Why They Learned Polish.

I’m reading Reading for Entertainment in Contemporary Russia: Post-Soviet Popular Literature in Historical Perspective, edited by Stephen Lovell and Birgit Menzel (Sagner, 2005; strangely, it doesn’t seem to have an Amazon listing), and I (admittedly not the average reader) am finding it enthralling. Lovell’s introductory essays are instructive and well written, but the real prize is Marina Koreneva’s chapter on “Russian Detective Fiction.” Koreneva goes all the way back to folk tales like Bova Korolevich and Shemyaka’s Judgment and the wildly popular tales of the real-life thief Vanka Kain (see the section on Matvei Komarov in this post), and she has an extraordinary depth and breadth of knowledge of the field. When she gets to Soviet times, she explains that the conventional view that the 1930s and ’40s were a “detective-free time” is mistaken: even though the genre was officially suppressed, such works appeared in “the series, or ‘libraries,’ of thin brochure-type books that the publishing houses put out for the benefit of various groups of Soviet readers” (e.g., the Library of the Red Army Man, the Library of the Village Correspondent, etc.), and in the 1930s alone “there were dozens of such series.”

But what drives me to post is footnote 36. She’s been talking about how publishing houses after Khrushchev’s reforms were “self-financing enterprises,” meaning they were supposed to support themselves rather than relying on state subsidies, and yet they were only allowed to publish a certain number of adventure novels (which actually turned a profit) each year; to get around this, they camouflaged such works in all sorts of places (series, supplements to journals, almanacs with titles like “Heroism,” etc.), which “placed the readers themselves in the position of a detective: in order to find the desired text, it was necessary not only to expend energy … but also to work out where to start looking for it.” And to show the lengths to which people were willing to go, she has the following footnote:

Some detective lovers learned foreign languages specially so as to be able to read foreign novels in the original and get round Soviet publishing. The Ekaterinburg writer Viktor Miasnikov recalled that at the end of the seventies he worked at a factory with its own Polish language society. The workers were learning Polish purely to be able to read the detective novels that were available in the ‘bookshops of socialist literature’. Especially popular were the pocket editions of the Polish series ‘Labyrinth‘ and ‘The Silver Key‘, which included not only Polish but also American, French and English detective novels.

My hat is off to those determined genre fans! And I’m reminded of this passage from Gladkov’s Cement (see this post): “Comrades, we have a wonderful library, whose books have been confiscated and nationalised from the bourgeoisie and the capitalists — but they’re all of German origin. Now, according to proletarian discipline we must read them, because we must remember that, as workers, we belong to the international masses and therefore, must command every language.”


  1. Lucy Kemnitzer says

    I just want to say I get a little sweet feeling everytime somebody quotes Cement: it’s one of my very favorite books.

  2. I was told that in Minsk some philosophers learned Polish to read Western authors whose books were translated into Polish but not into Russian.

  3. I was told (can any Hatter confirm or deny this?) that in 1986, when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster took place, the first group of ordinary citizens in the Soviet Union who learned of it were Western Ukrainians who listened to Polish radio, which had broken the news almost immediately, unlike Soviet authorities, which maintained a strict silence on the topic for several days after the catastrophe.

  4. @Etienne
    The things were actually quite different. The Polish scientists who had noticed much higher amount of radioactive isotopes on 28 April 1986 (two days after the disaster took place) found out about what had really happened in the evening on the same day from the BBC Radio. And the leading newspaper of the Polish communist party (“Trybuna Ludu”) informed on 28 April that New Zealander scientists had noticed a new nuclear explosion made by France in the Mururoa Atoll.

  5. “I was told (can any Hatter confirm or deny this?) that in 1986, when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster took place, the first group of ordinary citizens in the Soviet Union who learned of it were Western Ukrainians who listened to Polish radio, which had broken the news almost immediately, unlike Soviet authorities, which maintained a strict silence on the topic for several days after the catastrophe.”

    BBC World Service’s English broadcasts were not jammed and were receivable in Moscow and other big cities, mostly likely in Kyiv as well – where it mattered more than in Moscow.

  6. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Also, can any Hatter who knows about such things comment on how similar the Russian and Ukrainian languages are? There is quite a lot about it on the web or in news broadcasts, but I’m never sure how much the comments come from people who know what they’re talking about. If you can read one can you more or less read the other (like Spanish and Portuguese, say)? Are the spoken languages mutually intelligible to a large extent, or only in one direction, again like Spanish and Portuguese, or like Swedish and Danish?

  7. Athel, there’s a lot to say. Here are some fairly random observations:

    1) The languages are very close, particularly in syntax, but it’s still usually possible to tell if a sentence is Russian or Ukrainian.

    2) That said, there is a continuum of language varieties from Russian to Southern Russian to Russian with a Ukrainian accent to surzhyk (ad-hoc mixed language) to Eastern Ukrainian to Western Ukrainian.

    3) Many Russians think they can understand Ukrainian, whereas what they really understand is the early steps on the continuum above.

    4) Most Ukrainians in Ukraine and Russia (but not elsewhere) learn Russian for practical reasons. (My physiatrist, a second-generation American, speaks excellent (if old-fashioned) Western Ukrainian but has to speak English to recent Russian immigrants.)

    5) Modern standard Ukrainian has to some extent been artificially de-Russianized, making it harder for Russians to understand than some non-standard Ukrainian varieties.

    6) Ukrainian has a thick layer of Polish loanwords that Russian does not have, but it also has a layer of modern scientific and technical loanwords from Russian.

    7) Many native Ukrainian words have Russian equivalents that are obsolete, archaic, or little-used.

  8. My maternal grandmother was born in Bursztyn, a small town about 40 miles southeast of Lemberg/Lvov/Lviv in what is today Ukraine. At the time — late 19th century — this area was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and she immigrated to Canada when Franz Joseph still sat safely on his throne. As far as she was concerned, she knew two Slavic languages: Polish and Russian. I don’t recall her using the term Ukraine or any of its derivatives.

  9. There wasn’t a clear distinction between Polish and Ukrainian/Ruthenian in that part of the world; dialects merged into one another, and nobody outside the cities spoke a standard language of any kind. I wrote about this in some post a few years ago, but I don’t remember where.

  10. An excellent if length thread at Word Reference Forums on the mutual intelligibility of the Slavic languages. Many of the posts are of the form “I am a native speaker of X and this is my list of the Slavic languages from most to least intelligible”. There’s probably an M.A. thesis in data-mining this thread alone. I particularly liked the person who said they could only read Polish by pronouncing it and then figuring out what they had just said.


  1. […] Hat observes that many Soviets learned Polish in order to partake in the freer and more cosmopolitan literature […]

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