Anyone who’s studied Russian history will be familiar with the oprichnina, Ivan the Terrible’s separate territory within the borders of Russia over which he held exclusive power and within which his personal guard, the oprichniki, terrorized the population at will. (The word is from the old preposition опричь [oprich′] ‘apart from,’ which Vasmer says is related to Latin prīvus but remodeled after прочь [proch′] ‘away.’) It represents a terrible time in Russian history (however much revisionist historians try to soften it), and when Russian writers use the word, it is either a reference to the 16th-century phenomenon or a use of it as an analogy to describe something very unpleasant, e.g. “ГПУ, этой современной опричнины” (the GPU, that contemporary oprichnina) [Г. А. Соломон (Исецкий). Среди красных вождей (1930)] or “Но в начале 1918 года в Москве, где Дзержинский под свою опричнину занял на Лубянке грандиозные дома страховых обществ… (But at the beginning of 1918 in Moscow, where Dzerzhinsky occupied the grandiose building of an insurance company for his oprichnina…) [Р. Б. Гуль. Дзержинский (Начало террора) (1974)].

With that background, I can now describe the experience of beginning Vladimir Sharov’s novel Репетиции (translated by Oliver Ready, apparently quite well, as The Rehearsals); it’s the first thing I’ve read by Sharov, whom I’ve been eagerly anticipating ever since reading praise by Lizok and the Russian Dinosaur. It starts with a quote from the New Testament and an intriguing paragraph about how Isay Kobylin “stopped being a Jew” in 1939; the next paragraph begins with the narrator saying he learned about this from Kobylin himself in Tomsk in 1965, “но начну я семью годами ранее и с другого” [but I’ll begin seven years earlier and with something else], and he describes going to college in Kuibyshev (now once again Samara) in 1958 and meeting a fellow called Sergei Ilyin, “who was trying to understand God.” The next chunk of the book consists of a long disquisition on the meaning of Jewish history and God’s relations with men, most paragraphs prefaced by “Ильин говорил” [Ilyin said]. This might be offputting to many readers, but I’m loving it — I’m not religious myself, but I’m endlessly fascinated by the ways religion has influenced people, history, and literature, and knowing that this discourse is setting up the machinery for the rest of the novel, I’m absorbing it eagerly. And on p. 16 of my edition, we find:

Ильин говорил: живущие под звездами волхвы и пастухи первыми заметили нарушение естественного строя жизни, оно было сильным: Господь спустился в мир, данный человеку в опричнину, в мир, где человек должен был управляться сам, и его пространство оказалось тесным для Бога.

Ilyin said: the magi and shepherds living under the stars were the first to notice the disruption of the natural order of life, which was powerful: the Lord had descended into the world given to man as an oprichnina, a world where man had to manage on his own, and its space proved cramped for God.

The world given to man as an oprichnina! I was stunned and had to stop reading and think about it. It brought to mind an image of early humans wearing black robes and riding horses with a wolf’s head attached to their saddles and carrying a broom to sweep away God’s enemies. I’m sure that’s not what Sharov is implying, but it certainly isn’t a favorable description, and I can’t wait to see how it resonates in the rest of the novel. I haven’t been so taken aback since the premature death of Jesus in Tendryakov’s Покушение на миражи [Assassinating mirages] (see this post). It takes quite a writer to produce such an effect with a single word.

I regret to report that when I checked Ready’s version at Google Books I found that he omits the crucial word: “God had come down into a world where man was meant to look after himself […].” I realize it would have been awkward to try to cram in all the requisite information in the course of the sentence, and maybe the publisher didn’t want footnotes, but dammit, use “oprichnina” and let the reader look it up. It seems to me malpractice to just omit it.


  1. It’s a good idea to remove the word from the translation, because it used solely to convey the aura of archaic speech, rather than to conjure up images of Ivan the Terrible’s henchmen with their dog-heads and brooms. Maybe a word for “separate domain” such as “fief” may be used here, but that’s about it.

    But I couldn’t resist passing the references to the OGPU secret police gobbling up the offices of a former insurance company. One is just an old joke. A passerby on Lubyanka Square asks, Скажите, это Госстрах? Нет, Госужас.

    Another is about Metron Inc., a factory of precision instruments located right behind the former Rossiya Insurance building (now the FSB headquarters). The factory store was at the corner of Lubyanka, an unluckily-numbered house 13, while the production complex was in the back alley behind it at 12 B. Kiselny lane. That was the space given to my great grandfather Wulf / Vladimir Pruss for a pilot watchmaking production plant and a factory school. But the OGPU was already running out of space in its giant Rossiya Bulding, and sets its sights on Metron’s factory and store. A fierce, hostile correspondence with the OGPU ensued, something which is hard for us to fathom, but the year was 1928 and the State Terror wasn’t yet expected to come back. Some missives are signed by Menzhinsky himself, then the OGPU chair. The final letter was rather terse: “Комендатура ОГПУ ставит вас в известность, что по независящим от нее причинам отказаться от претензии на помещения в д 13 по ул Дзержинского не имеет возможности”. The old Metron factory lot is home to the FSO headquarters now (Russia’s analog to Secret Service, complete with no sign or plaque of any kind at the entrance)

  2. It’s a good idea to remove the word from the translation, because it used solely to convey the aura of archaic speech, rather than to conjure up images of Ivan the Terrible’s henchmen with their dog-heads and brooms. Maybe a word for “separate domain” such as “fief” may be used here, but that’s about it.

    I’m sorry, but I find that hard to believe. I realize it etymologically means “separate domain,” but literally every reference I read in the Национальный корпус русского языка — it’s true I didn’t read them all, there are hundreds, but I read a lot — refer either to Ivan’s henchmen (the vast majority) or to an equivalently terrible phenomenon; a representative example is “Начались безумные казни. Кровавые набеги опричнины.” If you can find me an example where it’s an entirely neutral word for “separate domain” I’ll rethink my position, but I probably won’t change it. The negative connotations are just too overwhelming. Don’t tell me you can read that passage without a thought of Ivan coming to your mind.

  3. And if he didn’t intend the implication, why in Heaven’s name would he have used the word? He could perfectly well have used a different one, or omitted it as Ready did. If he used such a powerfully resonant word, it’s clearly important and needs to be represented in the translation.

  4. Dmitry Pruss says

    And if he didn’t intend the implication, why in Heaven’s name would he have used the word?

    he wouldn’t be the first to conflate etymology and meaning. All prescriptivists tend to do so. He actually continues right after a comma, spelling out oprichnina as “a domain set aside for the humans to rule”. I mean I obviously can’t convince you, but my logic is, if one knows that of old, the word meant something different, AND if one tries to sound very archaic, then one may purposefully pick the known old meaning, instead of the one which is in “every reference … in the Национальный корпус русского языка”

  5. You can use an old word, sure, but you can’t ignore its resonance with the reader, not if you’re a decent writer, which Sharov clearly was. Of course he was working with the etymological meaning, but he couldn’t possibly have been pretending that that was the only meaning there was, or that readers would just ignore the meaning that was foremost in their minds. To use the word опричнина is to import an inescapable negative quality. As I said before, if he didn’t want that, he could have used plenty of other words.

  6. As it is, he’s producing a shadow image of God as Ivan the Terrible, which is a very interesting thing to consider.

  7. Dmitry Pruss says

    (the word is long extinct, and even its figurative meaning is extinct. The Russians learn it in grade school with an explanation that it meant a set-aside domain to be ruled from within, so the “original” meaning is as common a knowledge, or perhaps more common, than knowledge what the acronym OGPU stood for, or in what century Ivan IV lived or to what dynasty he belonged)

    a shadow image of God as Ivan the Terrible

    well, maybe Ivan the Terrible has some intended resonance there, but formally speaking, Man rather than God is implicitly compared to the bloody czar here, right?

  8. I don’t have any rational argument, but my impression is the same as Dmitry Pruss, опричнин[а] here just means something like “fiefdom” (as DP already suggested). Fiefdom is also something from the Middle ages and something vaguely unplesant. If you do not like the use of such a marked word for such a mundane thought, you can blame Sharov or maybe Ilyin. Because Sharov/Ilyin is obviously into archaizing, the better word would be удел, but it is mundane.

    The only justification of using опричнина that I can see, is if Sharov/Ilyin meant that the Earth was given to people to live completely by their own wits, without any instruction or impediment by God, which is a strange theology, honestly. But then comparing the Man to the bloody czar is probably apt (“And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” yadda-yadda)

  9. I looked up some examples of oprichnina in Russian national corpus, nothing especially surprising, a mixture of metaphoric and historic uses with about 1/3 of historic uses in neutral or positive tone, but I want to direct you at this piece of writing which made it to the corpus. It should get into the writing textbooks as an example of how not to do it. It’s so bad, you can enjoy it. Schlechtfreude or something.

  10. The structure implied by oprichnina does not place God in the same role as Ivan the Terrible in that description. The “separate domain” belongs to mankind,* not to the overlord. I don’t know what that suggests about how the author intended the word to be interpreted, but it does seem relevant.

    I think the standard English translation of oprichnina, when it is translated (which it usually isn’t), is demesne. The meaning is close to fief, but fief implies the existence of a feudal overlord. In contrast, it is common to refer, in discussions of feudal France or England, to the “royal demesne”—meaning the territory (both literal and figurative) that the monarch ruled directly, without any local magnates as intermediary vassals. One way for powerful kings, like Ivan, to consolidate their authority further by confiscating the lands of troublesome nobles and add them to the royal demesne.

    * This is a little-noted element that was present in Tolkien’s legendarium. The Valar were given authority over Arda, but not explicitly over the elves and humans. Each of the Children of Illuvatar was individually created by Eru, and the Ainur were hesitant to act directly against the Children.

  11. Oliver Ready says

    This was one of the many questions about this astonishing novel (so pleased you are reading it, LH!) that I asked Vladimir Sharov in 2017, the year before his death. I was curious because these same paragraphs occur in Do i vo vremya, the first novel of his I translated (albeit the one he wrote after Repetitsii), but there the phrase данный человеку в опричнину were left out and I was of course struck by the Groznyi resonances, not least because this is the period of Russian history in which Sharov specialized before he became a novelist. I don’t think Sharov would mind me sharing his reply:
    Опричнина=мир, где человеку было дано управляться самому. Синоним и усиление. Взято изначально от «опричь»= «кроме». Так называлась территория государства, выделенная Иваном Грозным в отдельное управление.
    I suppose I did take the easy way out on this occasion, but I wasn’t convinced from this reply that Sharov meant the Groznyi connection to be too much at the forefront of the reader’s mind, and I wouldn’t have wanted to overemphasize it, either through paraphrase within the sentence or through a bulky footnote, and the fact that he then omitted it in Do i vo vremya seemed telling.
    I hope there will be reprints, so that I can return to this question. Thanks everyone for your comments.

  12. Wow, thanks very much for that word straight from the (oprichnik’s) horse’s mouth! I guess, given that response, you were right not to translate it, and I was overemphasizing the Ivan connection.

    formally speaking, Man rather than God is implicitly compared to the bloody czar here, right?

    The structure implied by oprichnina does not place God in the same role as Ivan the Terrible in that description. The “separate domain” belongs to mankind,* not to the overlord.

    I don’t understand either of these remarks. Who if not God “gave the world to man as an oprichnina”? The whole point of an oprichnina is that it is given by an overlord — you have immense power within it, but only as he allows, and what he giveth he can take away. In this context I don’t see how the Ivan (giver) figure can be anyone but God.

  13. @languagehat: What makes the oprichnina different from a fief is that it is not granted by an overlord to a vassal. It belongs to a single lord, not subject to oversight. Ivan had not enfeoffed this territory to hereditary nobles, to whom the tsar would have reciprocal obligations; instead, he had it administered by employees, who could be replaced at his whim.

    Calling Earth the oprichnina of Mankind indicates that humans are the supreme authority. The world has been gifted to mankind without reservation. That is what drives the conflict in that quote about the incarnation. The preexisting setup does not leave room for God to visit Earth as an overlord.

  14. OK, I guess that makes sense. Thanks for explaining!

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    Possibly related: ” I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self evident, ‘that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;’ that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. The portion occupied by any individual ceases to be his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society.” The rationalist-Jacobin T. Jefferson, in a letter to J. Madison dated September 6, 1789.

  16. Dmitry Pruss says

    Not even to mention that Ivan IV resigned as a Czar in those years, and was formally a low-ranking clergyman in a small town away from Moscow, giving orders to annihilate his enemies between leading the church services.

    For those who studied history in Russia it’s more or less obvious that oprichnina was about a break with the ordinary, preexisting ways of administration, and making the new boss truly unaccountable and unstoppable. Not about the overlord dividing up lands (mind you, the establishment of Oprichnina wasn’t decreed by Ivan the Terrible, Rather, it was a decision by top clergy and the boyards)

  17. Oh, come on. From the Wikipedia article: “Ivan IV agreed to return on condition that he might prosecute people for treason outside legal limitations. He demanded that he might execute and confiscate the land of traitors without interference from the boyar council or church. To pursue his investigations, Ivan decreed the creation of the oprichnina…” You can’t possibly think anything important went on without Ivan’s say-so, any more than under Stalin (or for that matter Putin).

  18. Dmitry Pruss says

    I don’t mean that Ivan wasn’t in charge, or that he didn’t use a threat of violence to corral the clergy, the boyards and the Zemstvo, I just wanted to point that his absolute power wasn’t quite so absolute if he needed the collegial organs to formally approve critically important bills. He needed legitimacy and his being a Czar just wasn’t enough for it. Reforming the traditional system wasn’t something which could have been legitimately done by his word alone. The system remained moored in traditions and in the interests of powerful stakeholders. He kept playing this game after the end of Oprichnina too, resigning once more to make sure that his stand-in Simeon signs some really unpopular bills instead of him. That’s politics to me. It doesn’t feel like Stain’s rubberstamp, rootless Supreme Soviet. Not some Divine Omnipotence.

  19. I don’t think that Ivan the T. had a problem of legitimacy, he had all the legitimacy he needed to do anything to anyone. The problem was the administration of the country. Traditionally, it was done through the aristocratic families, in which every person appointed to any position was serving the king (i.e. czar) and the country, in part, but also their family interests. The czar simply had no way to make people serve him as individuals. This is not so different from the problems of European monarchies a few centuries before. The crazy way in which he tried to solve this problem is probably because of his personality, not any political calculation or necessity.

  20. I agree with both of you.

Speak Your Mind