Peevery unto Death.

I saw Nikita Mikhalkov’s 1994 movie «Утомлённые солнцем» (Burnt by the Sun; video) in a theater shortly after it came out; as I recall, I found it impressive but didn’t understand much of what was going on. Now that I’m reading about the Terror of the late 1930s, I thought I’d take a look at it online, and was struck by a linguistic feature of the very opening (the first four minutes, before the titles). A man who we later learn is an NKVD operative named Mitya arrives at his apartment (in the House on the Embankment) and is greeted by his servant Philippe, whose native language is French and who occasionally slips into that language (prompting an irritated “I told you to always speak Russian!”). Philippe starts reading aloud from a copy of Pravda, and Mitya corrects his mispronunciations, usually a wrong stress (“НЕсколько, not неСКОЛько!”). Then Mitya takes out a revolver, removes all the bullets but one, and places it at his temple, continuing to correct the reading. Just before he pulls the trigger (spoiler: it doesn’t fire), he says “часть!” (Philippe had read the Russian word for ‘part’ as част, with unpalatalized -t). Now that’s what I call dedication — spending what might be your last moment on earth correcting someone’s pronunciation.


  1. David Marjanović says

    Weird. We watched that in school (and I recommend it), but I don’t remember Philippe or the peevery at all. Must be because it’s all at the very beginning of the movie, before most of the plot even starts.

    “Что-то великое, советское…”

  2. David Marjanović says

    (Watched it with subtitles, and I can’t remember what language the subtitles were in. We definitely weren’t expected to understand every word…)

  3. It must be a reference to Bulgakov’s Flight (Act 4, Dream 7) and/or the Alov-Naumov film of the same name (1970): Korzukhin, now a successful Parisian businessman and recently a bureaucrat in the White Crimean government, is lecturing his Russian servant on the necessity of speaking French.

    Although Flight (the play) is a succession of dreams, it has a pretty clear story line. Roughly speaking, it’s the (mis)adventures of two White Russian generals, one intelligent and two ladies in the South of Russia and Crimea during the White army’s terminal retreat, and in Constantinople and Paris later on. In Burnt by the Sun, Mitya is a former Russian emigre who turned a Soviet spy and helped the NKVD abduct prominent White generals from Western Europe. This links the two plots together. Also, Mitya betrayed his White friends and Korzukhin his wife, although the one has a guilty conscience and the other no conscience at all.

    I think I’ve detected another reference to Alov-Naumov’s movie – the song, Vecherniy Zvon (Those Evening Bells).

  4. I have only the vaguest memory of Burnt by the Sun, but I vividly remember seeing Mikhalkov’s next feature, The Barber of Siberia, in a cinema while living in Russia. It’s hilariously awful…though, reportedly, not as hilariously awful as his retconned Burnt by the Sun 2. I know of no other director whose career trajectory is so aptly summed up by the title of his most famous feature.

  5. “retcon” seems to have evolved opposite meanings:
    (1) where the sequel does not attempt to be consistent with inconvenient parts of the original
    (2) where the sequel seeks to explain apparent consistencies within the original

    Both are developments from the original meaning, where the sequel makes a gesture at being consistent with the original, involving dreams, wormholes, baritsu, or the like.

  6. Stephen Downes says

    Actually, if you spin a revolver chamber with only 1 cartridge in it, there is a very high probability – almost a certainty, if you hold it truly horizontal and the moving parts are well-oiled – that it will come to rest with the cartridge in the lower sector and you will survive. Perhaps counter-intuitively for those with no grasp of physics, your chances are even better if you load two cartridges and put them side by side.

  7. Out of curiosity I just watched some of The Barber of Siberia. Boy, is it terrible.

  8. This reminds me of a clip I found on YouTube once a clip from a Russian humor show that was a hypothetical American adaptation of their detective show “Street of Broken Lights.” All the characters spoke in bizarre Russian with accents on the wrong syllable, incorrect conjugations and declensions, and one actor tried to make an American-style /r/. The American protagonist spoke perfect Russian, which the actual Russians mock as being incomprehensible (the joke being that in an American adaptation of a Russian TV show, the American would be better than the Russians at everything – even Russian).

    “Incorrect stress” (or a dialectal pronunciation? not sure) is also brought to attention in a song by pop duo Potap & Nastya, where the chorus of one of their songs, “На раЁне” (sic) proudly proclaims “ne zvoNYAT, a ZVOnyat” (не звонЯт, а звОнят).

  9. That’s a very widespread stress pattern that has become a poster child for Russian peevers; I think it was discussed here at some point.

  10. Ah yes, here we go (back in 2003!).

  11. Out of curiosity I just watched some of The Barber of Siberia. Boy, is it terrible.

    As laowai suggests, you haven’t seen terrible until you’ve experienced Burnt by the Sun 2.

  12. I think I’ll pass on that one. I can only take so much terrible.

  13. “I know of no other director whose career trajectory is so aptly summed up by the title of his most famous feature.” – laowai.

    Well said, but I’d like to add a couple of caveats. It’s technically “wearied” rather than “burnt” in the original Russian title, a play on the lyrics of 1930s tango, The Wearied Sun, originally To Ostatnia Niedziela, to music by Jerzy Petersburski aka Yuriy Peterburgsky. (“The wearied sun, as learned poets write, // Forsook the horizon, and roll’d down the light” – Pope retelling Chaucer.) Some of Mikhalkov’s Russian detractors argue that his decline began not in 1995, after the Oscar, but twenty years earlier, immediately after his first feature, At Home among Strangers (Svoy sredi chuzhikh, chuzhoy sredi svoikh). Pretty much everyone seems to like that one.

  14. It’s technically “wearied” rather than “burnt” in the original Russian title, a play on the lyrics of 1930s tango, The Wearied Sun

    Thanks, Alex K. I already knew the literal meaning of утомлённые–a fairly common Russian word–but the reference to the tango was lost on me. The song is, of course, to be found on YouTube for those interested:

  15. John Cowan says

    Then there’s The Faded Sun, as well as the Bloody Sun (of Darkover).

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