Apologies in advance: this is one of those posts of interest only to those as obsessed as I am by the obscurer byways of Russian lexicography, and in particular by Tolstoy’s vocabulary. I’m still working my way through War and Peace, but I’m on Book Four and the home stretch is in sight. I’m actually well into Part III, but I’ve just gotten around to investigating a question I had back in Part I, Chapter 4, in which Nikolai has been sent off to get horses in Voronezh and is visiting a landowner who has a stud farm. The landowner is described as “старый кавалерист, холостяк, лошадиный знаток, владетель коверной, столетней запеканки, старого венгерского и чудных лошадей”: ‘an old cavalryman, a bachelor, a connoisseur of horses, the owner of a kovyornaya, of hundred-year-old spiced brandy, old Hungarian wine, and wonderful horses.” So what’s a kovyornaya (or, depending on your preferences in transliteration, kovernaya)? Well, it’s the feminine form of kovyorny, an adjective from kovyor ‘rug, carpet,’ but that doesn’t help much. Feminine adjectives used as nouns often have komnata ‘room’ understood, e.g. stolovaya ‘dining room’ (from stol ‘table’), so it’s probably a room having something to do with rugs, but that’s not much better. Translators picture a room strewn with rugs: Ann Dunnigan has “den,” Aylmer and Louise Maude “smoking-room,” and Pevear and Volokhonsky “carpet room” (with a footnote explaining that this is “a room in a manor house decorated with carpets in the Oriental style”). But my finely honed googling has turned up Nataliya Grot’s memoir Изъ семейной хроники (‘From a family chronicle’), whose first chapter describes her father’s estate as having “кухня, баня, кладовая, столярная, коверная (гдѣ ткали ковры)…”: ‘a cookhouse, a bathhouse, a pantry, a joinery, a kovyornaya (where carpets were woven)…’ (my emphasis). So it is not a room with carpets in it (which would be utterly unremarkable in a country estate) but a place where carpets are made, a valuable addition worth mentioning alongside fine horses and wine. I note this for the benefit of future translators as well as readers.
I am particularly curious about the Pevear/Volokhonsky annotation. Maybe they found a different source that explains the word thus; maybe there were two different sorts of kovyornayas to be found on such estates. But maybe they were just guessing like everyone else, and decided to ornament their guess with a footnote to make it look more official. If I knew that to be the case, I would have harsh words for it, but I don’t, so I merely note the possibility.


  1. I think the weaving explanation fits the context far better because of владетель.

  2. Please tell what’s “владетель” mean?

  3. One who owns, controls, or has mastery over.

  4. I’d be tempted to write just as they did, but leave the footnote out entirely. That a carpet-room was intended is clear; the nature of the carpet-room is just as well guessed by the reader as by the translator. (Not that I approve of lazy translation in general. But some uncertainties are best deferred, no?)

  5. I’m sorry, David! It corresponds to “owner” in the translation that Languagehat provided.

  6. i’d guess that kovernaya is the room where there are carpets like a den and kovrovaya if the carpets are made there, like in the factory, ‘kovrovaya fabrika’, but maybe in the xix century they didn’t say kovrovaya

  7. vladetel’ also sounds archaic and more like a collector, not a producer of something, so it’s vladetel’ of adorable horses, rare vine etc and kovernoi as if LT wanted to say that the landowner owned such rare and luxurious items as described
    vladelets would have had more like the meaning of capitalist 🙂

  8. w

  9. Now that’s a pretty impressive spam. Defang rather than delete, I say.

  10. Actually, Tolstoy uses the word “kovyorny” twice in “War and Peace”, the second time in volume 3, part 3: “Не закрывалась только крышка коверного ящика”. As you see, here “kovyorny” means “made from rug”. Nowadays we use “kovyorny”, only when we mean the clown, who appears on arena between the numbers, while “kovyor” is being removed or spread again.

  11. Nowadays we use “kovyorny”, only when we mean the clown, who appears on arena between the numbers, while “kovyor” is being removed or spread again.
    Thanks very much—that’s the kind of thing you can’t get from dictionaries!

  12. I haven’t been to the Russian circus many times, so was also interested to hear the explanation about the clowns. Thanks!

  13. I’m very glad you found this meaning interesting:-). Anyway, you can find it in the dictionaries – in example on this site –

  14. Kovyorny is in Ozhegov, with more or less the same definition as in gramota.ru.
    I wondered what the equivalent word for such a clown was in English. It turns out it’s carpet clown (see this glossary of circus language).

  15. I was suspicious at first because the English on that site is so bad, obviously not that of a native speaker, but googling the phrase I found plenty of backup, here, for example: “Carpet Clown A clown performing brief sections to fill the time between the acts whilst the ring cover is being laid or replaced.”

  16. Thanks, Hat. Very interesting. I don’t have all my reference books available, but I have to say I rather doubt the notion of the Oriental style room — this was 1812, and I think the “Oriental” style in decor came later. Besides, the furnishings of Russian city houses and country estates were far more sparse than one would have thought. But I could be absolutely wrong. In any case, many thanks for the question.

  17. Does your copy of War and Peace have large chunks of text (including almost the whole of the first couple of pages) in French, or is it a modernized edition? When I came across an early edition in my college library when I was a student I was quite surprised to see how much of it was written in French. Of course, Tolstoy could have safely assumed that his readers could read French.

  18. My Russian text has the French just as Tolstoy wrote it (and I’d be surprised if any didn’t); I believe most translations render most of it into English (my Dunnigan translation, for instance, starts with “Eh bien, mon prince,” and Englishes the rest).

  19. The French in War and Peace is one of those topics people rant about. Lately they mostly rant that the French should be there because that’s the way Tolstoy wrote it, and also because only that way can you understand the horror of being invaded by a country whose language you use more and better than your native one.
    But the thing is — in later editions while Tolstoy was alive, the French was replaced by Russian (because not so many people understood the French anymore). So you can make a case for it either way.
    As you can make a case either way for translating from one or the other editions.

  20. After all, if Cormac McCarthy can have bestsellers with pages and pages of dialogue in Spanish — which, unlike Tolstoy, he knows that most of his readers do not understand — what’s some French more or less? (McCarthy also engages in the Hemingway/Steinbeck style of writing Spanish through English, which of course has nothing to do with how Hispanics speak English or with the effect the original Spanish has on a hispanophone ear — it’s full of thous and thees.)

  21. That last comment is trying to say
    “Вообще, откровенно говоря, комментарии тут гораздо прикольнейсамих постов. (Не в обиду автору, конечно :))”
    which is generic spam. I can’t find прикольнейсамих in any dictionaries (I don’t know enough Russian morphology to have any chance, hahah), but the only matches for it in Google are exactly this spam.
    (The details; it was sent as binary Windows-1251, and languagehat.com interpreted it as binary Latin 1, which is why you see Western European characters, not Cyrillic.)

  22. I’ve deleted the spam; the answer to your implied question is that a space has been omitted in прикольнейсамих — it should be прикольней самих постов ‘funnier than the posts themselves.’

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