I spent most of June reading Кощей бессмертный [Koshchei the Immortal], an 1833 novel by Alexander Veltman (see this LH post—I translated a bit from the opening of the novel here), and once again I am stupefied that such an enjoyable and unique writer has been so utterly forgotten. I described the plot, such as it is, succinctly in the Wikipedia article I created for him, calling the book “a parody of the historical adventure novels popular at the time”: “Its hero, Iva Olelkovich Puta-Zarev, is a sort of Russian Don Quixote, his brains addled by overexposure to Russian folklore. After his marriage, he imagines that his bride has been captured by Koshchei, and after various adventures the couple are reunited.” But this does not at all represent the experience of reading the book, which after the opening scene with the brainless and brutal young Iva Olelkovich forgets about him for almost half the novel, and the title remains mysterious for even longer. In the twelfth chapter comes the first mention of Koshchei; Veltman has been describing a bit of medieval history, and suddenly he’s interrupted by his readership: “Mstislav was worthy of being called the Great… —Fine, let’s say he was worthy, but what does that have to do with us? Where is Koshchei the Immortal? Where’s Iva?” [Мстислав стоил имени Великого… — Положим, что стоил, да что нам до этого? Где Кощей бессмертный? Где Ива?] He soothingly responds “All in good time!” and continues the history lesson.

As usual, my response to a book that’s difficult to describe is to provide extensive quotes and hope to convey something of the quality. The translations are, of course, mine (none of his novels have been translated, a situation I wish some publisher would remedy); the Russian is at the end of the post. First, a selection from near the end of the first of the novel’s three parts:

Having examined all the manuscripts, plain and parchment, all the ancient legends and rusty Kernels of History [Veltman is referring to the Ядро Российской истории (Kernel of Russian History) composed by the diplomat Aleksei Mankiev around 1715 and published in 1770], I have found in them not a single word about the events which I am handing down to posterity.

This omission should lie especially heavily upon the soul of the Novgorod chronicler.

There was probably some sort of personal animus against someone from the Puta-Zarev family!

But let us leave these investigations. The reader can have no doubt concerning the truth of tradition and of my words.

* * *

“In the year 6728 [i.e., 1220],” says an unknown chronicler, “Iva Ivorovich fared forth from the land of the Slavs toward Jerusalem and nigh adjoinant the marketplace of Chernavets [? (probably this town] was caitived by the Hungarish Aidamaks and affronted and wellnigh done to death, and he made away, and made his way to the marketplace of Roman [? (probably this town)], where for ruth he was taken by an Urmen [?] merchant and carried to Dichin (Dinogetia) and further…” But in the manuscript there is nothing further…


In 1262—when all the land of Rus was tributary to the Tatars and only the daring Daniel of Galicia had not abandoned his beloved meditations on means of winning freedom from the yoke of the heathen Taurmens, Bessermens, Bakhmits—around the end of Afterlithe [July] or rather around the beginning of Lammas-month [August], in the Downstream [?] region, the lord of a village near the Dana-Stry [Dniester] had his name-day, and while awaiting his guests he was giving orders in his fine lordly estate.

* * *

To provide at least some elucidation of the foregoing, we must tell the reader that the abovementioned lord is in no way a personage extraneous to that generation that is the subject of my lengthy speech, word, song, tale, legend, story, account, fabrication, poem, kernel, novel.

He was dignified by the name of Lord Savva Ivich Puta-Zarev.

And now, from the third and fifth chapters of the second part, showing his way with historical and narrative transitions:

A new ancestor of the lordling, the hero of the tale, as the Chronicler writes, was born in a most ungrateful time for storytelling. The time of wizards, sorceresses, soothsayers, astrologers, and magicians had collapsed with the manifestation of the holy faith. And the time of bogatyrs and heroes had also passed into eternity with the appearance of the Tatars. The last were Alexander Popovich and his servant Torop, Dobrynya Ryazanych of the Golden Belt, and seventy other bogatyrs who were lost at the source of that bloody river which flooded all the land of Rus, but that will not hinder us from passing through the darkness that lay over that expanse which held the cradle of our good forefathers the Scythians.

Everything will be renewed!

* * *

On the left side of the river Dana-Stry, near Studenitsa, on the riverbank’s slope, there is a hill, and on that hill Stano, on her knees, lay her head on the pile of fresh earth and showered it with her tears.

Over her stood [her husband] Lavr, like an enfeebled elder, head and hands hanging.

It seemed as if Stano and Lavr had turned to stone in their positions.

On the right bank of the river Dana-Pry, near Volny-Prag, on the slope, there is a high tomb. On this tomb stood a cross carved from rough stone; leaning on that cross stood Lavr, alone, somber, pale; his heart was filled with tears, his eyes were dry.

It was the year 1320. In Galicia Prince Andrei Yurevich sat on the throne, in Vladimir his brother Lev. […]

Having redeemed his princedom by virtual enslavement to Gediminas, Lev died in 1324, leaving as his heir his son, the wise Georgii, under whose rule came the Princedom of Galicia, after his uncle Prince Andrei Yurevich, and the region of Kiev. He was the last scion of the power of Rus over South Russia. With him ended the tale of its glory as well.

The aged Lavr, as a reward for his service, was granted by Georgii a rich demesne on the banks of the Dnieper. The settlement of Oblazna [Old Russian ‘error, delusion’] with its villages took the place of his inherited demesne on the Dniester. […]

After this weighty acquisition, Lavr passed away, and to Olel Lavrovich was born three years later a son Iva Olelkovich, named Iva in memory of his great-grandfather Iva, who spent forty years walking to Jerusalem.

This Iva Olelkovich is that very lordling of whom we are speaking; he himself is that hero of Rus and mighty and powerful bogatyr whose exploits have until now perished in obscurity.

And thus by a commodius vicus of recirculation we return to the opening of the novel.

Veltman’s love of obscure words and documents, his joyous playing around with form, his refusal to let the reader sink comfortably into a story and forget that it is an artificial creation—all this would have brought joy to the hearts of the Formalists of the 1920s if they had ever read him. Shklovsky would have been thrilled by his use of defamiliarization and his constant baring of the form. But by then he’d been forgotten for two generations.

But Veltman knew how to tell a story as well as play with form. That quiet juxtaposition of the grieving couple on the left bank of the Dana-Stry and the grieving man on the right bank of the Dana-Pry moves me whenever I think of it.

The original Russian for the first selection:

Рассмотрев все летописи, простые и харатейные, все древние сказания и ржавые Ядра Истории, я не нашел в них ни слова о событии, которое предаю потомству.
Это упущение особенно должно лежать на душе Новгородского летописца.
Верно, какая-нибудь личность с кем-нибудь из рода Пута-Заревых!
Но оставим изыскания. Читатель не может сомневаться в справедливости преданий и слов моих.
* * *
“В лето 6728-е, говорит неизвестный летописец, Ива Иворович иде Славенскою землею во Иерусалим и негде у торга Чернавца пленен бысть Айдамаками Угорскими и обьщьствован и вмале не убиен, и убежа, и вбежа в торг Роман, идеже, жалости ради, взят бысть Урменским купцом и везен в Дичин (вер. Диногетия, Галиц) и далее…” А далее в летописи ничего нет..,
В 1262 году — когда уже Русская земля была данницею Татар и только смелый Даниил Галицкий не оставлял любимой думы о средствах избавиться от ига поганых Таурменов, Бессерменов, Бахмитов — около исхода Червеня [= Июля] или вернее около начала Зарева [= Августа] в Понизовской области, Боярин одного села при реке Дана-Стры был имянинник и в ожидании гостей распоряжался в своем красном Боярском дворе.
* * *
Чтоб пояснить хоть несколько все предыдущее, мы должны сказать читателям, что вышеписанный Боярин, нисколько не постороннее лицо тому поколению, об котором идет моя длинная речь, слово, песнь, повесть, сказание, история, быль, вымысел, поэма, ядро, роман.
Его величали: Боярин Савва Ивич Пута-Зарев.

For the second selection:

Новый предок Барича, героя повести, как говорит Летописец, родился в самое неблагодарное время для повествования. Время чародеев, ворожей, вещунов, звездочетов и кудесников рушилось с проявлением святой веры. А время богатырей и витязей также прошло в вечность с появлением Татар. Последние: Александр Попович и слуга его Тороп, Добрыня Рязаныч Златой Пояс и семьдесять других богатырей утонули в истоке кровавой реки, потопившей всю Русскую землю, но это не помешает пройти нам чрез тьму, которая лежала над тем пространством, где была колыбель наших добрых праотцев Скифов.
Все возобновится!
* * *
На левой стороне реки Дана-Стры, близ Студеницы, на скате берега, есть холм, на этом холме Ст_а_но на коленях склонила голову на насыпь свежей земли и обливала ее слезами.
Над ней стоял Лавр, как обессилевший старец, опустив руки и голову.
Казалось, что Ст_а_но и Лавр окаменели в этом положении.
На правом берегу реки Дана-Пры, близ Вольного-Прага, на скате, есть высокая могила. На этой могиле стоял иссеченный из дикого камня крест; облокотясь на этот крест, стоял Лавр, один, мрачный, бледный; сердце его было полно слез, очи сухи.
Настал 1320 год. В Галиче сидел на престоле Князь Андрей Юрьевич, во Владимире Волынском Лев, брат его. […]
Искупив Княжество свое почти порабощением Гедимину, Лев умер в 1324 году, оставив наследником сына своего, мудрого Георгия, под власть коего поступило и Княжение Галицкое, после дяди его, Князя Андрея Юрьевича, и область Киевская. Он был последнею отраслью власти Русской над Южною Россиею. С ним кончилась и повесть о славе ее.
Устарелый Лавр в награду за службу свою одарен был от Георгия богатою отчиной на берегах Днепра. Погост Облазна с деревнями заменил ему наследственную Днестровскую отчину. […]
После сего важного приобретения Лавр успокоился, а у Олеля Лавровича родился через три года сын Ива Олелькович, названный Ивою в память своего прапрадеда Ивы, совершившего в 40 лет хождение во Иерусалим.
Этот-то Ива Олелькович есть тот барич, о котором мы ведем речь; он-то тот Русский витязь и сильный могучий богатырь, которого подвиги до сего времени гибли в безвестности.


  1. What’s the historical trajectory of the traditional month names in Russian? The same or similar names remain in use in other Slavic languages: for example, Червень is still June in Ukrainian (and, modulo minor differences, in Belarusian, Czech, etc.). Since the names are tied to natural events, there are some interesting offsets: Ukrainian Липень is July, but Croatian Lipanj is June.

  2. Wimbrel: see this 2009 LH post.

  3. Jeffry House says

    Your work to resussitate Veltman and other pre-claasical Russian writers has been excellent; and this post continues the tradition!
    I have a question, though. I am pretty sure I learned from LH that Veltman translated The Lay of Igor’s Campaign, and the fact of translation is confirmed by this:
    Russian Wiki includes this fact, yet it is not included in the English wiki you wrote.
    Translation and philology being in the LH wheelhouse, was there some reason you excluded it from your article?

  4. I didn’t know it at the time! My goodness, he was a multifarious fellow.

  5. SFReader says

    Danapar and Danastr are ancient names of Dnieper and Dniester rivers respectively.
    Urman is old Russian name for Norwegian(name of the city of Murmansk also derives from another form of this name)
    But I don’t know what is Urmen. Perhaps a misspelling of Armenian?

  6. SFReader says

    marketplace of Chernavets – is definitely Chernovtsy(Czernowitz), capital of Bukovina

  7. marketplace of Chernavets – is definitely Chernovtsy(Czernowitz), capital of Bukovina
    Ah yes, you must be right. And thanks for Urman = Norwegian; I didn’t know that. I have a dream that someday there will be a good annotated edition…

  8. Jeffry House says

    Urman/Murman probably derives from the Norwegian name for a Norwegian, ie.. “nordman”, pronounced noorman.

  9. narrowmargin says

    LH: Did I miss the part where you revealed your birthday loot?

  10. Oh, that’s right, I usually do a birthday-loot post, don’t I? I guess I didn’t get anything that seemed particularly LH-related, so I didn’t post. But I am curious to know if it was an LH reader who sent me a copy of Paul Hazard’s The Crisis of the European Mind: 1680-1715, which I’m very much looking forward to reading; it arrived with no gift slip or other indication of provenance. Whoever it was, you have my heartfelt thanks; I’m very much looking forward to reading it!

  11. SFReader says

    marketplace of Roman- I think this is the town of Roman in Romania. It is about a hundred miles south of Chernovtsy.
    Another note, “torg” or “targu” is an extremely common name for towns in Romania and quite obviously of Slavic origin.
    Old Church Slavonic was a state language in Romanian principalities until 19th century.
    Probably on such linguistic grounds, a 14th century Russian chronicle called “A list of Russian cities, near and faraway” included plenty of Romanian and even Bulgarian city names. Apparently the chronicler felt that every place where Old Church Slavonic was used was Russian…

  12. SFReader says

    in the Downstream [?] region, the lord of a village near the Dana-Stry –
    Dnestrovskoe Ponizovie is a common geographical term, but it is too far to the south – in Odessa region. It is not clear that it still had Russian population in 14th century

  13. SFReader says

    –the yoke of the heathen Taurmens, Bessermens, Bakhmits
    Taurmen is an ethnic name of unclear origin which Russian chronicles used to describe arrival of Mongols (“That year, unknown people came for our sins and nobody knows well who they are and from where they come, and they are called Tatars, but some say that they are the Taurmeny and some say they are the Pechenegi. Only God knows who they are and from where they come”)
    Bessermeny we have discussed earlier – a common Russian name for Muslims.
    Bakhmits is another Russian name for Muslims. It derives from Bakhmit – Russian pronunciation of prophet Mohhamed’s name. So it literally means Mohhamedans.

  14. marketplace of Roman- I think this is the town of Roman in Romania. It is about a hundred miles south of Chernovtsy.
    That makes a lot of sense. Roman was named for a guy who ruled in the 1390s, and it is not mentioned until that time, but of course Veltman is writing a novel, not a history, and there are other anachronisms. Thanks for this and for all your other helpful annotations!

  15. For heaven’s sake, Hat, you owe it to the planet to take some time off and translate Veltman. Nobody else seems to want to, there are no issues with rights or publishers, and increasing the public stock of harmless pleasure (Dr. Johnson) is always a Good Thing.

    And as Mr. Kaplan says, “voise den Tarnova [his White Russian bête noire] you ken’t be!” where for “Tarnova” read any number of extant and extinct Russian-to-English translators….

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