Anatoly Vorobey discusses the idea that the first lines of Evgenii Onegin should be interpreted according to a theory that uvazhat’ sebya zastavil is an early-nineteenth-century Russian equivalent of “kicked the bucket.” This seems implausible to me, but I don’t want to emulate Edmund Wilson and argue about the fine points of Russian usage with native Russian speakers; fortunately, Anatoly is also dubious, and like him I will wait for any evidence of such usage that may be forthcoming. In the meantime, I will rely on Nabokov, who knew Pushkin inside and out and translated the passage thus:

My uncle has most honest principles:
when taken ill in earnest,
he has made one respect him
and nothing better could invent.

As usual, one is taken aback by the determinedly rebarbative nature of the English phrasing (this from Nabokov!), but it is clear that he took uvazhat’ sebya zastavil in its obvious sense (“made one respect him”).

Not that Nabokov is infallible. In the same spirit in which he gleefully exhibits Pushkin’s “schoolboy howler” la greve d’Athenes for Byron’s “the Athenian’s grave” (commentary on Onegin One:XXXVIII.9, p. 162), I hereby place before the world his own ludicrous blunder at the end of his commentary on Two:XVI (p. 255), where he identifies Ratmir, one of the characters in Ruslan and Lyudmila, as “a young Hazaran Persian-speaking Mongol from Afghanistan”! Ratmir is a khazarskiy khan, a khan of the Khazars, the Caspian state that was a neighbor and rival to Kievan Rus in the days of which Pushkin is writing; what Nabokov thought a peasant from the mountain fastnesses of central Afghanistan might be doing at Vladimir’s court I can’t imagine. (The Hazara, incidentally, are not Mongols, though they have traditionally described themselves that way and have faces and cultural elements reminiscent of Central Asia; their actual ethnogenesis is lost in the mists of time, but they speak a dialect of Dari, the Afghan variant of Persian. Lest anyone take too seriously the matter of self-identification, let me point out that many Pushtuns believe they are descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel.)


  1. The Hazara are Mongols in origin, at least in their sires. Not that that means that they have a whole lot to do with modern Mongolia, inner or outer in their mores and attitudes, any more than the Moguls in the subcontinent had.

  2. A decade later, a comment at last!

  3. cormundum says

    kicked the bucket (eng.) = приказал долго жить (rus).
    uvazhat’ sebya zastavil (rus.) = made one respect him (eng.). really.

  4. uvazhat’ sebya zastavil is an early-nineteenth-century Russian equivalent of “kicked the bucket.”
    You don’t need to know the early 19th century Russian. You just need to read through the end of the first stanza. Or at most, through the beginning of the second one.

  5. It’s not clear to me whether you’re agreeing or disagreeing with the (to me rather bizarre) idea you quote, but at any rate, as Nabokov says, “The first five lines […] are tantalizingly opaque.”

  6. Но, прилетев в деревню дяди,
    Его нашел уж на столе…

    I wonder what aircraft did they use back in 1825?

    Hot air balloons, perhaps.

  7. No, he flew on the back of a див.

  8. Well, of course, I disagree with “kick the bucket”. Onegin was planning to sit with his “honest” uncle through his illness day and night.

    The only opaque thing in the first stanza is the first line, in which some researches think Pushkin references this fable by Krylov. In other words, Onegin’s uncle did what he was expected to do in the circumstances, but the result sucked. BTW FWIW I would have tried to translate уважать as “oblige” rather than “respect” in this context.

    I did not know the post offices at the time employed divs.

  9. January First-of-May says

    I’m more wondering how did Chatsky (also early 19th century) manage to travel for over 700 km in 45 hours. (This is an average speed of 10 miles per hour.) Did he take Pony Express?

  10. “Декабрь 1833.
    3 Вчера государь возвратился из Москвы, он приехал в 38 часов. В Москве его не ожидали. Во дворце не было ни одной топленой комнаты. Он не мог добиться чашки чаю” (с) Pushkin diary

    St.Petersburg-Moscow is over 700 km.

    700 km in 38 hours seems usual speed on winter snow, using system of relay stations (changing horses every 30 km or so).

  11. Of course, tsar would have had better service than average traveller. Chatsky was likely a VIP too.

  12. I did not know the post offices at the time employed divs.

    “[…] Yes, it has made things difficult. But I might ask you as profitably why you’ve never seen fit to invent airborne vehicles? One small stolen airplane would have spared you and me a great deal of difficulty!”

    “How would it ever occur to a sane man that he could fly?” Estraven said sternly. It was a fair response, on a world where no living thing is winged, and the very angels of the Yomesh Hierarchy of the Holy do not fly but only drift, wingless, down to earth like a soft snow falling, like the windborne seeds of that flowerless world.

    —Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

  13. Not worth a separate post, and I may be wrong about this (in which case, better a lyin’ comment than a lyin’ post), but I think I’ve caught Nabokov in another blunder, this time in Russian. In Chapter XLII of Подвиг, he writes:

    Упруго идя по тропе в черной еловой чаще, где, там и сям, сияла желтизной тонкая береза, он с восторгом предвкушал вот такую же прохваченную солнцем осеннюю глушь, с паутинами, растянутыми на лучах, с зарослями царского чая в сырых ложбинках […]

    I was mystified by the reference to царский чай (‘tsar’s tea’), which as far as I knew was just a kind of tea, unlikely to be growing in Russian gullies, so I checked the translation (titled Glory), where I found:

    As he walked with springy steps through the mountainside fir forest whose blackness was broken from place to place by the radiance of a slender birch tree, he anticipated with rapture a similar sun-pierced thicket on a far Northern plain with spiderwebs spread on the sunbeams, and with damp hollows choked with willow herb […]

    Now, willowherb (usually spelled as one word these days) is a common name of Epilobium species, and a common Russian name for a couple of those species (e.g. Epilobium angustifolium) is Иван-чай (‘Ivan-tea’). So my guess is that VVN had a mental lapse while writing the novel and substituted царский чай for Иван-чай; decades later, when he worked on the translation with his son, he took the opportunity to correct the reference in English. But, as I say, I may be wrong, so if someone out there knows better, please amend my ignorance.

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