъ, а онъ только строка
. . .
Далѣе, геніемъ называютъ такого человѣка, котораго нельзя назвать ни чернорабочимъ, ни строкою, ни воромъ, въ какомъ бы то ни было размѣрѣ, человѣка, который не что иное какъ битка.

Идетъ рѣчь о биткѣ.

The word битка [bitká] is long obsolete; Dahl defines it as “челов. бойкий, бывалый, опытный, дошлый, смелый.”


  1. Solzhenitsyn discussed the introduction to the Russian language of many borrowed words in his books. I had never heard the word, битка used in a sentence. Fascinating.

    And all of those ѣ’s…………

  2. And all of those ъ’s …

  3. And don’t forget the і’s!

  4. Frankly, I was astounded that the clip-and-paste software at Google Books was able to copy and reproduce all that prerevolutionary Russian so accurately.

  5. A clerkly pettifogger who speaks only officialese….what’s not to like? I’ll take a copy, in triplicate please! Send the other examples to the Foggy Bottom Petting Zoo and the Obama White House, one and the same home of Smart Guys Central.

  6. Pavsky explains bitka as “someone who’s been beaten”, perhaps a guy who’s got smarter, more experienced, more disilluniosed from his losses. But the only meaning which occurred to me at first has been a diminutive form of бита bita, a game-piece used for hitting.And indeed, Encyclopaedic Lexicon of 1836 confirms that the lead-weighted throwing-piece of the now-extinct knuckle-bone game of Babki (used to hit and displace other game-pieces laid on the ground) was called a bitka. They cite a folk saying for a total loss, “Bitka’s on stake”, meaning the previous round of Babki has been so disastrous that a player had to put his throwing-piece on the ground for the next round of the game. According to the Lexicon, a man was called a bitka when he was rough, unyielding, and pushy. (I’m sure we’ve discussed the amazing, cross-national constellation of knuckle-bone games both here and at Rio Wang before, btw – ah, K, here’s an LH page)

    Needless to say, строка as a way to call a writer / scribe is equally totally obsolete.

  7. But the only meaning which occurred to me at first has been a diminutive form of бита bita, a game-piece used for hitting.

    That was my guess as well; I’m glad to see it confirmed.

  8. So Russians think smart guys are smelly?

  9. Now if only Butkov had been able to work in a reference to a synod and someone named Fyodor (or Þyodor), our pre-revolutionary Russian alphabet would have been complete. But alas he could not foresee the necessity.

  10. Just so we won’t be without them:


  1. […] reads a writer entirely unknown to me: Iakov Butkov (1820 or 1821-1856): “by no means great literature, […]

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