I wrote to Boris Dralyuk asking him about the Russian phrase пятый угол [pyaty ugol] ‘fifth corner,’ which Brodsky uses in a couple of poems in a way that was opaque to me (in “Кентавры” “спрятавшись в пятый угол” ‘hidden in the fifth corner,’ and in “Элегия” “заштриховывать пятый угол” ‘to shade the fifth corner’); his explanation was so surprising and enlightening I thought I’d share it here, since other lovers of Russian will probably have as much difficulty finding references to it in books or online as I did:

The “fifth corner” is a cruel children’s game, in which bullies push a younger student around the four corners of a classroom until he “finds the fifth corner”; police took this up, and would offer a suspect the chance to escape the interrogation if he were to “find the fifth corner.” In the broader metaphorical sense, it signifies the desperate, foolhardy attempt to escape one’s fate — a pipe dream.

The things they don’t tell you in Russian class!
Incidentally, Boris was in the UK for the Translators’ Coven in Oxford and various Poetry Week events in London; I wish I could have been there, and I look forward to Lizok‘s report.


  1. Thanks for passing this on – I for one am glad to know about it!

  2. I’ve taught in a classroom with five concave corners (and one convex one – it was L-shaped). If the school had had any Russian bullies, would they have played ‘sixth corner’, or found another classroom, or just used the standard, but no longer accurate, name?

  3. I don’t think it really existed in grade school, it was more like a jailhouse legend.
    Искать пятый угол ~~ искать вчерашний день – to be lost, restless, insecure, perhaps in the grips of OCD and repeatedly engaging in some meaningless activity. When my dogs gets obsessive and lurks from place to place around the house, then we’d say the poor creature’s looking for the fifth corner

  4. Boris D. says

    Dmitry’s right — that is another use of the phrase, but it refers to much the same anxious internal state: the desire to find comfort where none can be found.
    The first paragraph of this essay by A. Naiman describes the game as it is often played, with an unwilling participant in the center:
    There is a variant with a willing participant. The definition in B. Gorbunov and S. Grigor’ev’s UDAL’ – MOLODETSKAIA, SILA – BOGATYRSKAIA: TRADITSIONNYE NARODNYE IGRY (1995) begins: “Пятый угол. Найти (искать) пятый угол. Эта старая игра и сейчас нередко встречается в среде подростков, реже более взрослой молодежи. Здесь 4 – 5 или более играющих выбирают водящего, которому и предлагается “найти пятый угол”. Он становится в центр расположившихся вокруг него играющих и… начинает медленно наклоняться и падать в сторону одного из игроков. Его нужно удержать и толчком рук направить его падение в направлении другого…”
    Here is an example of the “willing participant” variant being played in the wild:
    Here’s a description of the (quite real) NKVD variant, with citations, from Igal Halfin’s STALINIST CONFESSIONS:

  5. Thanks for posting this, Hat! I really enjoy reading your posts about the shadowier corners of Russian language and literature.

  6. Boris D. says

    And here’s another account from one our favorites, Aksyonov:
    I remember I was in a restaurant when we heard about the (Hungarian – BD) uprising and what had happened. A friend of mine, a poet, cried out, “Guys, how long are we going to stand this stinking garbage? We must start something. Let’s go start a fight with them tomorrow. Tomorrow let’s get together at a certain time and a certain place and start fighting!” So the next day I went–but nobody else showed up! I was alone, but I was outraged, and so I started screaming, “You bastards! You will see, the tanks will some day come for you!” I was arrested, of course, and they took me to the local headquarters and started beating me, making me look for the “fifth corner.” In Russia that is how it is known–they would stand in all four corners of the room and beat you, making you look for the fifth corner of the room–and I was most certainly looking for this fifth corner! They were drunk and were yelling at me, calling me a fascist, and I yelled back, “No, you are the fascists!” I thought they were going to beat me to death, but then a friend of mine showed up–he had been looking for me. They didn’t want any witnesses, so finally they stopped beating me and let me go.

  7. Great links, Boris! The UK link for Stalinist Confessions (which looks like a really interesting book) didn’t work for me, but this one did (search on “ugol”; it’s on page 271).

  8. I’ve always thought that finding the fifth corner was something similar to squaring the circle, didn’t know this meaning.
    I had a quick look on the internet. The phrase seems to be used a lot in a more positive sense of the ‘last refuge’ or ‘last hope.’ There is a Kazakh TV programme, a St-Pete’s hotel and a cafe, among other things.

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