Ah, coincidence! First it was the name-days; in my ongoing reading of Eugene Onegin and War and Peace, the other night I hit both the name-day celebration of Tatyana in the first and that of Natasha in the second, with parallel descriptions of long tables, the seating of guests, wines drunk, and lively conversation (though only one leads to a duel). Then it was the bastardy. I had just gotten to the discussion of Pierre’s illegitimacy and how it would affect his inheritance from his father, Count Bezukhov, when I got an e-mail from historian Cherie Woodworth, with whom I’ve been corresponding, mentioning an interesting question she’s been investigating for a paper: why is bastardy a nonexistent concept in pre-Petrine Russia? As she puts it:

…[B]astards do not play the prominent political and social role in medieval and early modern Russia that they do in Europe at the same time. In fact, they seem to play no role at all; they are invisible. They are not mentioned in the chronicles; they are not noted in the genealogies; the nickname or epithet “bastard” (vybliadok) does not appear in any variant among the princes’ names. …[T]hey do appear in the law code, though not until the Sudebnik of 1589, and it referred to the common people, not the princes or boyars.

She says “I am trying to pin down the first use of the word ‘bastard’ in Russia, in the literal meaning of a child (usually male) who has no legal rights as an heir because his parents were not legally married.” Anybody know?


  1. Pardon my French, but the mentioned translation of the word “bastard” seems to be more than a bit rude to me (although I am not the historian). Such a word could never be put into the official document I believe.
    As far as I know, there existed an interesting tradition among the Russian nobility: if there was an illegitimate child he/she was given the father’s name but only part of it (example: the child of Rumyantsev – Румянцев has got the name Myantsev – Мянцев). Or he / she could have been given a completely new name if the father was high enough. Even the lower nobility did something like that, according to Yuri Tynyanov, mentioning this custom in his book about Alexandre Griboyedov called “Смерть Вазир-Мухтара” (Death of Vasir-Muchtar).

  2. Yes, that’s true; Prince Nikolai Vasilyevich Repnin, for example, had an illegitimate son named Ivan Pnin. But all that was after the author’s cutoff date of around 1700; she’s interested in the earlier time, when apparently vybliadok was not considered rude: in the sudebnye dela it’s the normal term for bastard, and bliadovat’ is what the parents did.

  3. fimus scarabaeus says

    a guess: survival of offspring be low so they be glad of all that survived to adult hood, but later times, survival was had improved then spousel rivalry came into play as there be losses and gains for those that had or failed to have legitimacy.
    In other words there was natural requirement for the propagation of the good masculine gene [instinctive]
    Then the population was to sufficient to change the natural law of going forth and multiplying.

  4. robert berger says

    I’m not sure about this, but I have heard the Russian term of abuse “Svoloch”
    translated as bastard.

  5. John Emerson says

    The first of the Rus’ to convert to Christianity (10th century, I think) had 800 wives. (According to Einhard, Charlemagne only had 8). Perhaps notions of legitimacy / illegitimacy only gained power many centuries later.
    Gaining control of marriage and sex was a key issue for the Catholic church, and it took a long time to accomplish. Maybe it took the Orthodox longer.

  6. robert: Svoloch’ is also translated “rabble,” “scum,” and all sorts of other ways; it has nothing to do with bastardy.

  7. Common people is dvorianins (dvoriane?), right? It’s all about property, so no one cares when you don’t have any.

  8. John Emerson says

    OT: I just got Cornwell’s translation of Kharms’ “Incidences”. Most of Kharms seems almost perfectly translatable because of the flatness and literalnness of the way he writes, even though he’s an avant-gardist. In a few places he seems to use wordplay or slang, which is more difficult. The strangeness of his works comes from the strange way his stories are put together, breaking all the structuralist rules of stories.
    Or maybe I’m wrong.

  9. John Emerson says

    I am probably wrong. I have detected some places where the translator may have been put to the test. In general, though, I’d say that Kharms is relatively easy to translate, his strangeness being in the literal meanings.
    I have a pretty unreserved admiration for Kharms at this point.

  10. John Emerson says

    So what is Kharm’s relationship to the Formalists and Structuralists anyway? It seems that he just systematically violates Propp’s constitutive rules for stories. Who came first, Propp or Kharms? Did they know one another?
    You people are not being helpful!

  11. This guy seems to talk about Bakhtin a lot in connection with Kharms, and this book might be useful. I personally, however, tend to simply enjoy Kharms without worrying about his relationship to the Formalists and Structuralists and Propp’s constitutive rules for stories, but that is because I am a simple man.

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