The History of a Town.

I just read Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s История одного города [The History of a Town] and enjoyed it, as Sashura predicted I would years ago. But I was also taken aback. It starts off as an enjoyably cynical account of the history of the town of Glupov (‘Stupidville’), standing in for Russia itself, with the various town governors representing the changing currents of 18th- and early 19th-century Russian governance. There are hilarious episodes like the one about the governor who only spoke a few words and eventually turned out to have a clockwork head (which had to be sent to Petersburg for repair). But towards the end it gets very dark indeed, with the final terrifying governor, Ugryum-Burcheev (‘Sullen-Mutter’), imposing an abstract military order on the town, forcing the inhabitants to tear down all existing buildings and rebuild on another site (after he is unable to stop the flow of a river that hinders his plans), with huts of identical dimensions along straight streets and people paired off according to his ideas of suitability, with a spy for every two people. His plans are developed in enough detail to remind me of Zamyatin’s 1921 Мы [We], often considered a source for Orwell’s and Huxley’s dystopias, and I can’t help but wonder if Zamyatin got some inspiration from it; I also wonder if there are earlier examples of detailed authoritarian fantasies of daily life.

One striking thing is that one of the governors is named Ferdyshchenko; this unusual name is also used by Dostoevsky for a character in The Idiot. I was prepared to write this off as a coincidence until I got to the final chapter, where Ugryum-Burcheev is repeatedly and emphatically called идиот ‘idiot.’ At that point I decided Saltykov-Shchedrin must have read Dostoevsky’s novel and decided to borrow from it.

Of linguistic interest is a phrase that a mystic mumbles in one of the sections: без працы не бенды кололацы [bez pratsy ne bendy kololatsy], which looked to me like garbled Polish, and sure enough a little googling turned up a Polish saying Bez prace nie będą kołacze ‘without work there won’t be kołacz‘ — in other words, if you don’t work you won’t eat.


  1. David Marjanović says

    And if you think prace and kołacze don’t rhyme, they do in northeastern Poland.

    The Czech version koláč was, of course, borrowed into Viennese; the whole saying turns out to be translatable if we’re content with “walking” instead of “work”…

    …and that second link says that’s what Danish pastry is. Wonders never cease.

  2. A couple of typos crept into the Polish saying – it should read “Bez pracy nie będzie kołaczy”

  3. Not typos – it’s 16th century spelling.
    Ugryum-Burcheev uncannily resembles Mandelstam’s “kремлевский горец”.

  4. Wild. As crazy as Golovlyov.

  5. Ferdyschenko is an ordinary Ukrainian name. Doesn’t mean that Saltykov-Schedrin didn’t borrow it from Dostoevsky. The best governor is Prysch (Pustule) who had a (literally) stuffed head, which was eaten up by a local dignitary.

  6. Ferdyschenko is an ordinary Ukrainian name.

    Maybe, but I’d never run across it before.

  7. Me too. I thought it was an invented Ukrainian surname, chosen to be as unpleasantly sounding as possible.

    Never encountered any real people with such surname

  8. After you skip a few first pages of google search, exclusively devoted to literary Ferdyschenkos, you can find a number of real people with that surname. It’s not widespread by any means, but it’s not invented either. Presumably, from Ferinand. There are also forms like Firtash and Fertysh that might be related. I don’t have an access to a Ukrainian phone book to get numerical, but SFReader, I remember, is an expert on finding obscure sources…

  9. Better to say “existing” or “actual” than “ordinary,” then.

  10. Stu Clayton says

    What happened to my comment ? Just because of one little Russian word in Cyrillic ??

  11. Better to say “existing” or “actual” than “ordinary,” then.

    OK. I meant that it is nothing special, even if esteemed Russian writers selected it for its ear-grating qualities.

  12. What happened to my comment ? Just because of one little Russian word in Cyrillic ??

    I have no idea! Not in the moderation queue, not in the spam filter. Sorry about that!

  13. Kołacz is easily recognizable to a Texan. Kolaches are very common in central and southeast Texas due to Czech immigration. They’re little known in the rest of the US, except for some other Czech-descended communities in the Midwest; I’d never heard of them before moving here.

    The singular in Texas is kolache /kəˈlɑːtʃi/ from the Czech plural. Also of etymological interest: according to David M’s link, it derives from the Indo-European wheel word, since the pastry is round.

  14. I could have sworn I’d posted about Czechs in Texas, but it turns out it was Sorbs.

  15. Kołacz is easily recognizable to a Texan
    I wonder if it is still the case for the Russians. I remember occasionally buying Russian kalach in state bakery stores; it was a rare but still regular joy. The Russian kalach is also circle-shaped, but asymmetric, with one side being a thinner kalach-handle. They (both kalach and its handle) appear in many expressions and proverbs; even dogs can be said to sleep “kalach-style”, rolled into a circle with one “thick” and one “thin” side (body and tail)! But I haven’t seen them outside of reenactments and traditional craft shows in recent years, and perhaps by now, the Russian have largely forgotten that it was a form of bread, and switched the meaning to “kalash’ ~~ Kalashnikov rifle?

  16. marie-lucie says

    X: even dogs can be said to sleep “kalach-style”, rolled into a circle with one “thick” and one “thin” side (body and tail)!

    Now I understand this gloss that has been puzzling me in a description of a Northwest language: to sleep ‘dog-fashion’ ! It simply means ‘curled up’.

  17. David Marjanović says

    Kalashnikov rifle

    Kalashnikov electric car!

  18. David Marjanović says

    (Which naturally brings us to this; scroll down to the first tweet in English if necessary.)

  19. «Как тебе такое, Илон Маск?» — I love it! And all those memes! Russians really do have the best memes.

  20. “How do you like this?” seems to be too literal. I’d say “can you top this?” or “hey, watch this” are inexact, but better capture the spirit.

  21. I agree.

  22. David Marjanović says

    “According to Russia’s version of Know Your Meme,, the first meme can be traced back to @StalinGulag in 2017. In the tweet there is a photo of a Russian particle accelerator used to smoke herring with the caption”

    Ну и как ты на это ответишь, Илон Маск?!

    (“How do you reply to this”… well, “What do you say now?!”)

  23. Thanks, Hat! Glupov is an endless source of inspiration and imagery, and language! It has the amazing melange of bureaucratic, folkish and foreign that foreshadows Chekhov and then Zoschenko and Platonov. My favourite is the bit about two women pretenders fighting each other.

    In Soviet times, the story was interpreted strictly as a satire on the Tsarist regime, but during Gorbachev’s glasnost a terrifying film ‘It’ (“Оно”, probably referring to Radishchev) was made based on Saltykov’s novella. There, Ugyum-Burcheev is an unmistakeable Stalin.
    Wikipedia article about the film.

    Re: kolacz, I am not sure it’s related to kalach/sh, the cake. In Leskov’s Steel Flea the cossack general Platov rides in a carriage called ‘kalash’.

  24. Thanks! I’ll definitely have to watch the film.

  25. I should mention that Sashura has very limited internet access these days, which his why he so rarely comments here (or posts at his blog).

  26. I remember watching “Оно” back when perestroika was new and shiny. It’s really worth watching.

  27. I also wonder if there are earlier examples of detailed authoritarian fantasies of daily life.

    Re this question ( I forgot to mention it earlier), to me, it is quite obvious that Saltykov, a certified progressive liberal, was arguing with Chernyshevsky’s ‘What Is to Be Done?’, or at least developing the same ideas in a way very different from Cherneychevsky idealised world of the future. And they both get inspiration from Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’. I have reread ‘Utopia’ when writing a longread for a Russian magazine. More’s detailed description of Utopia’s life (straight streets, no locks, unified dress codes, punishments for non-conforming, ‘party’ supervision of daily lives) has striking resemblance to Saltykov and, yes, Zamyatin.

    ‘Utopia’ is really worth re-reading.

  28. Interesting, thanks — I’ve never read the More book.

  29. Trond Engen says

    a carriage called ‘kalash’

    This is called calèche in French, kalesch in Swedish. Norwegian kalesje and Danish kaleche means a soft removable top — now mostly of a (baby) pram or a convertible car. The Norwegian online dictionary says the ultimate origin is Chech kolesa.

  30. David Marjanović says

    Oh yes, I think I’ve come across Kalesche for some type of pre-automobile vehicle in literature.

  31. Trond Engen says

    Is it possible to disentangle the intricate paths of borrowing here? No. kalesje and Da. kaleche may well have been mediated through German. Ger. Kalesche and Sw. kalesch are clearly from French. The vowel of French caléche makes me think it was borrowed from Eng. calash. Did that come from Ger. Kalasch, Ru. kalash, or somewhere else? And how does this finally lead back to Ch. kolesa?

  32. marie-lucie says


    Earlier today it occurred to me that la calèche must have been part of the same group, and the TLFi agreed. I had known the word from way back but never knew exactly what the carriage looked like. Fortunately Wikipedia has a number of pictures of various types of calèches.

    Trond: The vowel of French caléche makes me think it was borrowed from Eng. calash

    It is calèche, as you wrote earlier. It rhymes approximately with English fresh, not lash or rash. So its origin is unlikely to be English.

  33. Trond Engen says

    marie-lucie: It is calèche, as you wrote earlier.

    Indeed. I must have hit the wrong Alt key the second time.

    It rhymes approximately with English fresh, not lash or rash. So its origin is unlikely to be English.

    But where else? The German and Russian a’s are even further away from French è.

  34. Lars (the original one) says

    The ODS does not commit to a specific path of transmission, but asks us to confer with Italian calessa before giving the ultimate source as Slavic, for instance Chech kolas(k)a and Polish kalas(k)a.

    The Italian vowel would be the same as the French, I think, but then we need an explanation for why that one is not /a/. Maybe a third Slavic language?

  35. Trond Engen says

    Slav. ka/olaska looks like a good step towards an explanation of the calèche group. We need a form **kalesa with a diminutive **kaleska. If -ska was lenited in German, the Italian and French forms are regular borrowings.

    The calash group would then be from a parallel borrowing of a form with -a-. I’ll leave the internal Slavic derivation to the Slavs or slavicists.

  36. Joe Kilroy says

    can someone kindly point me to a link where I can find an English-language version ebook of “History of a Town called Glupov” ? Thank you.

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