Some Russian-related items:

1) I’m nearing the end of Bykov’s Orfografiya (discussed here, here, and here), and in a section where a bunch of people were getting drunk and quoting poetry, I was delighted to find that after a bunch of Blok the narrator says “Then some young people read poetry Yat’ didn’t know at all”—and it turns out (upon googling) to be by Yunna Morits, a fine poet I’ve only recently discovered! She was born in 1937 and became well known in the ’60s, but anachronism is rampant in this operatic novel set in early 1918. (The poem quoted in the novel is “Читая греческий кувшин,” which is available in this thread; this page has a selection of poems in English and Russian.)

2) Via Avva, a remarkable new site, Электронные публикации Института русской литературы (Пушкинского Дома) РАН. As Anatoly says:

Там есть немало хорошего, но особенно выделяется отличная сетевая версия Библиотеки литературы Древней Руси. Там просто очень много замечательного – далеко не только стандартные тексты, такие, как “Слово о полку Игореве” или “Повесть временных лет” – хотя они тоже конечно есть. Например, там есть очень интересное Хождение Игумена Даниила – о паломничестве в Палестину в начале 12-го века. Или текст множества новгородских берестяных грамот – тоже захватывает. И еще и еще. Притом все тексты есть в оригинале, в переводе на современный русский язык, или в паралелльном показе и того и другого.

3) I neglected to mention on Saturday that I’d gone to the Troubadour Books sale I wrote about here; I got a bunch of books, among them Stalin’s last crime: the plot against the Jewish doctors, 1948-1953 by Jonathan Brent, Tsvetaeva by Viktoria Schweitzer, Proust: The later years by George D. Painter, Vekhi: sbornik statei o russkoi intelligentsii by Nikolai Berdiaev et al., Russia under the old regime by Richard Pipes, Autobiography: My childhood, In the world, My universities by Maxim Gorky, Snow by Orhan Pamuk, and Nabokov’s Dar as well as its English translation The Gift, but the ones I want to single out for mention are Metkoe moskovskoe slovo [‘The accurate/pointed/apt Moscow word’] by Evgenii Platonovich Ivanov and Russkaia literatura XX veka: dooktyabr’skii period [‘Russian literature of the 20th century: prerevolutionary period’] by N. A. Trifonov.

The first is a collection of articles written almost a century ago by Ivanov, who was born in Nizhnii Novgorod in 1884 but fell in love with Moscow and its inhabitants, and spent his time hobnobbing with tradesmen and others, noting their peculiarities of their speech: chapters are titled “Booksellers,” “Antiquarians,” “Cries of street vendors,” “Trickery,” “Curious street signs,” “Cabbies,” “Tailors,” “Innkeepers,” and so on. The editors say many of the words are in no other dictionary, even Dahl. And many of the entries consist of noted-down scraps of dialog, giving a vivid feel for Moscow street life in the prerevolutionary period.

The Trifonov anthology is a double time capsule, the texts collected from the first years of the 20th century but seen through the lens of a later era, 1971 to be precise (the very year I visited the late USSR); I was amazed to see that already Nikolai Gumilev (shot in 1921) and Osip Mandelstam (died in the Gulag in 1938) were being reprinted and studied in schools, alongside the recently rehabilitated Akhmatova and the exiles Andrei Bely, Ivan Bunin, Dmitri Merezhkovsky, and Zinaida Gippius. Of course all of them had to be sanitized by a preliminary 100-page section of Revolutionary Proletarian Literature (led off by the mandatory Lenin article), but still, it sheds new light on what I had thought of as the frozen Brezhnev regime. This was, after all, just a few years after the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the removal of Dubček.

(The title of this entry is something of a nod in the direction of the Prague journal of that name, a 1996 copy of which was given me by a young woman who translated for it and in whose company I greatly improved my Russian. Thanks, Katya, wherever you are!)


  1. it sheds new light on what I had thought of as the frozen Brezhnev regime.
    This is an interesting point. Zastoy was something I could experience only through the lens of my parents’ passionate hatred. But my sense was always that zastoy wasn’t necessarily just about the sort of dreariness people associate with the American seventies. It was also about a very crushing co-option of radical Soviet intellectualism by stolid mainstream culture. (there is a TV channel in Russia called “Kultura” which broadcasts incredibly, violently boring versions of canonical plays and music, accompanied by equally stilted PBS-style interview shows)
    My father, who is about as anti-Soviet as Russians can get, likes to say that the ’60s were a time when communism still held possibilities for intelligent people, but Prague changed all that and exposed the gerontocracy for what it was. Part of zastoy for him, I think, was the sense that ideology ceased to matter, whether from a dissident or a bolshevik point of view. Mikhalkov might be a good example.

  2. Do you know this page is now the fifth ghit for “zastoy”?

  3. In Soviet Russia, power levels YOU.

  4. Yesterday was Bunin’s birthday! I translated a few of his poem (not a major effort on my part, too busy), but you might enjoy them anyway – the Russian’s there, after all.

  5. Ridger,
    Excellent translations! A couple notes:
    безмятежным сном doesn’t really have connotations of unrebelliousness–I would translate it “untroubled.”
    кроткая печаль is “gentle grief,” or “meek grief”–it’s not one of those instances of vowel elision like “врата.”
    The last poem is especially well-rendered in your translation.

  6. “The Muscovite Bon Mot,” perhaps?

  7. Yes, nice translations! More notes:
    Before you get to the poems, in the biography you refer to his famous story as “Господин из Сан Франсиско, Gospodin iz San Fransisco”; it’s actually Господин из Сан-Франциско (Gospodin iz San-Frantsisko). Also, “Сухдол (Sukhdol)” should be Суходол (Sukhodol).
    In the first poem, you have “a quail’s clear cries/ Can be heard from across the plain”; the Russian has multiple quail (перепела), and why “plain” rather than the accurate “steppe”? (The word for ‘plain’ is равнина.) In the second stanza, овсы are ‘oats’ (“corn” is misleading to an American and vague in general). A кобчик is a falcon, not a hawk, and specifically a merlin (or “red-footed falcon”). I know “hawk” goes nicely with “hillock,” but Nabokov would not like your substituting a completely different bird!
    In the second poem, you have “And far away lies the village,” but again the Russian is plural (деревень); the implication that there is a particular village (the narrator’s home, perhaps?) being referred to is misleading.
    In the third poem, your “the grass/ With frosty dew grows pale” leaves out в лугах: the grass grows pale in the meadows. In the second stanza рать is not “row” but ‘army.’
    In the last poem, again you render степь as ‘plain,’ and стволы is ‘barrels’ (plural)—presumably the gun is a shotgun rather than a rifle.
    Hope you don’t mind the nitpicking; I wouldn’t bother if I didn’t like your translations enough to make it feel worthwhile!

  8. “The Muscovite Bon Mot,” perhaps?
    But “bon mot” implies wit, whereas the Russian just implies pointedness, accuracy. I guess if I had to pick one I’d go with “The Pointed Moscow Word,” for the rhythm.

  9. I don’t mind at all – thanks, in fact. Like I said, these were far from polished translations, and I shall steal all your suggestions and improve them. The translations, that is.

  10. > Nikolai Gumilev and Osip Mandelstam were being reprinted and studied in schools
    Frankly, I do not recall any of them being studied at the literature lessons in 1980s. Maybe, the names were mentioned, but their works not.
    On the other hand, I didn’t like the literature lessons and could easily miss them the day when they spoke about Gumilev and Mandelshtam 🙂

  11. I would guess that Trifonov’s anthology was meant for universities and other higher educational establishments, not high school students. The length of the introduction alone should be enough a clue 😉

  12. Yeah, I’m sure it was, but the actual introduction is only a couple of pages long—I was talking about the first section of the book, including pieces by Gorky, Plekhanov, and others, including of course the great proletarian poet Demyan Bedny.

  13. How could I be so foolish as to think that the actual introduction was 100 pages in length… Must have been the library air that did this to me 😉
    Regarding the Brezhnev era – NZ recently had a whole special issue dedicated to the “long seventies”. The current issue also has a whole section devoted to this subject. One of the things these articles highlighted for me was how it took some time for things to grind to a halt. Even in 1971, there was still some air of freedom as the spirit of the ottepel’ still lived on. Of course, heads were already being chopped off left and right and editorial boards dismissed, but not everything was impossible. Especially with a bit of camouflage. For instance, in 1976, a book by V.V. Ivanov was published, entitled “Очерки по истории семиотики в СССР” (“Notes on the history of Semiotics in the USSR”); it was mostly about Sergey Eisenstein. Semiotics was in fashion at the time, whereas Eisenstein (I gather) was only “semi-legal”.

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