I’m reading Veltman’s Воспитанница Сара [The ward Sara], about which I will have much to say when I’ve read further, but I’ve hit a passage whose final word puzzles me, and I thought I’d canvass the assembled multitudes — those, at any rate, familiar with 19th-century Russian. He’s describing a scene outside a Moscow theater on a cold night in the late 1840s or early 1850s (“before the invention of crinoline”); the coachmen and servants are trying to keep warm while the masters are inside:

Около экипажей тѣ же nляски въ одиночку, то же хлопанье руковицами; а ужь если можно оставить лошадей и на надежныя руки своей братьи, или незябкихъ мальчишекъ-форейторовъ, такъ компанія идетъ куда-нибудь по сосѣдству, гдѣ и чай горячій, и горячіе наnитки, и всякая провизія и пріятное преnровожденіе времени, и даже машина.

Around the carriages the same solitary dances, the same beating of mittens; but those who were able to leave their horses in the reliable hands of their own kind, or of young postillions who weren’t so sensitive to the cold, went somewhere nearby, where there were hot tea and other hot beverages, and all sorts of provisions and pleasant ways to pass the time, and even a mashina.

(The italics are Veltman’s.) That word машина, literally ‘machine,’ can mean a great many things in the 19th century (Dahl mentions, among other possibilities, flints, cigar guillotines, billiard stands, locomotives, and “anything huge or cumbersome”), and I have no idea what it might mean here. I asked Sashura, and he suggested it might be a mechanical music machine, like a carillon or an orchestrion (he provided this charming YouTube clip as an illustration). Any other ideas?

Update. It turns out (unsurprisingly) that Sashura’s guess was correct; he asked the question on Facebook and got a number of answers along those lines. For example, here’s Natalia Sokolovskaya quoting a specialist from Pushkin House:

Здесь – какой-то музыкальный аппарат. Ср. у того же Вельтмана: “Заняв номер в пять рублей в сутки, он вышел в общую залу обедать и слушать, как машина музыку играет” (“Приключения, почерпнутые из моря житейского. Саломея”, 1848).

Here it means some sort of musical apparatus. Compare this, in Veltman’s 1848 novel Salomea: “Having rented a room for five rubles a day, he went into the common room to dine and listen to the mashina playing music.”

Thanks, Sashura and all his FB readers!


  1. yes, I’m very interested too. What could it be? Can anyone find a definite proof?

  2. Apparently Polish maszyna used to also mean a cooking stove. I wonder if this meaning could apply here as well.

  3. In a place that provided hot beverages and other “provisions” (snacks?), one would expect to find a cooking stove, so perhaps the “calliope” playing on YouTube was indeed the unexpected item contributing to “pleasant ways to pass the time”. (Unless it did not yet exist at the time of the novel).

  4. Who would have thought that they had Youtube machines back in 19th century…

  5. “Decency must prevent all females, and infirmity many men from bathing without the use of a machine.” —Best J., nobly dissenting in Blundell v. Catterall (M.T. 1821).

  6. I think Sashura is right, it’s some kind of music box. A bit of looking around finds a few mentioning of musical machines playing this and that in the 19th century, but the most references seems to be in Ostrovsky’s play A Profitable Position (Доходное место). There, machine plays first something unnamed then Along a paved road (По улице мостовой) and then Rushlight (Лучинушка).

  7. oh! thanks, DO. I ran it through the National Corpus but didn’t see this one.

  8. To John Cowan: not a bathing machine in the middle of a Moscow winter! See image at

  9. Oh, I know, it was just a little diversion from the single-minded search for truth. I do that.

  10. Turns out it is indeed a musical apparatus; see update.

  11. he went into the common room to dine and heard the mashina playing Music
    I hope you don’t mind – that ought to be “he went into the common room to dine and to listen to the mashina playing music”.

  12. to listen to


  13. Whoops! Thanks, fixed.

  14. One of my Facebook friends refers to a passage in Vera Bokova’s book ‘Daily Life in XIX Century Moscow‘ with what seems like a definite answer to the question. It says that in many tavern musical entertainment was provided by mechanical organs that were called ‘orchestrions’ which people simply called ‘the machines’. First versions had men continuously turning the handle to make the machine play, later they were provided with autonomous motors. The repertoire included popular tunes of the time – folk songs, romances and operatic arias. At Lent, the only music allowed was the tsarist anthem ‘God Save the Tsar’. By the way, almost the same music as the current British anthem ‘God Save the Queen’.

    В дневные часы музыкальную программу в трактирах выполняли механические органы — «оркестрионы», именуемые просто «машинами». В первой половине века на них «играл» особый человек, непрерывно, как шарманщик, вертевший ручку. Позднее машины сделались полностью механическими. Подобные были в большинстве московских заведений. После того как их заводили, трактирные «машины» играли различные популярные мелодии: романсы, народные песни, отрывки из «Жизни за царя», «Ветерок» из «Аскольдовой могилы» и пр. Заглянув сквозь стеклышко, можно было видеть, как органчик работает: внутри медленно вертелся большой медный диск с дырочками, шпеньки цеплялись за дырочки и заставляли органчик звучать. На каждую мелодию имелся свой отдельный диск В Великий пост музыка в трактирах была запрещена, и для тех, кто все-таки хотел послушать «машину», в такие дни имелось только одно дозволенное произведение — «Боже, царя храни».

    Thanks, I enjoyed this little chasse au trésor.

  15. Scroll down in Sashura’s book link (or just ctrl-F on ИЛЛЮСТРАЦИИ) to see a bunch of great period images of Moscow.

  16. One fragment from Ostrovsky’s A Profitable Position makes for an amusing wordplay. Unfortunately, the commenting system here rejects my submission in Russian. So here is just an English translation (by me). End of Act 3:

    Vassily, ordered from another room, winds up the machine. Machine plays Rushlight
    (sings) Rushlight, birch rushlight.
    Vassily Please! It’s no good! So ugly!
    Zhadov automatically [machine-like] puts on a raincoat and leaves.

  17. Man, I don’t know what the hell is wrong with the comment system. It rejected Sashura’s latest comment and I had to post it for him. Sorry, everyone!

  18. It thinks you are colluding with Russia

  19. :)))

  20. I just ran across this instance in Konstantin Paustovsky’s memoirs (he’s describing Moscow in late 1914, at the beginning of WWI):

    Развязно, позванивая литаврами и бубенцами, гремел механический орган — трактирная «машина»:

    Вот мчится тройка удалая
    По Волге-матушке зимой…

    A mechanical organ, an inn’s “machine,” thundered in a free-and-easy way, ringing out with kettledrums and bells:

    A dashing troika’s racing
    Along Mother Volga in winter…

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