This is another in the occasional LH series Annoying Errors I Feel the Need to Correct Publicly. I’m still reading, and enjoying, Benson Bobrick’s East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia (see here and here); it’s an excellent overview of the region’s history, with lots of piquant details and mini-biographies. But on p. 286, he says:

Thus did a quite limited idea of Siberia become fixed in the public mind. One Victorian writer called the colony “the cesspool of the Tsars,” and if the judgment seems harsh, the prevailing view was perhaps fairly epitomized by Count Nesselrode’s emphatic pronouncement that Siberia was “the bottom of the sack.”

I was puzzled by the odd phrase “the bottom of the sack” (which he also uses as the chapter title), and checked the footnotes; it turned out that his source was Anatole G. Mazour’s Women in Exile: Wives of the Decembrists (Diplomatic Press, 1975), which was no help. But by dint of clever googling, I was able to turn up the original quote in Ivan Barsukov’s «Граф Н. Н. Муравьев-Амурский по его письмам, официальным документам, рассказам современников и печатным источникам» [Count Nikolai Nikolaevich Murav’ev-Amursky according to his letters, official documents, stories of contemporaries, and printed sources], Vol. 1 (1891); I’ll put the Russian (and a clip from the Google Books page for those who can see it) below the cut, but it is represented accurately by this quote from Mark Bassin’s Imperial Visions: Nationalist Imagination and Geographical Expansion in the Russian Far East, 1840-1865 (which looks quite interesting in its own right, but damn, it costs $129.96 new and $69.00 used):

Nesselrode explained that up to this time distant Siberia had represented a “deep net” into which Russia could discard its social sins and scum (podonki) in the form of convicts and exiles. With the annexation of the Amur, however, “the bottom of this net will be untied, and our convicts would be presented with a broad field for escape down the Amur to the Pacific.”

Yes, he’s comparing eastern Siberia (Transbaikal) to a net for exiles, but the “emphatic” phrase Bobrick quotes is simply a part of the metaphor, representing the then border with China, and not a grim image for the entirety of Siberia (which would have been an extremely unlikely thing to emerge from the pen of the Russian foreign minister). Once more we see the danger of relying on secondary sources.

Here’s the Russian:

Самъ Нессельроде отзывался, «что отдаленная Сибирь была до того времени для Россіи глубокимъ мѣшкомъ, въ который спускались наши соціальные грѣхи и подонки, въ видѣ ссыльныхъ, каторжныхъ и т. п.; съ присоединеніемъ же Амура, дно этого мѣшка должно было оказаться распоротымъ, и нашимъ каторжникамъ могло представиться широкое поле для бѣгства по Амуру въ Восточный океанъ..»

And here’s the Google Books clip:


  1. (which looks quite interesting in its own right, but damn, it costs $129.96 new and $69.00 used)
    Do you search with bookfinder? You should utilise if you want to get the best price. Here it’s at least somewhat cheaper.

  2. Well, they have it for $40.72. Which on the one hand is considerably cheaper, I don’t deny it, but on the other is about five times what I might be willing to pay. Eh, that’s what libraries are for.

  3. Why does Bassin translate мешок as net and simply as sack?

  4. SFReader says

    —our convicts would be presented with a broad field for escape down the Amur to the Pacific
    The most famous such example being

  5. Yes, Benyowsky was one of the fascinating conmen Bobrick includes a biography of: after getting arrested as a member of the Polish uprising (he was Hungarian but had emigrated to Poland, doubtless one step ahead of the law) he passed himself off as a Polish count and got exiled to Yakutsk (rather than, say, the gold mines of the Nerchinsk region or some other hellhole).

    En route, he forged new orders assigning him to Kamchatka, from where he hoped to escape by sea. At Bolsheretsk, he mingled with other exiles, and drew a number of them into his plans. At the same time, he contrived to ingratiate himself with the local commandant, Captain Grigory Nilov, an inveterate alcoholic, who entrusted him with the education of his son. On April 24, 1771, Benyowski and about seventy confederates overpowered the guards, who were “too drunk to resist,” murdered Nilov, and looted the local treasury. They then drew up a bombastic manifesto condemning the Russian occupation of Poland, high taxes, official corruption, the state monopoly on salt and wine, and so on, and sailed off into the Pacific on a government ship with a treasure in furs and several women and girls.

    Making their way down the Kurile Island chain, they eventually reached Macao, where Benyowski embarked on a French frigate for Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. From there he reached France, entered government service, and was sent to Madagascar, where he founded a colony in 1774. In 1777, he met the Polish general Casimir Pulaski in Paris and tried to interest him in a project to turn Madagascar into an American base against Great Britain. Benjamin Franklin became enamored of this scheme, and furnished him with letters of introduction to George Washington. Benyowski (pretending to be an agent of the French Foreign Ministry) met with Washington in 1782 and offered to raise a foreign legion of three thousand men to fight in the Revolutionary War. Washington forwarded the plan to the Continental Congress, where it was more soberly scrutinized and scrapped. Benyowski then turned to the slave trade, and in Baltimore persuaded several Swiss merchants to finance an expedition to Madagascar. He raised a corps of freebooters, landed in 1784, and tried to set himself up as the island’s king. Two years later, he met his death when a French amphibious force stormed the stronghold he had built for himself into the side of a hill.

    Apparently Boieldieu wrote a comic opera based on his exploits. They don’t make ’em like that any more!

  6. Why does Bassin translate мешок as net and [not] simply as sack?
    I’m guessing because it makes a more effective image, with the fish caught in the net being able to swim down the river to the sea. But you’d have to ask him.

  7. marie-lucie says

    A sack is only open at the top, the bottom remaining closed. Some nets can be closed both at the top and the bottom, trapping the fish inside. Untying the bottom would enable the fish to escape undetected, but it is not possible to “untie” the bottom of a sack. So the image of a net here is more appropriate than that of a sack: the “fish” have been caught at one end but will be able to escape at the other end.

  8. thanks, now I see how it makes sense.

  9. Benyowsky –
    I’d say Bakunin was the most famous escapee along the Amur route. And not without help from his cousin Muraviev-Amursky, whose circle in Irkutsk discussed the idea of secession of Siberia from Russia and joining the USA in the United States of America and Siberia.

  10. Well, the Russian doesn’t say “untied,” it uses a verb (пороть) that can mean either ‘unstitch’ or ‘rip’ and so could apply to either a net or a sack.

  11. marie-lucie says

    OK, then the translator who wrote “the bottom of this net will be untied” was too precise. Perhaps he should have said “the bottom of this bag will be torn”.

  12. Bassin has been involved with Russian studies from the early 80s, I think. I suspect he must have been thinking of the авоська string bag, also sometimes called сетка – net.

  13. marie-lucie says

    Sashura, you must be right!
    String bags have been used in Europe for ages. Anyone in France going to a farmer’s market or even a supermarket will carry not just a large shopping bag with a rigid bottom and right angles but also a string bag, called un filet, literally ‘a net’.
    There are many advantages to string bags. When empty, they occupy very little space, but they can contain a lot more than you would expect. They are especially good for carrying solid roundish things: potatoes, onions, apples, lemons, etc which tend to roll around in a rigid bag and upset its balance but settle comfortably and most efficiently in a string bag.
    Some string bags are now found in North America but are nowhere as popular as in Europe. One would think that they would start becoming more popular, especially now that supermarkets are trying to reduce the waste of paper and plastic bags. But the string bag is meant to be carried in one hand, not deposited on the floor of a car, when the potatoes, lemons, etc will tend to start rolling around and out of the bag unless the full bag is constrained in a plastic crate or other rigid container.

  14. supermarkets are trying to reduce the waste of paper and plastic bags
    Not always. Today I bought a box of light bulbs at a supermarket, and the cashier tried to put it in a plastic bag for me.

  15. Damn the culture of the automobile. Without those wretched things, civilisation as we know it would be totally different.

  16. Yes, there would be horse-shit everywhere.

  17. My grandmother used to send me to buy potatoes with a string bag. The prodmag (epicerie) had a large wooden crate with loose potatoes and a chute in the counter. The saleswoman would weigh potatoes and then throw them in the chute while you were supposed to hold your string bag open at the end of the chute to catch them.
    I have two here, brought from Moscow, and still use them. In the car you need an S-shaped hook to hold the handles up.
    Thanks for the word, Marie-Lucie!

  18. Back in the ’70s, it seemed as if every housewife in Germany went shopping with a string bag (Netzbeutel). On the occasion of this post it struck me that I haven’t seen them that often for years now.
    Many Germans are very conscious of ecological problems, and do what they can to mitigate them, especially as regards not using plastic bags. The string bag has been replaced by different carrying artefacts in different age groups.
    Old folks use little trolleys (like a travelling case on wheels) that they pull behind them – a jocular, now somewhat antiquated term for these is Fersenporsche (heel Porsche). Younger people use their city backpacks, which even women have – something unheard of 25 years ago.

  19. The Russian name for the string bag might amuse the assembly: авоська is derived from авось – perhaps and diminutive suffix -ка, often used for noun-forming contractions. You went out with a ‘perhaps-bag’ in your pocket in the hope of spotting, perhaps, a useful item on sale.

  20. I got things a little mixed up: the old type of floppy net shopping bag was (and still is) called a Netztasche, while the newer, plastic, not-so-floppy perforated bag (say for a backpack or bike) is called a Netzbeutel. I’ve never owned either kind.

  21. marie-lucie says

    Russian string bag = ‘perhaps-bag’
    This is reminiscent of the French word un en-cas: a snack you carry on you or leave on the night-table just “in case”.

  22. Grumbly, so the Netzbeutel isn the new Netztasche?
    un en-cas is wonderful, I’ll remember.
    I forgot the main element of potato shopping with the perhaps-net. The chutes were always either too wide or too long, and some potatoes would inevitably escape, making you scutter around trying to catch them. Fun for a little boy, but a rather undignified procedure for lady shoppers.

  23. Sashura: no, a Netzbeutel was originally a fairly flat, practical accessory for hiking or travelling (although, as the pictures show, they now have modish incarnations too). Backpacks and travelling bags often have one permanently attached. A Netzbeutel holds, for example, the socks that you just rinsed out back at the hostel, and allows them to dry as you stride confidently through the Schwarzwald.
    When shopping, people now put their potatoes and bio-rocket in the (city) backpack they carry, not in any Netzbeutel that might be attached to it. My backpack has a few tiny vestigial Netzbeutel for something or other, perhaps a cellphone. I only noticed them recently, although I’ve had the pack for at least 3 years.
    Paper bags are still a novelty in Germany, and they’re not very sturdy. Eco-conscious people re-use cloth bags. A robust plastic shopping bag costs 25 cents, a weak-chested paper bag costs 15 cents. Out of protest at the price of the paper bags, I still buy the plastic ones.

  24. A Netzbeutel has a close mesh, a Netztasche a wide one through which eco-potatoes (being small) can escape onto the pavement and then on to freedom. That’s probably why Netztaschen are no longer used much: only poor people buy the big, tasteless potatoes, and then just drive them home in their cars.

  25. Paper bags are still a novelty in Germany
    I lived in Germany for a few months in 1988. My recollection is that the grocery store had flimsy paper bags available even then (and that one was better off bringing one’s own sturdier bag).
    and then just drive them home in their cars.
    Unbelievable! Potatoes can own cars over there!

  26. It’s a rich country. That’s why they sneer at the Greeks, whose potatoes can’t even afford shopping bags.

  27. marie-lucie says

    Grumbly: A Netzbeutel has a close mesh, a Netztasche a wide one through which eco-potatoes (being small) can escape onto the pavement and then on to freedom.
    Then your Netztasche has a much wider mesh than the French filet, through which peanuts or beans (out of their shells) would escape, but not potatoes, even the small new ones (I can’t believe your “eco-potatoes” are THAT small).
    When I first arrived in the US (as a student), the first time I went to the grocery store I took with me my trusty filet, but all the grocery stores packed the merchandise in large bags made of heavy Kraft paper, which could stand unaided but were vulnerable to moisture and even spills from their temporary contents which would then splash on the pavement at the worst possible moment. Because of this, stores started to use plastic bags, which are now polluting both land and sea by their ubiquity and almost indestructibility. Many grocery stores are now encouraging customers to bring their own reusable bags, sometimes by ceasing to supply plastic bags at all, and in any case by selling their own brand of reusable shopping bags for very cheap prices right at the check-out counter. Many of these bags are of very poor quality but some are actually quite nice, both attractive and long-lasting, worth paying the few extra dollars they cost.

  28. marie-lucie: Netztaschen come in all mesh sizes, of course – I was just being silly. The classic ones had a fairly wide mesh, though, through which certain items could slip: small cubes of yeast glunk, narrow things like carrots and chiles, small new potatoes, mushrooms. I don’t know how the Old Ones managed.
    When you buy loose produce at an open market, it is usually handed over in a paper cone (the opening cut on a slant like baguette slices) that holds everything together. The supermarkets don’t have these cones in the produce section, but only small, flimsy plastic bags. The sturdy ones are stacked at the cash register.
    Everywhere except at supermarkets I spurn plastic bags, and instead put things into my backpack. I need to get konsequent about this, though. I’ve seen several tv documentaries recently about those gigantic whirlpools of micro-plastic junk in the Pacific and Atlantic.

  29. Eddies, not whirlpools.

  30. According to the sac-poubelle WiPe article, the plastic garbage bag was invented in 1950 by three Canadians.

  31. in large bags made of heavy Kraft paper
    The kraft (lowercase) process is so called because of the superior strength of the resulting paper.
    Everywhere except at supermarkets I spurn plastic bags . . . micro-plastic junk
    Unlike plastic bags, paper bags will degrade in water. But it’s wise to remember that very little degrades in a modern landfill.
    Paper cups vs. foamed polystyrene (Styrofoam) cups: It’s more complicated than you think.

  32. Some Netzbeutels look very much like the netsacks that Jagdtasches used to have before they became fashion accessories.

  33. Is it not true that for Russians the name Siberia does not extend beyond Lake Baikal, the Stanovoy, Kolyma and Verkhoyansk Mountains?

  34. Graham Asher says

    The same metaphor was used in 1935 by R. A. S. Macalister in ‘Ancient Ireland’:
    “… Ireland was the cul-de-sac of the ancient world, until Columbus (or whoever was the real discoverer of America) perforated the bottom of the bag. Refugees might enter, but could not leave: they must stand at bay or perish.”
    A wonderful book, by the way. Written with an urbane dry humour that doesn’t exist in modern historical or archaeological works.

  35. I just ran across this line, containing four words meaning ‘bag, sack’ (including Sashura’s “perhaps-bags”), in Brodsky’s “24 декабря 1971 года“:

    Сетки, сумки, авоськи, кульки,

    Which the official translation renders:

    Nylon bags, carrier bags, paper cones,

    Is it not true that for Russians the name Siberia does not extend beyond Lake Baikal, the Stanovoy, Kolyma and Verkhoyansk Mountains?
    That’s my impression; the word “Siberia” is not well defined, but anything beyond the limits you mention is generally referred to as the Far East (or whichever more limited term applies to the area in question, e.g., Kamchatka or Khabarovsk Region).

  36. cul-de-sac
    Completely free of charge, I pass along the information that in French the “l” there is not pronounced. One way for English speakers to remember this is that “butt” doesn’t have an “l” either. Recul, though, is pronounced with the “l”. Don’t ask me !

  37. marie-lucie says

    Grumbly: Recul, though, is pronounced with the “l”
    It’s because le recul ‘act of going backwards’ is a back-formation from the verb reculer ‘to go backwards’, and these words are not perceived as including the root cul in which the “l” is not pronounced.
    The common expression avec le recul du temps means ‘viewed from a longer time perspective’ (literally, approximately ‘with time going backwards’).
    Un cul-de-sac (pronounced “küdsak”) means ‘a dead end’ (such as a short country road ending at a farmhouse) but (at least in France) the term is not used for an urban location.

  38. One way for English speakers to remember this is that “butt” doesn’t have an “l” either.
    I am fogged. At a loss. Are we talking about sackbuts now?
    Oh, I see. Wait, so is this the same cul as in culottes?

  39. marie-lucie says

    Ø : is this the same cul as in culottes?

  40. Un cul-de-sac (pronounced “küdsak”) … is not used for an urban location.
    What then do the French call a dead-end street in the city ? In German it is Sackgasse.

  41. I believe it’s impasse.

  42. marie-lucie says

    LH is right. It is une impasse.
    The word is also used in the name of such streets (actually “blind alley” might be more suitable), for instance Impasse des moineaux “Sparrow Dead-end” (I don’t know if this is an actual name but it could be).

  43. Un cul-de-sac (pronounced “küdsak”) means ‘a dead end’ (such as a short country road ending at a farmhouse) but (at least in France) the term is not used for an urban location.
    A quick check of the NYT archives suggests that cul-de-sac appears in the paper about once a month, often in a metaphorical sense. (There seems to have been a movie with cul-de-sac in the title that skewers the more recent results.)
    Canadian usage seems to be much more widespread and often refers to urban settings: The Globe and Mail offers up 28 appearances in 2012, at least one of which, m-l, appears in a story about Halifax (though the specific reference is to Montreal). See here.

  44. Whoops! Make that “skews the more recent results.”

  45. “Skewers the more recent results” would mean something like “pins them to their current levels”. If nobody went to see the movie or talked about its title, it wouldn’t affect recent results – it would skewer them.

  46. marie-lucie says

    Paul O, I was talking about the use of cul de sac in FRENCH, not in English, so the appearance of the word in the NYT or an English-language Canadian site is irrelevant to my point.
    The Montreal section of the article you link to is written in English, like the rest of it, and uses cul-de-sac as any other English text would. It does not mean that the term would have been used in a French-language article on the same topic.

  47. I was talking about the use of cul de sac in FRENCH, not in English
    I was aware of your intent. Nonetheless, I thought it interesting that usage of the term appears to be more widespread in English-speaking Canada than in the United States.

  48. I was just in Quebec City, and (in Vieux-Québec, anyway) cul-de-sac was widely used on street signs for for what I would have called dead end streets. I was driving, and I always assumed I’d be able to go in and drive in a circle as in a US suburban cul-de-sac, but three-point-turns were usually required instead.

  49. (The signs in question were in French, of course)

  50. marie-lucie says

    I wrote above that “at least in France”, cul de sac was not used in the urban context. Matt A’s experience confirms that my comment does not extend to the usage in Canadian French.

  51. I had no idea the L isn’t pronounced in French cul-de-sac, as it is in English. Thanks for that.
    My observation here in New York basically matches Stu’s from Germany: there was a fad for string bags some two decades ago or so, but now we plastic-or-paper-avoiders tend to use tote bags of canvas or recycled plastic. I looked for my net bag just this morning for the greenmarket, but when I couldn’t find it I made do with my backpack, a canvas tote, and the plastic bags that remain useful in keeping the tomatoes from mashing into the corn and the peaches away from the pointy ends of the string beans. Anyway, net bags, because of their very shape-adaptability, often wind up with poky bits that jab you in the thigh and then spin around annoyingly. No paper cones, though, alas.
    I still don’t get the butt – culottes thing, aside from that culottes cover your (unfashionable or revolutionary) butt.

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