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How offensive is khokhol?

May 1, 2016

Back in 2013 commenter mmenb had me thinking about exactly how offensive the word khokhol ‘topknot’ — a pejorative word some Russian speakers use for Ukrainians — is now or was in the nineteenth century, and compared it to the English word “nigger.” I’ve seen that comparison again in a few places recently. The blogger Nikolai Podosokorskii had a post deleted by Facebook administrators for using khokhol, and he links to an article in Izvestia about a 2015 controversy where Facebook was invited by the Russian government to explain why Russians were being blocked, and they explained that khokhol fell under the same policy that banned “nigger.” Izvestia went to the linguist Leonid Krysin for a quote, and he (writing, I believe, from a Russian and not a Ukrainian perspective) shared my intuition as a speaker of American English that “if you compare American and Russian culture, ‘nigger’ is considered much more offensive than khokhly.”

But compare this exchange from a 2008 internet forum, initially about the word churki ‘disparaging term for several Central Asian ethnic groups’:


Is the word “Churka” a bad word [ругательство]?

So why is it, I wonder, that churki get offended when they’re called churki? It’s not a bad word, is it? After all, moskali don’t get offended when they’re called moskalikhokhly don’t get offended when they’re called khokhly — in my opinion they even take it with a certain ironic pride. When I lived in Latin America, I heard “gringo” directed at me more than once, but I didn’t think for a moment that I should be offended or that I should have any complexes about it — after all, to them I really am a “gringo.”

Maybe “churka” means something we don’t know about in Churkish?

Answer 1:

All the things you enumerate are offensive terms [оскорбительные названия]. True, offensive to different degrees, if you can say that. And the degree, of course, depends greatly on context.

Let residents of Ukraine speak to khokhly, but it is far from certain that Belarusians will take the nickname [кличка] bul’bash with “a certain ironic pride.”

Answer 2:

In the States one African-American can calmly say “nigger” to another African-American, but let a white person just try…

Maybe one Ukrainian (or a friend of one) really can say khokhol to another, but that doesn’t mean that someone else [посторонний] can say it. That’s one.

Patriotically brought up Ukrainians (національно свідомі [these two words are in Ukrainian]) will NEVER say it, that’s two.

I personally go crazy when I hear that word, that’s three. […]

After reading all this I suspect that khokhly, while offensive, is different from “nigger” in one or both of these dimensions. First, in who sees it as offensive. The people the word might be used against object to it in each linguistic community, but there seems to be an asymmetry among people who’ve never heard the word applied to them. There are Russians who at least affect to believe that Ukrainians don’t mind being called khokhly, while in the U.S. I would expect the most appalling Woodrow Wilson apologist to avoid the word “nigger.” Second, in whether it’s a “bad word” in the sense of taboo and unprintable. I once saw a play where “nigger” was used for shock value: one character said it in scene after scene, making us all uncomfortable, until another character said “stop saying that word!” and audience members audibly agreed. Would that work, aesthetically speaking, if khokhol were used in a play in Moscow? In Kyiv?


Can you guess the Russian for “Hlahla! Uthlofan, lauflings!”?

April 30, 2016

If so, these links are for you. Tom at Wuthering Expectations has been posting about early–twentieth century Russian poets all week: Kuzmin, Khlebnikov, Mandel’shtam, Tsvetaeva. I’m hoping Akhmatova, Pasternak, and especially Blok aren’t far behind.

Words new to me: мыза

April 29, 2016
The main building of the Мыза Вазалемма (or Vasalemma mõis) in Estonia. Picture by Iifar.

The main building of the Мыза Вазалемма (or Vasalemma mõis) in Estonia. Picture by Iifar.

A мыза (mýza) is “a country house or dacha that produces its own food (in areas adjacent to Finland).” It’s a borrowing from Estonian or Finnish or another Finno-Ugric language (“Из эст. mõiz, род. п. mõizа ‘двор, имение’, водск. mõiza, лив. moiz, фин. moisio” — “водск.” evidently stands for the Votic or Votian language, “лив.” for Livonian).

In A Thousand Souls (Тысяча душ, 1858), Kalinovich and Prince Ivan are waiting to board a ship to take them to what the Prince has called “a dacha past Peterhof” that belongs to his cousin Polina, who has recently inherited a fortune:

“Shipping is a fine investment,” he said. “It pays from fifteen to eighteen per cent. How nice it would be if we could put my cousin’s money into the company!”

“And can’t you?” asked Kalinovich.

“No,” replied the [Prince] in tones of vexation. “It lies in the bank in the most idiotic manner — just in the very place where, whatever anyone says, it is both foolish and immoral for it to be, in an enterprising age like ours. But what’s to be done? Woman-like she is in ecstasy over this farm [мыза] she has bought, with its fishing and grass and cows. And yet it’s a mere plaything, a drop in the ocean, considering her capital, which ought to be set free, since, with just a little ingenuity and proper administration, it would bring in a steady hundred thousand a year — why, you could buy up a German duchy for that! Just think!” (this is Ivy Litvinov’s translation, p. 317. She has “Count” instead of “Prince” for князь.)

— Славное это предприятие — пароходство, — говорил он, — пятнадцать, восемнадцать процентов; и вот, если б пристроить тут деньги кузины – как бы это хорошо было!
— А они не в оборотах? — спросил Калинович.
— Нет, — отвечал с досадою князь, — пошлейшим образом лежат себе в банке, где в наш предприимчивый век, как хотите, и глупо и недобросовестно оставлять их. Но что ж прикажете делать? Она, как женщина, теперь вот купила эту мызу, с рыбными там ловлями, с покосом, с коровами – и в восторге; но в сущности это только игрушка и, конечно, капля в море с теми средствами, которым следовало бы дать ход, так что, если б хоть немножко умней распорядиться и организовать хозяйство поправильней, так сто тысяч вернейшего годового дохода… ведь это герцогство германское! Помилуйте! (part 3, chapter 9)

I don’t think Litvinov’s “farm” quite gets it, though Polina does enjoy personally playing at agriculture at her mýza. It seems to be a luxurious manor house that doesn’t rely on food being brought in from elsewhere.


“Even more fallen than all the other fallen women…”

April 1, 2016

At the end of Ivan Goncharov’s “The Precipice” (Обрыв, 1869), the theme of women — married, unmarried, or widowed, rich, poor, or in between, slave or free — having sex with men they weren’t at that moment married to gets even more prominent than it had been. It’s at the heart of the turning point at the end of part 4 and the (by then well prepared and not unexpected) revelation of the past in part 5.

And this turns out to be the place where Goncharov takes a stand. Which was unusual, according to his contemporaries: Pisarev wrote that Goncharov, while a superb literary technician, “picks apart the situation and the qualities of his characters, but always refrains from pronouncing a final verdict… the reader cannot say the author is sympathetic to the elder Aduev [in An Ordinary Story], nor can he say that he considers him wrong… Consequently, while finishing the final page of the novel, the reader feels unsatisfied.” Some might want to dismiss Pisarev as a primitive radical who wanted everything to be didactic, but I think he was an observant reader. Joseph Frank quotes Dostoevskii as saying more or less the same thing: “he once described [Goncharov] as a person with ‘the soul of a petty official, not an idea in his head, and the eyes of a steamed fish, whom God, as if for a joke, has endowed with a brilliant talent’” (212).

The long “will-she-or-won’t-she” scene with Vera and Mark in The Precipice follows Goncharov’s “no final verdict” playbook for a long time. She wants him to marry her and be her friend and lover forever; he wants her to have sex with him right now, and explicitly refuses to make promises about the future. Their arguments about laws of nature, rules made by people, freedom, happiness, and duty are internally consistent, but incompatible. In the end,

Both understood that each of them was right from their own point of view — but nevertheless they both desperately hoped in secret, he that she would come over to his side, and she that he would yield, admitting all the while that their hope was absurd, that neither of them would be able, even if they had wanted, to be suddenly reborn; to take on different convictions, a different worldview, as one puts on a hat; to come to share a faith or to renounce it. (part 4, chapter 12)

The wishy-washy evenhandedness that displeased Dostoevskii and Pisarev is practically being flaunted. But the chapter isn’t over, and the symmetry is soon ruined in what I thought was the most astonishing and least psychologically convincing part of the novel:

And so she goes away without leaving him any trophy of victory except ephemeral meetings that would disappear like footsteps in the sand. He was losing the battle, losing her, and as he walked away he understood he would never meet another Vera to match this one.

He compared her to other women, especially to “new” women, so many of whom gave themselves to life, according to the new teaching, just as wantonly as Marina gave herself to her loves. And he found that these were pitiful, vulgar creatures, even more fallen than all the other fallen women who had yielded to their imagination or temperament or even to gold, while these ones had supposedly yielded to a principle that they frequently did not understand, which was not a conviction of theirs, but something they had believed at the first word. Consequently they had yielded to something else, to the same thing that Kozlov’s wife, for example, would yield to, only they hypocritically or imbecilically covered this up with a principle! (part 4, chapter 12)

And poof, Mark Volokhov puts on a new hat. I’d earlier been surprised that the vacillating Raiskii (who talks of love lasting forever, like Vera, but in practice moves from one physical attraction to another, like Mark says men must) appeared to condemn this same Marina and this same Kozlov’s wife for being promiscuous. I thought it was hard to tell how much of the words “He saw in her not merely a debauched house-servant woman, after the fashion of the hopeless confirmed drunkards among the men…” to attribute to the narrator’s attitudes, since it seemed strange to take it as a pro–female chastity view of Raiskii’s given in style indirect libre. But it turns out that everyone, even the ferocious nihilist Volokhov, sees the truth of what looks like the strongest authorial position in Goncharov: women shouldn’t sleep around, the new men who preach free love are self-serving predators, and the new women who pretend to believe in it are idiots or willing dupes.


Guess who

March 31, 2016

If you’re here, you can probably guess which writer might be referred to (by different people at different times) as “exasperating, idealistic, hypocritical, inexhaustible”; “a mixture of poet, Calvinist, fanatic, nobleman”; “highly moral and at the same time unattractive”; “a ‘fatuous and offensive’ bore”; and “the bear-hunting repentant playboy.” (And don’t forget “the troglodyte”!) But whether it’s obvious or not, read all about him at Russian Dinosaur.

“And the quick-tempered youth was ready to prove that no Chichikovs, Nozdryovs, or Korobochkas existed in the world.”

March 30, 2016

How often do you learn of a nineteenth-century Russian novel written by a woman you know nothing about that’s so good it makes someone fume about the “unjust workings of literary history and canon formation”? If, like me, you haven’t read Elena Vel’tman (1816-1868), you should read Languagehat on her novel Victor (Виктор, 1853).

Elena Vel'tman, née Kube (1816-1868)

Elena Vel’tman, née Kube (1816-1868)

The book has one character who quotes Rousseau, Petrarch, and… Trediakovskii from memory, and another who “reads Gogol’s preface [to Dead Souls] inviting readers to send him their accounts of whatever part of Russia they know so that a complete picture can be built up, and decides he will ride around the countryside and tell the author about it.” It sounds fun, and I’m all the more interested since it may have influenced A Thousand Souls (Тысяча душ, 1858) — that’s also something I know courtesy of Languagehat, who sent me a quote from A. P. Mogilianskii suggesting the connection between Victor and Pisemskii.

E. Vel’tman didn’t even make my list of women writers with and without pseudonyms a few years ago. Iu. Akutin writes that there was some confusion about her name. Apparently, she was born Elena Ivanovna Kube. She reluctantly married the wealthy P. D. Krupenikov, but published under her maiden name, Elena Kube. At some point the writer’s mother married a man named Sabaneev, which led people to incorrectly believe that Elena Kube was a pseudonym and that her actual last name was Sabaneeva. Later the writer met A. F. Vel’tman and married him after managing to get a divorce from her first husband.

Besides Victor, Elena Vel’tman wrote

  • “So It Was a Dream?” (Так это был сон?, 1846)
  • “Oksana” (Оксана, 1847)
  • “The Marchioness Luigi [?]” (Маркиза Луиджи, 1848) [Druzhinin, then at The Contemporary, accused The Muscovite of hypocrisy in 1849 for simultaneously publishing this story and criticizing George Sand]
  • Lydia (Лидия, 1848)
  • “On Women’s Education in Public Schools” (О воспитании женщины в общественных училищах, 1848)
  • “The Alcibiades of His Family” (Алкивиад своей семьи, 1849)
  • The Alphabet and Reading for the Earliest Ages (Азбука и чтение для первого возраста, 1862)
  • Report on the Education of Children in the Home (Уведомление о детском домашнем обучении, 1862)
  • “On Russian Nannies” (О русских нянюшках, 1862)
  • Sacred and Notable Places in the Moscow Kremlin (Святыни и достопамятности московского Кремля, 1865, 2nd ed. 1873, 31 pp.)
  • The Adventures of Prince Gustav Eriksson, Who Was Engaged to the Tsarevna Xenia Godunova (Приключения королевича Густава Ириковича, жениха царевны Ксении Годуновой, 1851-67).

(Most of these are from a numbered list that goes up to 13 but skips 6 and 7, so maybe there are others out there.)


February 22, 2016

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