Lurie and Oksman.

I’ve finally finished Samuil Lurie’s “Изломанный аршин: Трактат с примечаниями” [The broken cubit-ruler: An annotated treatise] (see this post), and I’m rather at a loss as to what to say. It’s a brilliant and brilliantly written book (the reaction of many of Anatoly’s readers at his post — “LOL dude can barely write Russian, what’s he talking about, I don’t get it” — makes me despair of post-Soviet literacy), and ordinarily I’d urge you to read it, but 1) it’s heavily allusive and ironized (and thus makes for slow reading, with frequent pauses to look things up or shoot off e-mails asking for elucidation if you don’t happen to be Russian); 2) it’s about a forgotten figure who’s never going to regain even the modest prominence he deserves, so why bother (although it does have a clever detective-story aspect which I won’t spoil); and 3) it’s sad, sad, sad — it’s one thing to read fiction about pathetic characters ground down endlessly by fate, but when it’s a real person with real kids he’s trying to support, it leaves you feeling miserable.

In short: Nikolai Polevoy, an industrious editor, writer, and translator from the merchant class with a desire to improve the Russian Empire (which he loved! no revolutionary he!) according to the best Enlightenment principles, from 1825 to 1834 ran his own journal, Moskovskii telegraf (The Moscow Telegraph), so successfully he was one of the most popular literary figures in Russia. Then his journal was closed down (see the Wikipedia article for boring details) and for the next decade he was relentlessly hounded by the all-powerful reactionary Uvarov, who was so convinced, against all evidence and reason, that he was a dangerous revolutionary that even when Polevoy was dying and desperate he would not allow him to give public lectures on literature, and the all-powerful critic Belinsky, who, thinking that Polevoy had written a vaudeville play in which he was lampooned (a play Polevoy certainly didn’t write and apparently never even saw), spent a decade viciously attacking him and all his works in every available public venue — when a friend suggested after some years that perhaps it was time to let up a bit, that surely the sick and debt-ridden Polevoy had expiated whatever sins Belinsky held against him, responded with a long letter so stupefyingly vindictive and nasty that I think it would make me physically sick to translate it. Only after Polevoy’s death did Belinsky apparently have second thoughts; he wrote a long and laudatory obituary which (because everything of Belinsky’s became sacred writ for the Soviets) is the source of basically whatever little is remembered of this brave fighter for justice (as Belinsky justly called him, though Belinsky had spent years accusing him of being an ignorant hack who had sold himself to the powers of reaction and repression — which is particularly amusing since in the late 1830s Belinsky himself had been stoutly defending said powers of reaction and repression, due to his infamous “reconciliation with reality”).

So now you know the story. There’s lots of fascinating material about Pushkin and whales and the literary life of the 1830s and ’40s (it provides the perfect lead-in to Annenkov’s The Extraordinary Decade, which I’ll be reading next), and if the style appeals to you as it does to me (though clearly it doesn’t to everyone) it’s a pleasure to read, but I can’t recommend it. I want to close by paying tribute to a more recent figure Lurie mentions, Yulian Oksman. Oksman was a brilliant literary scholar who was arrested in 1936 because of a false denunciation (a common fate in those days), spent years at Kolyma, got another five years tacked on for “slandering Soviet justice,” was released in 1946, and resumed his career, eventually receiving the Belinsky Prize for his work on Belinsky. (You see the connection.) You’d think a man with such a past would keep his head down and stay out of trouble, but not Oksman; as soon as he was freed he began a long campaign against everyone in literary-scientific officialdom who had aided Yezhov, Beria, and the other butchers in creating the Terror; he called the denouncers by name at every meeting he could and demanded their expulsion from their posts. Furthermore, he established links with Western Slavicists and sent them the works of Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and other Silver Age writers who were non-persons in their native land, as well as his own remembrances of them (he was of their generation, born in 1895). This annoyed the authorities enough that in 1963 a case was built against him; it didn’t wind up going to trial, but he was forcibly retired and thrown out of the Writers’ Union, and when he died in 1970 there was no mention in the Soviet press. I don’t really understand the reckless courage of people like that, but I’m glad they exist and I honor them.

Update (August 2015): Lurie died on Aug. 8; here’s a touching reminiscence (in Russian) by Gasan Guseinov, and here’s a picture from 2008.

Addendum (July 2019): It turns out that the notorious turncoat terrorist Sergei Degaev (see this post) was Polevoi’s grandson!


  1. “I know Rus and Rus knows me” that all I know about Mr. Polevoy.

  2. Lurie is an interesting Jewish surname. It is thought to derive from town of Loire-sur-Rhône in France.

    Rather unusual for Ashkenazi surnames, which are mostly of German origin.

  3. Here is an extremely interesting looking book about history of Lurie family.

    (descent from King David? how awesome is that!)

    Teasing excerpt from contents. Looks very, very interesting:

    The Jewish Pope xxi
    Family Ramifications xxii
    Other Luries xxii
    Sources xxiii

    An Early 16th-Century Document 1
    Interpretation of the Manuscript 2
    Family History: Lurie-Spira Relationships 8
    Early 14th- and 15th-Century German Civil Documents 8
    Treves Connection 11
    Three 16th-Century Hebrew Documents, 1554, 1566, and 1583 12
    Oxford Manuscript by Shtadlan Joselmann of Rosheim 13
    Letter Written in 1566 13
    Manuscript Dated 1583 In Worms Written by Aaron Lurie 20
    16th-Century Inscription of Three Early Lurie Generations 22
    17th-Century Lurie Documents 22
    Lurie Branch from Italy 30
    Three 16th-Century Great Lurie Rabbinical Scholars 31
    R. Solomon Lurie MaHaRaSHaL, 1510-1573 31
    R. Moses Isserles ReMA, 1525-1572 33
    R. Meir Katzenellenbogen of Padua (MaHaRaM Padua) 1482-1565 35
    Rashi’s Descent from King David 36
    From Rashi to Hillel 36
    From Hillel to King David 36

    Early 19th-Century Lurie Family Saga (Unpublished Manuscript) 39
    The Manuscript 41
    Introduction: His Father 41
    Lurie Family Ancestry 41
    His Lurie Grandparents 42
    His Father: Jacob Aaron Lurie 43
    His Father’s Siblings 44
    His Father’s Children (Jacob Aaron Lurie’s Children) 44
    His Mother’s Family (R. Zeev Wolf Simchowitz) 45
    The Hospital In Minsk 46
    The Vilna Gaon and Haim of Volozhin 46
    Late 19th-Century Manuscript by R. David Lurie, The RaDaL of Bykhov 47
    1812: Emperor Napoleon’s Coat 53
    Manuscript 2660–Yonah Lurie’s Own Story 55

  4. (descent from King David? how awesome is that!)

    About as awesome as descent from King Arthur or Amaterasu.

  5. I can write very convincing genealogy proving Pushkin’s descent from Scandinavian god Freyr….

  6. descent from King David? how awesome is that!)

    About as awesome as descent from King Arthur or Amaterasu.

    Yup. The medieval Jewish sage Rashi claimed to have been descended from King David, so anybody who can trace his roots to Rashi (yeah, sure) has two-thirds of the work done for him.

    Rashi’s commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and Talmud remain widely studied today; they form an integral part of printed Hebrew bibles and volumes of Talmud. He lived for most of his life in Troyes, in Champagne, and some members of his family were apparently vintners. Wine historians sometimes look to his work for knowledge of medieval French viticulture. He occasionally added a transliterated French word or phrase to his commentaries, today regarded as a useful resource for students of medieval French.

  7. Some say Uvarov was a liberal who played a conservative to Nicholas I. He proposed the “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality” principle while being a non-believer, a liberal, and a non-reader of Russian literature, according to the historian Sergey M. Soloviev. If I may link to my own post, there’s a longer Soloviev quote there on Uvarov’s profound duplicity. It seems that Uvarov was not much liked by anyone at all in Russia – Pushkin called him “a great villain” (большой подлец). He was also gay, although I’m not sure how that’s relevant except to a Pushkin epigram.

  8. Of course, “villain” is too weak for подлец, but there’s nothing strong enough in formal English; “scumbag” would be more appropriate in terms of impact, but not in terms of discourse level.

  9. Villain seems to be stronger in BrE; it’s used in Rumpole of the Bailey to mean ‘professional criminal’, and the OED has quotations in that sense from 1960 on. Of course, the original sense can be very strong indeed: the OED says “Originally, a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes”, which is pretty emphatic. One apposite quotation is from Robinson Crusoe (1719): “He told me there were two desperate Villains among them, that it was scarce safe to shew any Mercy to.”

  10. Villain seems to be stronger in BrE; it’s used in Rumpole of the Bailey to mean ‘professional criminal’

    But that’s irrelevant to the Russian sense, which is approximated by the OED’s “base-minded … of ignoble ideas or instincts … unprincipled or depraved.” A подлец will do absolutely anything, spit on a defenseless man or violate a nun. If you call someone a подлец, them’s fighting words.

  11. Re: gay

    I wonder if Pushkin was gay himself.

    Well, he wasn’t really, he loved women too much apparently, but they seem to have done a lot of sexual experimentation in the Lyceum, at least that’s the impression I got reading some of his epigrams of his classmates.

  12. marie-lucie says

    Did Pushkin use the English word villain or the French word vilain?

  13. @marie-lucie: Referring to Uvarov, Pushkin used the Russian word, “подлец”. LH made the meaning clear in this comment. However “подлец” was apparently derived from “подлый”, which also means “lowborn, non-noble” and in that sense is close to the medieval meaning of “villain/villein” or “vilain”, a peasant. The French noun, “vilain”, can be found in a letter to Pushkin from Polina Osipova, his neighbor: “Pawl. est un vrai vilain et un fou par dessus… Je vous ai dit que le mari d’Olga est un vilain…”

    My impression is that Russian high society of Pushkin’s time was only mildly homophobic and not sanctimoniously Victorian in its attitudes to gay relationships. One problem with Uvarov was that his reputed paramour, Prince Dondukov-Korsakov, was appointed President of the Academy of Sciences during Uvarov’s tenure as minister of education – but the Prince, unlike Uvarov himself, had zero qualifications for the post. Pushkin called Dondukov “дурак и бардаш”. Both words sound perfectly Russian but while “дурак” is an “idiot” or a “fool”, “бардаш” is the French word bardache. Pushkin also penned a famous epigram against Dondukov, “В Академии наук // Заседает князь Дундук,” which asks basically, “why is the man sitting in the President’s chair?” and responds, “because he has a butt.” Also, “Дундук” means nothing in particular but sounds like an imbecile’s moniker.

  14. Prince Dondukov-Korsakov was a Russian aristocrat of Kalmyk ancestry. His maternal grandfather, Kalmyk taisha (prince) Assarai was baptised as prince Iona Fedorovich Dondukov.

    Dondukovs were named after their ancestor, Kalmyk Khan Donduk-Ombo. Kalmyk/Mongolian name Donduk comes from Tibetan word “don rtogs” which I think means “comprehend the meaning” or something like that.

    Second part of the surname comes from his father’s family – Korsakovs – Russian aristocratic family of Lithuanian (according to genealogical legend, ultimately from Czech) origin.

  15. Found a Mongolian source which says that Dondog means “one who grants emptiness”.

    I need to brush up my Buddhist philosophy a bit. I remember reading about this concept, which I think is something very positive, but can’t recall any details.

  16. Here is a Wikipedia’s explanation.

    “Śūnyatā, (Sanskrit, also shunyata; Pali: suññatā), in Buddhism, translated into English as emptiness, voidness,[1] openness,[2] spaciousness, vacuity, is a Buddhist concept which has multiple meanings depending on its doctrinal context. In Theravada Buddhism, suññatā often refers to the not-self (Pāli: anatta, Sanskrit: anātman)[note 1] nature of the five aggregates of experience and the six sense spheres. Suññatā is also often used to refer to a meditative state or experience.”

    Well, let’s forget about it. We would probably need to study ten years in remote Tibetan monastery to understand what it really means.

  17. Maybe it means “Cognizant of the Void,” like Monkey (悟空).

  18. OK. here is what I found. Christopher Atwood’s Searchable list of Mongolian versions of Tibetan names says that

    Dondog is Mongolian version of Tibetan “Don-rtogs”.

    Jeffrey Hopkins’ Tibetan-Sanskrit-English Dictionary gives following translations:

    [translation-san] {MSA,MV} artha
    [translation-san] {C} arthatas
    [translation-san] {MSA} kārya
    [translation-san] {MSA} parakārya
    [translation-san] {MSA} kāryatva{?}
    [translation-san] {MV} bhāva
    [translation-eng] {Hopkins} meaning; object; function; fact; purpose{N}; welfare
    [translation-eng] {C} according to ultimate reality; (according to) its meaning


    [translation-san] {L} anubudhyate
    [translation-san] {C} budhyati
    [translation-san] {C} budhyate
    [translation-san] {MV} anubhud-
    [translation-san] {MSA} adhigama
    [translation-san] {MSA} bodha
    [translation-san] {MSA} bodhana
    [translation-san] {MSA} gati
    [translation-san] {MV} avagam
    [translation-san] {MV} (prati √vyadh): pratividhyati
    [translation-san] {MV} (√vid): viditvā
    [translation-san] {C} vindati
    [translation-san] adigam
    [translation-eng] {Hopkins} realize; cognize; understand
    [translation-eng] {C} recognizes; wakes up to; find; entrance; discovers

    So, Donduk would probably translate as “Cognizant of ultimate meaning of reality”

  19. So Pushkin’s epigram should translate as

    “Prince “Cognizant of ultimate meaning of reality” presides over Academy of Sciences”

    How fitting!

  20. Thanks Alexei. I asked because the word used by Pushkin was said to be “villain”.

  21. I’ve just come across this open letter from Samuil Lurie to Sberbank CEO German Gref. Lurie says he has terminal cancer.

  22. Damn, that’s sad. He says he has days or weeks to live. An eloquently indignant letter (for those who don’t know Russian, he’s complaining to the head of Sberbank about their refusal to part with his money when his sister went to the bank to get it).

  23. Oksman’s courage sounds like determination rather than recklessness. He had already survived the worst the gulag could throw at him short of death, and killing him in 1963 would have been tacky (and might have made him a martyr), so the PTBs just decided to make him a non-person too.

    What kind of a name is “Oksman”, anyway? Sounds obviously Germanic, which probably means it isn’t.

  24. It’s a Jewish name, Ochsmann, apparently either directly from German Ochse ‘ox’ or a translation from Hebrew Shor (same sense).

  25. Given cases like Genghis Khan, I’d be surprised if any Jew (and a hefty number of Gentiles) are not descended from King David.

  26. SFReader, do you know the origin of Choibalsan? Чой is of course chos, but I am always perplexed by Балсан. Бал could be dpal, I imagine, but I don’t know any word like dpal sang – wait, so that should be dpal bzang! Is dpal bzang usually read балсан in Mongolian?

  27. There’s a difference between descent from King David and traceable descent from King David, and surely Rashi was referring to the latter. The proof that I’m descended from Charlemagne depends on the fact of Charlemagne having traceable descendants today. I might well be descended from Charlemagne’s boot-cleaner too, but because that worthy has (I suppose) no traceable descendants, I can’t say for sure.

  28. David Marjanović says

    Given cases like Genghis Khan, I’d be surprised if any Jew (and a hefty number of Gentiles) are not descended from King David.

    There is the little issue that, unlike the ocean-like ruler and even Dude the Rather Large, King Namesake might be suffering from terminal existence failure.

  29. And it’s the part of our genetic makeup that comes from him that makes us wonder whether we really exist or it’s all a dream.

  30. Well, even if David didn’t exist, the House of David probably did, and they must have had some sort of ancestor, even if everything we think we know about that ancestor is untrue.

  31. Oh, the House of David definitely did.

  32. SFReader says

    -SFReader, do you know the origin of Choibalsan?

    I was told that he was originally called Choigalsan, Galsang being tibetan name meaning good fortune. Why he changed his name and what it means I don’t know.

  33. I find it hard to believe that David himself was not a real king of Jerusalem. There’s so much material in the Tanakh that makes the most sense if it’s seen in the context of an ongoing dispute over the legitimacy of David’s kingship, stretching into the years following Solomon’s death.

  34. Thanks, so there would be no problem. skal bzang is “good fortune”, dpal bzang “glorious and good”.

  35. David Marjanović says

    the House of David probably did

    All we have is BYTDWD scribbled somewhere, right?

    the House of David definitely did

    That is fascinating and bewildering.

    There’s so much material in the Tanakh that makes the most sense if it’s seen in the context of an ongoing dispute over the legitimacy of David’s kingship, stretching into the years following Solomon’s death.

    Interesting. Do you have any examples?

  36. @David Marjanović: My favorite example is the whole Book of Ruth. It tells the story of how Ruth, a Moabite (and thus a member of group with which the Hebrews were traditionally forbidden to intermarry with), marries Boaz, a highly respectable Jewish landowner. Ruth is portrayed as more Jewish than the Jews. She knows some of the laws and culture of the Hebrews seemingly intuitively, and the rest she is glad to learn. The pair’s courtship includes passages that mirror the Genesis and Exodus courtship narratives involving wells.

    A reader is likely to conclude that she is just about the perfect, perfectly assimilated Jewish wife. There is little point in holding the fact that Ruth was born to an enemy people against her, which seems to be the point. Ruth was King David’s great grandmother, and it must have been a well-known slander of David himself, and his descendants, that their ancestors included unclean Moabites. The Book’s portrayal of Ruth serves to mitigate that point.

    The main text of Ruth had to have been composed pretty early, possibly in David’s own time. We know this because the narrative includes Boaz pronouncing the name of YHWH. (Over time, the pronunciation of the tetragram aloud became more and more restricted—limited to priests, limited to inside the temple, limited to holidays—until disappearing entirely. Unfortunately, we don’t know the history of how the restrictions developed; I think it would be fascinating to understand.) However, at the end of the story is a later insertion, explaining how Ruth and Boaz were David’s ancestors. When the story was composed, it must have been relatively well known who Ruth was—King David’s idolatrous foremother. However, as generations passed, the issue of David’s ancestry would have become less and less significant, and at some point, the scribes decided to added an explanation of who these people in the story were, because that was no longer well known in the culture at large.

  37. Actually, there are a number of lines of evidence suggesting a post-exilic date for Ruth: the Aramaisms, the references to obsolete legal customs in Ruth 4:7, and the plain intention of the author to oppose the ethnic-nationalist policy of Ezra and Nehemiah, with its absolute opposition to intermarriage. The use of YHWH in the text is a piece of historical plausibility, agreeing with the setting “in the time of the Judges” (now clearly a long time ago). Even its placement in the Ketubim suggests a late date.

  38. David: Not exactly “scribbled somewhere”; it’s on a victory stele and written in Aramaic, in which context “byt X” means specifically “the kingdom of X”, where X is the name of someone who holds, or held, the kingdom in question. There are a lot of parallel examples.

  39. @John Cowan: That’s the other interpretation, which I have to say I find pretty unconvincing.

  40. David Marjanović says

    Ruth was King David’s great grandmother, and it must have been a well-known slander of David himself, and his descendants, that their ancestors included unclean Moabites. The Book’s portrayal of Ruth serves to mitigate that point.

    It does not follow from this that David even existed, let alone that he had a sizable and rich kingdom.

    Not exactly “scribbled somewhere”; it’s on a victory stele

    Point taken.

    and written in Aramaic

    How old is it, then?

  41. WP says it’s late -9C; the mainstream theory is that it was written by (order of) the king of Aram, the area west of the upper Jordan with its capital at Damascus. So this is the Aramaic of the actual Aramaeans, not yet a language of wider communication.


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