I’m about halfway through Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s, a must-read for anyone interested in what life was like for Russians during the thirties, with informative asides on everything from party secrecy (a Communist who violated the secrecy rules in a speech to a factory meeting could be accused of “betraying the party to the working class”) to the campaign for kulturnost’ (a Krokodil cartoon was captioned “How cultured Ivan Stepanovich has become! Now when he curses people out he uses only the polite form [vy]”). But the proofreading isn’t ideal (the Cheliuskin, whose sinking in 1934 inspired a famous rescue effort, is consistently called the “Cheliushkin”), and on page 93 there occurs one of my favorite typos ever:

One of the signs of the times was the revival of Moscow restaurant life in 1934. This followed a four-year hiatus during which restaurants had been open only to foreigners, payment was in hard currency, and the OGPU regarded any Soviet citizens who went there with deep suspicion. Now, all those who could afford it could go to the Metropole Hotel, where “wonderful live starlets swam in a pool right in the centre of the restaurant hall”…

The intended word was sterlets, a sterlet being a small sturgeon that is the source of the finest caviar (and thus has been hunted almost to extinction in Russia). I personally find it ridiculous to use the word sterlet, utterly obscure in English, when in almost all cases (as here) sturgeon will do as well and be immediately comprehensible, but I’m glad it provided the opportunity for this wonderful image.
Update. I’ve just run across “Chelyushkin” (for Chelyuskin) in Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror (page 326 of my 1990 paperback edition). I don’t know if he was the originator of the error, but it’s possible that Fitzgerald picked it up from him.

Speaking of Russia in the 1930s, I just ran across one of those obscure biographies that give you a little bit more of the awful picture. One of my pastimes is looking up information on obscure people so I can fill out their author pages at LibraryThing, especially when I am the only member who owns one of their books (so that nobody else is likely to do so); just now I was doing this for Rudzhero Gilyarevsky, author of my beloved Languages Identification Guide, picked up on my trip to the USSR in 1971 and read ragged (and heavily annotated) since then. I was delighted to discover there was a Russian Wikipedia article on him, which explained his odd name and provided a striking instance of someone clawing their way out of the misery of Stalinist repression. It turns out that his father, Ettore Macchi, was a captain in the Military Attache’s office of the Italian Embassy in Moscow until he was recalled to Italy in 1929, the year Ruggiero was born. His mother, Ekaterina Krylaeva, was a dancer in the Kazan Opera; she was arrested in 1937, presumably for having had a relationship with a foreigner, and sent to the Gulag, where she remained until 1954. Ruggiero Macchi, or in Russified form Rudzhero Makki, was adopted in 1943 by Sergei and Zinaida Gilyarevsky; his adoptive father was a professor in the First Moscow Medical Institute. Thanks to that daring adoption of the offspring of an enemy of the people, doubtless made possible by wartime laxness, Rudzhero was able to go on to study at the Moscow Energy Institute and then Moscow State University, where he took a degree in Spanish philology in 1953 and got a PhD in 1958. Now he’s an Honored Scientist of the Russian Federation, in charge of the Department of Theoretical and Applied Problems in Computer Science in the Office of Scientific Research on Informatics at VINITI; he lectures at the Faculty of Journalism of Moscow State University, is chief editor of anthologies and of the International Forum on Information, and is a member of the editorial boards of several journals and a member of several scientific councils. I wonder if he thinks about the father he never knew, whose fate after 1929, according to Russian Wikipedia, is unknown?


  1. I checked out Fitzpatrick’s two published sources listed in the note on the paragraph to which “‘betraying the party to the working class'” belongs. Given the quality of the proof-reading, could this ‘party TO the working class’ bit be an artifact of translation? true to the spirit of reality (as the first source, “O konspiratsii” in Stalin’s Politburo in the 30’s, shows – follow the download link at http://community.livejournal.com/ru_history/1592527.html and see pp. 73ff of the pdf) but that is all (as the second source (http://aleksandr-kommari.narodDELETE_THIS.ru/hlevnjuk_stalin_kniga.htm, unpaginated online) hints, in which the only relevant occurrence of рабоч (as in рабочий класс ‘working class’) is in предателей партии и рабочего класса traitors-ACC party-GEN and working-GEN class-GEN, ‘traitors to the party and the working class’).
    (Fitzpatrick’s remaining sources for the paragraph with the quote are an archival document in Russia and an unpublished ms.. The note to the maybe offending paragraph is on p. 231; you can search for “khlevniuk politbiuro” in Amazon; the page is not part of the Google Books preview where and when I am now)

  2. For an “utterly” obscure term, sterlet gets a fairly impressive 73,000 g-hits. I would have opted for the word myself, as “sturgeon” generally connotes something much bigger (though, of course, sturgeons come in many sizes).

  3. anya: The proofreading isn’t that bad; the typos are few and (aside from the starlets) don’t affect the meaning. There wouldn’t be any point in saying “betraying the party of the working class”; the whole point of the passage is that you could be of betraying secrets even to “presumed class allies.” The footnote covers the whole paragraph, so my guess would be that the source for this quote, which comes at the end, is the unpublished ms. That said, I like your questioning spirit!
    For an “utterly” obscure term, sterlet gets a fairly impressive 73,000 g-hits.
    That is not impressive at all. In the first place, many of the hits are for the ships HMS Sterlet and USS Sterlet, and most of the rest seem to be from specialty fish sites. In the second place, 73,000 g-hits is essentially zero; compare any other obscure English word, like archimandrite (301,000 results) or trochanter (374,000 results). If you want to get a truer idea of its frequency, google phrases like “the sterlet was” (304 results, the first four of which refer to ships) or “the sterlet went” (7 results). No results found for “saw the sterlet”. It is in fact an utterly obscure word (if you don’t believe me, go out and ask the first hundred people you meet what a sterlet is), and to use it in text intended for readers other than fish experts is folly; if you find “sturgeon” too vague, I recommend “small sturgeon.”

  4. Paaaah!
    The book’s intended audience is not the “first 100 people” I should happen to meet on the streets of some random English-speaking city. The book’s intended audience is for someone with at least some vague familiarity with Russia and caviar, for whom sterlet / стерлядь should not be that strange of a word. To suggest otherwise is to suggest that every academic text should be dumbed down for the hoi polloi, too lazy to consult a dictionary in case of doubt.

  5. So I sit down with a stout, put on Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, and check out this blog. And what do I find?

  6. someone with at least some vague familiarity with Russia and caviar
    You just threw in the caviar to make your statement sound even vaguely plausible. That said, I admire your pluck!

  7. There must be some other text out there with the same mistake (spell-checker correction?), because Google Translate thinks стерляди is starlet.

  8. Strangely enough, the archimandrite was complaining about his trochanters today.

  9. Translators into English seem to be split about 50/50 on how to deal with Count Rostov’s menu for Prince Bagration.

  10. I think The Androids of Tara gives archimandrite an edge.

  11. Count Rostov’s menu
    Maude gets the sterlet right, but what is тортю (заложи гребешков в тортю)? Maude says it’s the turtle soup, but then orders chef to put cock’s combs – гребешков in it. But could it be гребешки-scallops-coquille Saint-Jacques?
    I suspect sterlet is so obscure in English because it is not really famous for caviar, but for flesh – in soup, smoked, baked or roasted.

  12. betrayal of the party to the working class
    I agree with Anya, the phrase doesn’t sound right, not for internal party use, nor for mass propaganda. It would have sounded right (fitting the usual cliches) if it were ‘betrayal of the party of the working class’ or ‘party and the working class’. I’ve quickly read the first chapter of Fitzgerald’s book, available here, and could help noticing the numerous typos and proofing mistakes, which is a shame because otherwise her analysis is very good.

  13. wonderful live starlets swam
    Here’s a photo of the said restaurant. As you see the ‘pool’ is a bit too small for ‘starlets’ to swim, but there is a contemporary account of an evening at the Metropole during the NEP (1920s) where it is claimed that young women did occasionally fall into the fountain after a long night of dancing and drinking. So it’s not that far off the mark.
    My grandmother, who was in her twenties when the restaurant life re-opened to Muscovites in 1934, told me it was all the rage to go to the Metropole (and the Savoy/Berlin) to dance. Their favourite dance was something called ‘shimmie’.
    When I had lunch there in mid-90s they had goldfish or koi in the fountain, not sterlets.

  14. @LH: regarding anya’s query about the phrase “betraying the party to the working class”, you were politely dismissive of anya’s query about any possibility of mistranslation from the Russian, but I am more open-minded about it. It seems to me that the meaning of the phrases “betraying/betrayal of” and “betraying/betrayal to” are a bit tricky in English, and could theoretically be the cause of some confusion.
    Is it not the case that In English, “betrayal to X” can mean the same as “betrayal of X”? i.e. X was betrayed in both cases. However, there is also a different meaning of “betrayal to”, as in “betrayal of X (by Y) to Z” where Y betrays X to the benefit of Z which might be confusing the translation.
    Could the choice in English between the verb, noun and gerund (betray, betraying, betrayal) have any significance?
    I have some queries about the possible original in Russian.
    What is the Russian for “to betray the party to the working class”? What are the cases used for party and working class?
    What about the phrases “betraying the party and the working class”, “betraying of the party and (of) the working class”, “betrayal to the party and (to) the working class”, “betrayal of the party and to the working class”, “betrayal to the party and of the working class”?
    I would find it surprising if the phrase “betraying the party to the working class” was not considered an extremely dangerous ideological heresy in Soviet Russia in the 30s. Would not the official party line have been that the interests of the party and the proletariat were identical and indivisible?
    I guess that unless we can identify the original quote in Russian we will never know if there was a mistranslation or not.

  15. I would find it surprising if the phrase “betraying the party to the working class” was not considered an extremely dangerous ideological heresy in Soviet Russia in the 30s. Would not the official party line have been that the interests of the party and the proletariat were identical and indivisible?
    You’d think so, but no. The Bolsheviks had learned very quickly after their coup that the working class on which they had built the entire theory of their rule was not to be trusted to follow their enlightened lead, and a “Workers’ Opposition” arose very quickly and had to be squashed more than once. (See my remarks on Jan Machajski in this post.) The ruling party was very aware that many workers resented the loss of the right to organize they thought they had been fighting for (the government-sponsored “unions” were, of course, a joke), and had no illusions about their devotion to Soviet rule. (When the Mensheviks were still legal, more and more workers were drawn to them.) I find the idea of “betraying the party to the working class” completely unexceptionable; as to how it would be rendered in Russian, I leave that to native speakers, but it need not be the case that Fitzgerald is translating a particular phrase—she may well be summing up the burden of a long and jargon-filled internal memorandum.
    However, I’m not dismissing out of hand the idea that she’s wrong. If somebody wants to write her and ask what the statement is based on, her e-mail address is on her U. of Chicago faculty page; if I remember, I may do so myself after I’ve finished the monster editing job I’m in the middle of.

  16. Maude says it’s the turtle soup, but then orders chef to put cock’s combs – гребешков in it.
    One possibility is sainfoin, such as Onobrychis caput-galli.

  17. sterlet … in soup
    Here’s another sterlet strangeness in translating an important Tolstoy food scene.
    This French translation footnotes уха as soupe au sterlet. But ухою из налимов sure looks like lotes / burbots, doesn’t it? And where’s the de la main d’un domestique come from?

  18. I’ve read lots of Bolshevik propaganda over the years, albeit in translation, and “betraying the party TO the working class” sounds to me like an uncaught typo of Fitzpatrick’s on the order of “teh.” I agree that the Party Line has always been that the interests of the Party and the Proletariat are identical; the Trotskyists and Right-Deviationists, as well as the Artistic Formalists like Shostakovich, betray the Party OF the working class. This might be phrased as “…and…” in less picky periods, but there were times when such a phrasing would have gotten one at least “criticized.”
    As for “the book’s intended audience,” any author of a not excessively technical work should anticipate that some people might well jump into the subject in media res, and since “the end of history” one simply can’t expect someone who does not remember those times to be familiar with the Russian names for fish. Using “sturgeon” would have been bad enough for the who’ve neither fished nor studied fish but nevertheless might spend money on your book, but at least “sturgeon” is common enough to be in damn near any dictionary anyone who knows what “Soviet” means should have close to hand. (Or is that ‘AT hand’?)
    It seems to me that only writers who don’t need the money would deliberately talk over the heads of 90% of the potential readership, in which case given our “free” economy they should pay the publisher for printing their stuff since there’d be no profit in it. The other acceptable place for rubbing the mass market’s nose in one’s l33tness is bathroom walls on college campuses, if you feel up to competing with prurient invitations.
    Most of us who are interested in Russian/East Slavic/Soviet history and culture, which includes Bolshevik propaganda, don’t read a word of Russian; those who read Russian would not have to wait for a translation to come out, nor would Russian-reading scholars have to wait for a popularizer to translate documents they’d know how to find out how to get.
    E.g.,I found out that sterlet is a “common Eurasian species of sturgeon (Acipenser ruthenus), one of the smaller species,” because I keep a browser tab open to the Wiktionary and at least one to Wikipedia. And I might not typify Fitzpatrick’s intended readership but she won’t refuse to sell to me either.
    For most things witticisms men’s room walls on college campuses are l33t enough already, yet a pun on “sterlets/starlets” would best go in the men’s room closest to the language faculty’s lounge. Unless of course one is writing on a special-interest (but not excessively elitist) blog such as this one, which meshes with my (layperson’s) interests.
    Incidentally, the local university’s undergrad library, which kindly gave me a Community Borrower’s card, has this and 13 other titles by Sheila Fitzpatrick, which I’ve saved to “My List.” Thanks LH, I needed something to do while I fail to write decent fiction.

  19. You’re most welcome (and I’ve spent time failing to write decent fiction myself, so I sympathize). But I think that you, like anya and iching, are looking at the phrase in question out of context. Sure, in the abstract “betraying the party to the working class” sounds odd and possibly wrong. But it is not used in the abstract, it is used about someone making a speech to a factory meeting—in other words, to the working class. In that context, it makes perfect sense. People here seem much more confident of the indissoluble link between the party and the proletariat than the party itself was. Obviously no one would have used language like that in public (it would have given the game away), but it seems perfectly plausible as part of a secret memorandum.
    Again, I’m not saying Fitzgerald has to be right, just that she’s not obviously wrong. But I may have to drop her a line sooner rather than later, since the issue is arousing such interest.

  20. Thanks, languagehat. I trust your instincts about linguistics and Russian history much more than my own. Live starlets in the pool of the Metropole is indeed a wonderful image. I am imagining choreography by Busby Berkely. The era is about right.

  21. Yeah, the fact that it’s betraying konspiratsiia is precisely the point. Fitzpatrick is probably the most important living Soviet historian; she doesn’t need to be told what “sounds right” in terms of Bolshevik propaganda. Anyway, “betraying the party of the working class” is such a generic phrase that in this context it would be totally out of place.
    In any case, that phrase, in the book, sounded to me like a play on traditional formulas, not a direct quote (so the quotation marks were supposed to indicate distance, not quotation).

  22. (Oh, and I talked to Sonia Ketchian again about her omission of Brodsky in her quote on Akhmadulina–she said she just forgot, and asked me to pass along her sincere apologies!)

  23. More substantively: I’m not a huge fan of Everyday Stalinism because it’s a little paint-by-numbers for my taste. The treatment of secrecy in the book is a pretty good example. The biggest reason secrecy became so pervasive and obsessive in the Stalin period wasn’t really the fear of class enemies as such: it was the fact that the labels “secret,” “top secret,” and so on were used as indicators of how important a document was. Obviously, this meant that anyone who wanted the higher-ups to pay attention would put the highest possible classification on it, which led to all kinds of informational problems and inefficiencies. (Kind of like what Julian Assange wants the US government to develop.)

  24. Off topic(ish), but Radio 3 did Twenty Minutes on Platonov the other night, and it made me think of you.

  25. Thanks, slawk, for your support on this vital issue and for passing on Sonia Ketchian’s apologies—we forgive you, Sonia!
    I understand what you mean about Everyday Stalinism, but it’s so chock-full of important stuff (for those of us who haven’t immersed ourselves in the primary sources, obviously) that I would happily recommend it to people who wanted a basic grasp of the period. What would you recommend of hers? The only other book of hers I own (and have recently read) is Tear off the Masks! Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia.

  26. And thanks, Sili, for the BBC link—I’m listening to it now.

  27. In any case, that phrase, in the book, sounded to me like a play on traditional formulas, not a direct quote (so the quotation marks were supposed to indicate distance, not quotation).
    Ah, I see. “Postmodern” quotes, like those finger wiggles. Maybe instead of quotation marks she could have used an emoticon. (I do expect them to show up in print before too long, and not just in comics or “graphic novels.”) I’ll see what I think myself after I see it in context, but now I think you could well be right.

  28. Hat, I recommend The Cultural Front–it’s both readable and classic.

  29. уха as soupe au sterlet. But ухою из налимов sure looks like lotes / burbots
    Ухá is generic word for fish soup, not just soupe au sterlet, and налим is burbot (Lota Lota), so it should be burbot soup. I am not sure why some translations avoid it? Maudes simply say ‘fish soup’. And this translation puts it as ‘eel soup’, perhaps because in English burbot is sometimes called eelpout?
    The French text is not accessible from Europe, I can’t see what de la main d’un domestique refers to.

  30. Hm. I didn’t think sterlet was that obscure. I think I’ve translated it that way (in a list of common fish served in restaurants). But will reconsider.
    Sashura, I recall a long discussion I had about the mysterious soup. I believe it’s mock turtle soup. That is, the name means turtle soup, but in Russia it was mock turtle soup (and perhaps mocked).

  31. The French text is not accessible from Europe
    European scan.

  32. ah, thanks, mab,
    I think I found the exact reference for тортю which also explains the mystery of гребешки. Look at this page
    in the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Russian Life and History in XVIII – beginning of XIX centuries. What Count Rostov mentions must be the non-declined Russian version of the French soupe de tortue or potage de tortue. Once again Maudes correctly put it as ‘turtle soup’ with ‘cock’s combs’, a real part of the chicken, not the name for bouqet-garni, as MMcM suggested, or scallops, which I thought might be the case. The Encyclpedia also says it was usually made of calves heads, not turtle meat, hence the ‘mock turtle’ alternative name.
    On sterlet, it is perhaps the word that is obscure in English, but the fish itself is quite common in Russia, isn’t it, mab? It has been successfully released in Northern rivers and has been farmed for a long time. They used to sell it alongside carp in markets.
    So, should we also trust Maudes with their rendering of ‘kovernaya’ as ‘snuggery’?

  33. Mike, de la main domestique here means ‘from the servant’ (domestic hand). In Tolstoy’s text it is only implied in the words ‘принял’ – ‘took when handed, offered’ [by the servant]. Thanks for pointing to the French resource.

  34. Mark Etherton says

    It’s because mock turtle soup isn’t made from turtle that the Mock Turtle in Tenniel’s illustrations to Alice in Wonderland has a turtle’s body and a calf’s head.

  35. Sashura, I’m not sure about the grebeshki, since at that time they imported many foods (but also used many native Russian foods). So you might have had a dinner with both tripe and asparagus. Will continue to poke around.
    Yes, our friend the sterlet is very common here, and can still be bought by the side of the road (where they seller tells you it’s so fresh “it’s still breathing!” Or you can buy it in snazzy stores like Azbuka Vkusa (an upscale grocery store, the ABCs of Taste) where it swims around in an aquarium until you pick it.
    I’m not sure about the snuggery. But the Maudes were not slouches.

  36. Thanks. I got what the French meant. But missed the motivation to clarify принять (versus взять or something, I suppose).

  37. Hat, I recommend The Cultural Front–it’s both readable and classic.
    Thanks, I’ve added it to my wish list.

  38. I am afraid I am still thinking about the word “betrayal” and the curious ambiguity associated with it that I first noticed from reading this post. Namely, “X’s betrayal” or “betrayal of X” which can mean either that X is the betrayer or that X is the one betrayed. I tried to think of a similar word and came up with “portrayal” where the ambiguity of “X’s portrayal” is the same: X’s betrayal of Y implies Y’s betrayal by X and vice versa, and also when “portrayal” replaces “betrayal”. There are probably lots of other such examples. I wonder if (some? many?) other languages exhibit this feature for these or other words? I wonder if everyone but me finds this a profoundly uninteresting question?

  39. it is curious, isn’t it?
    Look: предательство партии=betrayal of party (Genitive) means both betrayal by the party (the party betrays you) and betraying the party (you betray the party)? And it works like that both in English and Russian. It continued like this until Gorbachev extended glasnost to party workings.
    Grammar or not, the meaning in Fitzpatrick’s text is clear: party members were not to divulge internal workings of the party to general public. It started well before Stalin, Lenin outlined the principle in ‘What is to Be Done?’ and John Reed notes this characteristic of the bolsheviks in ‘Ten Days’: he says policies were worked out and discussed inside the party (meaning: party apparatus), while outside, during debates at Congresses and Council (Soviet) meetings, party members were to adhere to the ‘general line’, i.e. decision taken by the leadership. Orwell captured that in ‘inner party’ vs ‘outer party’.

  40. has a turtle’s body and a calf’s head.
    is that true or are you pulling our legs?

  41. Mark Etherton says

    True (though to be entirely accurate it also has a calf’s tail and two calf’s feet).

  42. Sashua: “de la main d’un domestique” is right: ‘from the hand of a servant’.
    “de la main domestique” is not possible.

  43. Sure, I just mistyped the article (as usual), thanks for correcting me.
    I suspect Tolstoy dropped the direct reference in this passage because before in that chapter he had already spent too many words describing how good the servants were in the Club.

  44. iching: The effect is not limited to the verb betray, but extends to any noun with an corresponding transitive verb. Both subjective and objective genitives (as they used to be called) are possible in English: Caesar’s murder can mean either what Caesar did (subjective) or what Brutus did (objective). However, I was once told that in French the objective genitive is the only productive form, although there are many frozen subjective-genitive phrases.
    In English, one can have both an inflected and a prepositional genitive attached to the same noun phrase, like John’s adoption of Irene, in which case the first is subjective and the second objective. In French, though, the form is l’adoption d’Irène par Jean, where par is the regular preposition of the agent, corresponding to English by.

  45. John Cowan: Of course you are quite right. Subjective genitive and objective genitive–what useful terms! So if the thing that belongs to something/someone is just an ordinary noun or the noun form of an intransitive verb, we have the ordinary genitive (e.g. Caesar’s book or Caesar’s sleep), but if it is the noun form of a transitive verb (e.g. Caesar’s murder) then the genitive can either be subjective (Caesar was the murderer) or objective (Caesar was murdered). Thanks for clearing up my confusion!

  46. Cheluskin/Chelushkin
    Gillian Slovo opens her good novel Ice Road with a chapter on the Cheluskin epic with a theory that it was doomed from the beginning. I think she captured well the ordinary life and the paranoia of the thirties in Russia.
    Could the error also be because of the s/sh variant pronunciation in English? I’ve often noticed how some Brits from the home counties are shimply unable to say ‘s’ as ‘s’, but ‘sh’, especially when it is followed by e:

  47. Subjective genitive and objective genitive
    John Cowan, thanks for explaining it.
    For practical purposes, what do we do though? As a writer or an editor you don’t just put in brackets: прим.ред./ed.note: please read this as subjective genitive, do you? If there is an awkward ambiguity, you still have to re-work the phrase or query it, methinks?

  48. Could the error also be because of the s/sh variant pronunciation in English?
    Very unlikely, but not impossible.
    If there is an awkward ambiguity, you still have to re-work the phrase or query it, methinks?
    Yes, as with any awkward ambiguity.

  49. And thanks for recommending the Slovo novel; I’ve just ordered it.

  50. I’ll be looking forward to your blogs on the Ice Road. I think it has been unfairly overshadowed by The Siege. Both novels came out roughly at the same time and have very similar story lines and characters. While, I think, stylistically Helen Dunmore is stronger than Slovo, psychologically characters in Ice Road are treated deeper than in The Siege.

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