The Red Balloon of Russian History.

Veronica Davidov has a good post at All the Russias’ Blog (sponsored by the NYU Jordan Center) about “how American Media misunderstood the Sochi Olympics opening,” with an analysis of the “long grand narrative of Russian and Soviet history presented as a psychedelic dream of a young girl named Lyuba.” Davidov focuses in particular on the image of the red balloon, “uniformly interpreted throughout the American mediascape as letting go of the dream of communism,” and I urge you to read the whole thing (and listen to Bulat Okudzhava’s “minute-long existential melancholy song about a blue balloon and the cycle of life and time” [text]). What I want to mention here, though, is what won me over when I was watching the ceremony. It was a one-two punch: first, for the letter Н (N), they had the name Nabokov and a bunch of his beloved butterflies; then, for Ъ (the hard sign [not П = P, as I originally wrote!]), they had Pushkin (of course)… and Khatul Madan! How could I resist?


  1. I was struck by the Nabokov call out. Which led me to I wonder, what is his standing in Russia these days?

  2. Hey, P was for Periodic Table, discovered by Dmitriy Mendeleev. Pushkin was, somewhat disombobulatedly, for Ъ – hard mark, as it used to be on the end of words after the last consonant.

  3. Of course Sashura is right; I’ll edit the post accordingly. (I remember now I was discombobulated when P turned out not to be Pushkin, and relieved when he turned up later!)

  4. A Red Balloon which flies away from the girl’s hands is indelibly linked with Luchishkin’s most famous painting, now in Tretyakov Gallery. It is a poignant visual story of hope and disillusionment, which resonates with the Russians’ perception of history just as powerfully today, almost 100 years after it was painted. Sorry the one-link limit doesn’t allow me to have more links about Luchishkin, but there is surprisingly little written about it English, given its cultural and symbolic importance in Russia.

    As to Learned / Trained Cat … I must be living in a heightened state of coincidences these days, with story and tunes and verses floating around me in dejavu-like doublets. Just on Saturday night, an Russian lady and a genetically predetermined breast cancer survivor was reciting, haltingly, these opening lines of the Pushkin’s poem to me, stumbling on the second or third line, as we swirled around the dance floor at an Argentine Tango Valentine’s party in a small, ageing Florida town. She left Irkutsk as a small child, adopted away from Russian language, but the Green Oak Tree of Pushkin’s remained with her. This stumbling block of childhood memory – right before the Cat makes his appearance – blocked her gracefulness of motion too! So I had to beg her, “Let it go, please, just dance for know, and I promise to recite you the rest of the lines after the tanda is over”

  5. You can have as many links as you want! If you put them in one comment, it will wait for moderation, but during the day that shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. If you’re impatient, you can just post one comment for each link. (People sometimes apologize for posting multiple comments, but I don’t care as long as they’re interesting!)

    And thanks for the painting, which I wasn’t familiar with.

  6. Дмитрий, coming from the Land of Advice as I do, I won’t hesitate to suggest you also republish your poem as a separate post. It’s lovely.

  7. Luchishkin’s “Balloon Flew Away” is quite a meme. And its history at Tretyakov’s is quite revealing, too. Apparently, in the enthusiastic 1920s, nobody noticed the silhouette of a man who hanged himself in the upper-floor window. It was not until the following decade, when the outlook has become decidedly less rosy, when somebody finally paid attention to the vignette of suicide in this painting. The “Balloon” ended up in storage for the rest of Stalin’s era…

  8. It’s amazing the painter lived until 1989 after having painted such a subversive work!

  9. Still, I think, the Okujava reference is more powerful. And the red balloon may have also been to replace the ‘goluboy’ reference in the song, because while it used to be the colour or romantics it is now a metaphor for gay.

  10. Using Yer (Ъ, the hard sign) for Pushkin reminded me one aphorism of his: “Spies are like the letter ъ, they are needed only rarely and even then you can do without them, but they like to interfere all the time”. I have no idea what creators of the show had in mind (I didn’t watch it, if that would help). And, sorry, you don’t need to rely on my translation. Here’s the original

    Шпионы подобны букве ъ. Они нужны в некоторых только случаях, но и тут можно без них обойтиться, а они привыкли всюду соваться.

  11. At risk of being pedantic, Pushkin references the fact that the Russian orthography of the time required yer appended at the end of every word ending in hard consonant. Because hard consonants not at the end of words didn’t require any special marking, yer actually was not needed besides maintaining the tradition. The hard sign was and still is used inside words to mark hard consonants where otherwise they would be “softened” according to other rules, but it’s a relatively rare occasion.

  12. Even more pedantically, Ъ is used after prefixes ending in a consonant followed by one of the two-sound letters of the Russian alphabet – e, ё, ю and я, and in closed compounds with numerals ending in a consonant.

  13. I was impressed with the cosmopolitan creativity that went into chosing what or who represented each letter with a somewhat unexpected claim to names long thought of to on outer edges of Russian heritage. Besides Nabokov there were Sikorsky (for V!), Chagal (but not Shaliapin), Kandinsky (not Kalashnikov), Malevich (not Mayakovsky),

  14. But Sikorsky invented вертолёт (helicopter).

  15. Leonardo sketched the first known design for a helicopter in the 15C.

  16. From the op. cit.: a young girl named Lyuba—her name is a diminutive of Lyubov’, the popular Russian female name, that also means “love”

    I have always thought that the name Lubov’ stands for charity, not lovе (though Russian makes no distinction between the two). Modern Russian female names Вера, Надежда and Любовь (Vera, Nadezhda and Lyubov’) also name the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, and are the names of the three saint daughters of Sophia, named in Church Slavonic hagiography Вѣра, Надежда and Любы.

  17. Charity is known in Russian as благотворительность (in its social activity sense). The English name of the respective theological virtue only took shape in XVI c. as far as I know.

  18. Yes, Russian certainly makes a distinction between the two, and любовь means only ‘love’; what you mean (I presume) is that the English word charity, which originally meant (in the words of the OED) “Christian love: a word representing caritas of the Vulgate, as a frequent rendering of ἀγάπη in N.T. Greek,” has come to mean something else, thus confusing generations of Christians who memorize “faith, hope and charity” without understanding what the last word originally meant.

  19. Dmitry: What I meant was ‘charity’ as a Christian virtue, not a philanthropic institution. Such a
    misunderstanding got me thinking that translating the name Lyubov’ as simply ‘charity’ would perhaps also be unnecessary confusing.

    I do not think that the word ‘charity’ was adopted by English to stand for Vulgate caritas only in Early Modern times. ‘Charity’ is an Old French loanword that ultimately descends from Latin caritas, and it would certainly be in its place there. Harper’s online dictionary places its first attestation to the mid-12 c, 200+ years pre-Wycliffe, although not necessarily in the theological sense.

  20. The OED s.v. charity has one of the etymological mini-articles that are quite common in the early part of the alphabet. Here it is, reparagraphed:

    Two early types of this word appear in English: (1) cariteð , -teþ , (2) charité ; these are adoptions respectively of Old Northern French caritedh , -tet(þ), (later, and modern Picard carité), and the somewhat later central Old French charité (earlier charitet); which correspond to Provençal caritat, Spanish caridad, Italian carità, semi-popular adaptations of Latin cāritāt-em in its theological sense.

    In truly popular use Latin cāritāt-em had already become, through popular Latin *cartāt-em, Provençal cartat, Old Northern French kierté, Old French chierté, modern French cherté. But this had the general Latin senses of ‘dearness (high price), fondness, affection’, as well as those belonging specially to New Testament and Christian use; subsequently, to indicate the latter more distinctly, the Latin word, familiar in the language of the church, passed anew into popular use, and undergoing (from its later date) less phonetic change, gave caritat , caritet, charitet, charité. Mixture of the two forms gave the type cherité, and, in English at least, the two words were not kept altogether distinct in use. See cherte n.

    The Greek word for ‘love’ in the N.T. (occasionally also in LXX) is ἀγάπη , from root of verb ἀγαπᾶν ‘to treat with affectionate regard’, ‘to love’; in the Vulgate, ἀγάπη is sometimes rendered by dilectio (noun of action < diligere to esteem highly, love), but most frequently by caritas, ‘dearness, love founded on esteem’ (never by amor). Wyclif and the Rhemish [i.e. Roman Catholic] version regularly rendered the Vulgate dilectio by ‘love’, caritas by ‘charity’.

    But the 16th cent. English versions from Tyndale to 1611, while rendering ἀγάπη sometimes ‘love’, sometimes ‘charity’, did not follow the dilectio and caritas of the Vulgate, but used ‘love’ more often (about 86 times), confining ‘charity’ to 26 passages in the Pauline and certain of the Catholic Epistles [i.e., those addressed to the whole church] (not in 1 John), and the Apocalypse, where the sense is specifically 1c below [i.e., Christian love of one’s fellow beings]. In the Revised Version 1881, ‘love’ has been substituted in all these instances, so that it now stands as the uniform rendering of ἀγάπη, to the elimination of the distinction of dilectio and caritas introduced by the Vulgate, and of ‘love’ and ‘charity’ of the 16th cent. versions.

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