I recently scored a cheap copy of Serapion Sister: The Poetry of Elizaveta Polonskaja, by Leslie Dorfman Davis, and found Polonskaya (née Movshenson) interesting enough to create a pretty substantial Wikipedia article for her. I haven’t read much of her poetry yet, but the bits I’ve read I’ve liked (there’s a selection in Russian here), and she certainly deserves more attention than she’s gotten for having been one of the prominent literary figures of Petrograd/Leningrad in the ’20s; to the extent she’s known at all, it’s solely for being the only female member of the fabled Serapion Brothers (hence the title of Davis’s book). Someone should create an entry for her friend and fellow Serapion Lev Lunts, but for the time being it’s not going to be me.


  1. Thank you. I never even heard the name.
    This (from the WP article) does not sound quite right:
    Znamenya [Flags], Petrograd: Erato, 1921.
    Was the title “Знаменья” or “Знамена”? Flags is for the latter.

  2. Interesting article. I’d love to read some of her poems…
    One observation though: in the introduction it says she died in 1938; then the text explains she actually “died in January 1969”.

  3. gives the title in a slightly more archaic form Знамения – Znameniya, so it’s got to be ‘omens’, ‘signs’.
    And here is a beautiful poetic dedication to Akhmatova with and interesting stress shift in the second stanza (выгóродили).
    I think I’ve commented here before that the Serapions were probably the most important literary group in the post-revolution period. And it’s good to know that there are studies devoted to its members.
    In here this article (in Russian) two knowledgeable contemporaries tell off a dismissive Voinovich (in the early 60s) that Fedin, a Serapion in the 20s, who later became a nomenklatura writer, wrote better than Ehrenburg.

  4. The Wikipedia article says: “she received her diploma from the University of Tartu and the title of lekar’ (physician)”. Is “lekar'” a Russian or an Estonian word? And in any case, what is the etymology? Judging by the titles on the respective Wikipedia articles, Estonian seems to have the German loan “arst”, and Russian “vrach”. But “lekar'” seems to point to a Scandinavian loan, cf. Swedish “läkare”, Danish “læge”, Norwegian “lege”, which has been borrowed into Finnish as “lääkäri”.

  5. Was the title “Знаменья” or “Знамена”? Flags is for the latter.
    D’oh! Sorry, sloppy mistake on my part—I’ll change it to “Signs.”
    Is “lekar'” a Russian or an Estonian word? And in any case, what is the etymology?
    Russian, and it is an early Germanic loan; cf. Old Church Slavic лѣчьба ‘ἰατρεία [medicine]’ and Gothic lekeis ‘doctor.’

  6. It’s a Russian word, from Germanic, David, and related to English leech. The Grimms have this under Arzt (which itself is Greek, not native):

    »Dem eindringling muste das heimische wort mit allen seinen ableitungen weichen: ahd. lâchi, goth. lêkeis, ags. læce, engl. leech, altn. læknir, schw. läkare, dän. läge; litt. lěkorus (lett. aber ahrste, nach dem nd.); sl. ljekar, russ. lékar, poln. lékarz. characteristisch bezeichnen das engl. leech, russ. lekar nur noch den wundarzt, während für den feineren innerlichen arzt das fremde wort sich geltend machte.«

    ‘The native word, and all its derivatives, had to give way to the newcomer; Old High German lâchi, Gothic lêkeis, Anglo-Saxon læce, English leech, old Norse læaknir, Swedish läkare, Danish læge, Lithuanian lěkorus (but note Latvian ahrste, after the Low German), [Slavonic, Slovenian or Slovakian] ljekar, Russian lékar, Polish lékarz. English “leech” and Russian “lekar” are now limited to [battlefield-] surgeons, [the normal Russian word for this is Feldscher, another German loan, etymologically “field shears”; it also denotes a historically-male NCO to the full doctor’s officer in the health systems of the former Soviet Union], while the foreign word took on the meaning of the more refined internist.’

  7. @David: the archaic лекарь (lekar’) and even more so лекa (leka) are cognates to the modern verb лечить (lechit’), “to cure, to heal; to practice the art of the physician.” According to Vasmer, either leka or lekar’ is a Germanic borrowing (and exactly Scandinavian if lekar’ is the one), so your guess was perfectly correct.

  8. @David: Sorry I should take back the Scandinavian part. The word should be older indeed. What was I thinking!

  9. interesting stress shift in the second stanza (выгóродили)
    I read it as выгороди́ли; is there any way to know which she intended?

  10. Trond Engen says

    The Germanic -er/-ar/-are ending is supposed to be borrowed from Latin -arius. With the adoption of the ending taking place along the Rhine in the first couple of centuries CE and the three- or four-way contact point between East Germanic, Slavic, Baltic and Finnic in Belarus in the third century, the time window for the spread would have to be quite narrow. And even then, all Slavic forms have -ar while in Germanic only (some of) the Scandinavian do. Is there a way that a younger loan might have become so widespread?

  11. I was surprised by the use of ‘lekar’ on the diploma. By that time, the word acquired some negative connotations. Dostoevsky in “The Brothers Karamazov” plays on the lexical difference between ‘lekar’ and ‘doctor.’ In Chapter 7 (Book Ten: Boys), Kolya Krasotkin uses ‘lekar’ to a great effect: “And he used the word “leech” [‘lekar’ in Russian]instead of “doctor” on purpose, as he declared afterwards, and “meant it as an insult” (translated by Pevear/Volokhonsky). What do you think about using ‘leech’ in this translation? It seems a little too strong to me.
    Victor Terras in “A Karamazov Companion” explains that ‘lekar’ has “a connotation of a homegrown, old-fashioned, and crude medical skill” and means something between ‘surgeon’ and ‘sawbones.’
    I agree with our host about the stress on “выгороДИли,” though it is possible to stress the second syllable as well. The word is quite striking in this context.

  12. лекарь was an official word for the occupation of a physician until the 1917 Revolution. Afterwards, a previously unofficial word врач, of Old Slavonic / Biblical origin (originally literally a soothsayer) made its way into official documents. Nowadays, a physician is always a врач and/or a doctor; the connotations got completely reversed and so лекарь now designates a folk healer, a soothsayer, or perhaps a naturopath, i.e. something archaic and at best semi-official.
    However another related word, лекарство, originally meaning “medical practice”, remains official in a more narrow meaning of “medication”

  13. tell off a dismissive Voinovich (in the early 60s) that Fedin, a Serapion in the 20s,
    sorry, I got this in a muddle. I meant to say that Voinovich admitted that he hadn’t, couldn’t read Fedin, but his companions said that Fedin’s writing was better than that of Ehrenburg.
    I read it as выгороди́ли; is there any way to know which she intended?
    god, I don’t know, I just read the poem with Akhmatova’s own incantatory, clean stress in mind, and a srong stop in the middle of each line, and I stumbled on vygorodili. The standard modern Russian stress is on the first syllable, but it doesn’t fit here. So there should definitely be a stress on the second syllable, perhaps muted, and then, as you suggest, a secondary one on the penultimate. Compare: gorod (city) where the stress is on the first ‘o’.
    Mramory (marble in plural) is also strikingly unusual.

  14. You are right, Moskva, that ‘lekar’ was an official term for the medical profession until 1918. Mikhail Bulgakov’s diploma also states ‘lekar.’
    It seems that the official usage didn’t keep up with the everyday connotations of the word. How else to reconcile it with the way Dostoevsky uses it?

  15. And he used the word “leech” [‘lekar’ in Russian] instead of “doctor” on purpose, as he declared afterwards, and “meant it as an insult”.
    “‘Very good’, I said coldly. In that case, tinkerty tonk’. And I meant it to sting.”

  16. I don’t tbink лекарь is used nowadays at all (in contrast to лекарство). Speaking of a folk healer, I would use знахарь while he/she may present her/himself as народный целитель/целительница.

  17. Alexei, I agree that целитель “making one whole” has a cachet and usage surpassing that of the old-fashoned лекарь. English healer “making whole” is of course the same as целитель, and perhaps the transition in Russian usage has something to do with its wholesale shift from German / Dutch borrowings to the English ones? There is even growing use of “хилер”! (для хилых? 😉 )
    But лекарь is alive and well in specific niches, for example that’s how the occupation of a healer is called in the computer magic games in Russian.

  18. Thanks for all your replies to my question! Turns out the word had quite an interesting etymology…

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