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Is the set of verbs without a я form growing?

February 2, 2021

Some Russian verbs, like победить, randomly don’t have a first-person singular form. With most verbs the я form is well above the ты form on a Google Books Ngram, but победишь is way ahead of all the conceivable “I” forms of the same verb, which all hover around zero. In the problem verbs you’d always expect a consonant mutation in the missing form, but it doesn’t sound right to native speakers to do the regular mutation, or an irregular mutation, or skip the mutation, and the stylistic advice is to avoid the issue and use the other aspect of the verb, use a synonym, or use a multi-word construction based on the same root.

Are there starting to be more of these verbs? I thought защищу ‘I will protect’ was established and normal. But here a teenager in a 2020 TV show jokingly says защитю, with a little pause to show he’s aware he’s saying a non-standard form. And in metalinguistic discussions, it seems like many people know защищу is the form you’ll find in a dictionary but don’t like the sound of it and half-jokingly suggest ways to avoid it.

In writing защищу seems to be easily holding its expected place way ahead of the prescriptively incorrect alternative защитю and the correct ты form защитишь. But will защищу soon be as strange as ощущу? And what other verbs are doing this?

Hidden on Google Books

January 30, 2021

A Google Books search for a single common Russian word led me to something that claimed to be the Illinois Journal of the Senate, but wasn’t, though it did have an American connection:

This translation is attributed to “O. M——va,” who is apparently Ol’ga Nikolaevna Chiumina (1858–1909). (The M——va must be her married surname Mikhailova.) That five-line stanza is just four lines in the original, apparently because “The cloud-like rocks, the rock-like clouds” was too much to fit in one line.

But the point is that this is the December 1889 issue of The Herald of Europe (Вестник Европы). So if you’re ever looking for a scanned copy of an old Russian journal and can’t find it by its title, don’t despair: it may just be miscatalogued. The trick is to search for snippets of actual text on one of the pages, including prerevolutionary hard signs in your search terms, and avoiding anything with the letter “ѣ,” which in my experience seems to confuse the searches whether you enter it as “ѣ” or modern “е.”

Google has a procedure for reporting this kind of error, and I filled out the form, so by the time you click on the link maybe it will have been fixed, but I imagine there are plenty of other journal issues that the same thing happened to.

Sketches of Events from Russian History

January 10, 2021

If you think of Fedor Bruni (1799 or 1801–1875) at all, you probably think of him as the third-biggest star (after Karl Briullov and Aleksandr Ivanov) to come out of the Academy of Arts in the Pushkin/Gogol generation, or possibly as the rector of the Academy during the Rebellion of the Fourteen in 1863, or else as the creator of The Bronze Serpent (Медный змий, 1827–41).

He also did a series of engravings from Russian history based on episodes from Karamzin’s History of the Russian State (История государства российского, 1818–29). You can see the whole album, Sketches of Events from Russian History (Очерки событий из российской истории, 1839), courtesy of the Russian National Library, though if you only care about the images and not the text explanations, they’ll load faster on Wikipedia. He worked on the series beginning in late 1825 or early 1826.

Alla Vereshchagina speculates that Bruni, who hadn’t been paid for two recent large paintings, turned to engraving because it was cheap and to Russian history because he thought a patriotic topic would help him get a stipend from the Society for the Encouragement of Artists (which it did). He went on to do about 30 pictures for the series, of which 10 were published in the two volumes of the album, including an introductory one that showed the artist seated in front of a bust of Karamzin and a lot of lightly sketched figures from early Russian history in the background, apparently representing the artist’s imagination.

According to Vereshchagina, Bruni tried to live up to his promise of depicting “a few great incidents from the national history,” full of heroes doing their duty for their country, and sometimes he more or less achieved a patriotic and neoclassical mood (46–47):

Oleg Nails His Shield to the Gates of Tsargrad

But he didn’t always manage to keep this up:

If one considers the subjects chosen by the artist for his engravings, then among the 16 plates dedicated to pagan Rus, there are not all that many depictions of truly great events. “The Invitation of the Varangian Princes,” “Oleg Nails His Shield to the Gates of Tsargrad,” and a few others can be put in this category. But “The Death of Askold and Dir,” “Olga’s Vengeance against the Drevlian Envoys,” and similar events are difficult to call great. They are instead striking in their monstrous cruelty. From the point of view of classical aesthetics, there is nothing in them to ennoble the viewer; from the point of view of an enlightener, there is nothing worthy of emulation. (48–49)

An example of a picture with more cruelty than greatness is “The Death of Igor,” where Igor is killed by the Drevlians by being tied to two trees, then torn in two; elsewhere in the series Bruni shows how Igor’s wife Olga avenged him by burying Drevlian envoys alive.

The Death of Igor” (“Igor is Killed by the Drevlians”)

Vereshchagina attributes Bruni’s lingering on scenes of suffering to Karamzin’s text and the general influence of the Romantic movement on both Karamzin and Bruni; if artists in Italy (where Bruni was) were still mostly working in a more Neoclassical than Romantic vein, compared to French or English or German artists, they weren’t entirely out of step with the rest of their generation.

A few “scenes from the life of the first Christians” in Rus were, in Vereshchagina’s opinion, “almost all static, sometimes mannered,” as these subjects didn’t inspire the artist (52). How would you expect a painter seeking support from an organization close to the family of Nicholas I to depict Christians from the Byzantine Empire arriving in tenth-century Rus? What would the pagan East Slavs’ attitude toward these visitors be?

Bruni doesn’t produce the kind of grand, triumphant, Rus-centered image you can see in a fresco painted half a century later by Viktor Vasnetsov (it’s not portraying the same event, of course, but it’s also about the beginnings of Christianity in Rus). Instead, in Vereshchagina’s words, “those meeting the envoy, who has brought extravagant gifts to Rus to convert the Kievans to the Christian faith, look at the new arrivals in different ways: with distrust, with uncertainly, and in one case with fury” (52).

The Arrival of a Bishop in Kiev

See A. G. Vereshchagina, F. A. Bruni (Leningrad: Khudozhnik RSFSR, 1985), pp. 44–59. Vereshchagina’s monograph is excellent and has made me a lot more interested in an artist who frankly didn’t initially seem that interesting.

Last chance to read Icons and Their Interpretation

October 29, 2020

David is closing the incredibly useful Icons and Their Interpretation. Yesterday it was gone from the internet except for what you could find on the Wayback Machine. Today he’s reopened it, but only for a brief time. If you want to go there and catch up on icon posts you’ve missed, now is your chance!

Thanks, David, for all the work you put into your amazing blog. If you happen to read this, I hope you’ll consider leaving the blog up on the internet for people to find in the future, even if you no longer have the time to add to it.

[Update 1/9/21: fortunately David relented back in November, and Icons and Their Interpretation is still up after all, with several new posts, no less!]

Bread and soup

September 13, 2020

Jonathan Waterlow has been reading in the Soviet archives about people imprisoned for telling jokes in the Stalin era:

One day, during the food shortages, our jokesters joined a gathering in the girls’ dorm where the students sang songs and played cards. There was a small portrait of Stalin sitting on one of the nightstands, next to which someone — presumably the bed’s owner — had left a piece of bread. Spotting this little still life, class clown Penkov shouted over the hubbub, “Whose bread’s that?” After a brief silence, he pointed at the picture of Stalin and said, “Grab it before he gets the last of it!” The NKVD interpreted this as “an anti-Soviet attack designed to discredit the leader of the peoples.” But what if it was just a throwaway line from a hungry student who enjoyed the limelight and wanted to give his friends a reason to laugh?

This struck me as weirdly similar to a story from the early 1830s told by Joe Peschio:

The second episode, also involving sedition in the form of the abuse of state symbols, concluded less fortuitously for Buturlin and his comrades. It took place in a private room at Dubois’s restaurant in the early evening, a common starting time and place for this trio’s exploits.

Romanov arrived there already a little, as they say, in his cups, sat down on a divan, behind which stood a pedestal with a plaster bust of Emperor Nicholas I, and, accompanying his speech with gesticulations, produced a tremor which passed to the bust. I remarked that he should be more careful, and not break the bust, which would have added to our already considerable debt at the restaurant. To this he replied with a laugh: “Bah! Ce n’est qu’une tête de [plâtre]” (it’s nothing but a plaster head), and then, with an indecent (of course) joke (but purely a schoolboy joke), he began to bring a few spoonfuls of soup up to the mouth of the bust. There was no one in the room besides us three; but it must be assumed that someone heard and saw everything from the next room because the whole episode was reported to the highest authorities in detail.

Later that week, Buturlin was summoned by General Arps of the Life Guards. Arps informed him that reports of “certain incidents” had reached the tsar, and that Buturlin was under suspicion of involvement in them. He ordered Buturlin to write an account of his association with Romanov and Golitsyn. Buturlin was then arrested and spent six weeks in the stockade before being demoted and sent back to the Pavlograd Regiment. Golitsyn was transferred to a civil post in the Caucasus, and Romanov to Arkhangel’sk. (13–14)

These punishments for Pushkin-era noblemen were severe enough, but in 1941 the five teenage Moscow University students of peasant origin were sentenced to between three and ten years imprisonment, with one dying in the Gulag and another being rearrested and exiled to Siberia shortly after his release, still for the same initial “crime” of anti-Soviet agitation and counterrevolutionary conspiracy. Like Buturlin before them, the Soviet students were coerced into informing on their friends.

See Waterlow’s “The Conspiracy on Pushkin Street: The Cost of Humor in the USSR” (August 25, 2020), in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Peschio’s 2012 The Poetics of Impudence and Intimacy in the Age of Pushkin.

The Nest of the Wood Grouse

August 17, 2020

I can’t get over how much Russian and Soviet culture is on the internet for anyone to enjoy. I’ve still been watching perestroika-era things occasionally, and I recommend The Nest of the Wood Grouse (Гнездо глухаря), a 1987 film based on a 1979 play of the same title by Viktor Rozov (1913–2004). (A wood grouse or capercaillie is a bird in the same family as the peacock, turkey, and ruffed grouse, but from a genus found only in Europe and northern Asia. Here’s one in Russia.)

(Video also available on

It’s easy to see why the Moscow Academic Theater of Satire wanted to put on this play in the 1980s. For one thing, it draws parallels between the Soviet nomenklatura and the pre-revolutionary aristocracy as explicitly as A Riddle (Загадка, 1984) and The Answer to the Riddle (Разгадка, 1985). Prov, the son of a privileged Soviet family with a six-room apartment in downtown Moscow, is dating Zoia, whose mother works at a corner store and whose father is in prison for having a knife on him during a fight; when Prov’s father is scandalized, Prov says he might marry Zoia “for the sake of the health of [our] social estate,” для оздоровления сословия.

The dramatic method of making you feel a certain way about a character, then showing the same character from a new point of view that forces you to consciously revise your opinion of them also made me think of The Riddle and its sequel, though in The Nest of the Wood Grouse the technique felt less gimmicky.

At first I thought the critique of the Soviet elite must have been played up for the 1987 film—could you really say all that in the open under Brezhnev? But the text of the 1979 play seems to be the same as what I watched. It’s too simple to think of post-Stalin Soviet culture as alternating freezes and thaws with sharp borders and homogeneous contents, and my sense of what would or wouldn’t have been allowed under Khrushchev or Brezhnev or Gorbachev is often wrong. That said, I think of 1970s mainstream Soviet culture as being fairly open about the minor inconveniences of everyday life, but focusing on the drama of individual lives instead of social critique. An extreme example is Leonid Filatov’s light and silly The Cuckoo Clock (Часы с кукушкой, 1978), but the same is true of more famous things like Office Romance (Служебный роман, 1978), where Samokhvalov’s luxurious lifestyle is peripheral to the story, a product of his personal flaws as much as the country’s, and associated with his time in Switzerland. So the 1979 text of The Nest of the Wood Grouse, where the central characters are implicated in an unjust society that’s Soviet, not Western at second hand, stands out a bit.

Based on this play, Rozov reminded me of Pisemskii (and I promise not everything does, even though I’ve been immersing myself in Pisemskii this summer!). Part of the plot concerns maneuverings and betrayals to get a much-desired position in a government office, just like Pisemskii’s The Plunderers (Хищники, 1873). And like The Masons (Масоны, 1880), Rozov’s play combines some fairly harsh satire against people born into privilege with a harsher attack on successful social climbers. The closest thing to a villain in The Nest of the Wood Grouse is Prov’s brother-in-law Egor, who went from humble origins to a series of better and better posts, and who (until a reversal at the end) is poised to marry a series of young women whose fathers can help him advance higher and higher professionally. This improbable rise that depends on talent, ambition, marrying well-placed people, and possibly lying is exactly like pseudo-Tuluzov in The Masons, the calculating man who probably started out as a serf, uses the real Tuluzov’s documents to get free raznochinets status, becomes a nobleman through a position as a provincial teacher, and after marrying Catherine Krapchik/Chentsova gets promoted all the way to actual state councillor.

The Nest of the Wood Grouse was translated by Susan Layton and produced in New York in 1984, according to this review in New York magazine by John Simon. Simon’s review is readable and interesting and explains the wood grouse metaphor admirably, though calling the play “a love letter to the bourgeois world” is pretty far from my own understanding of it. The play was revived in 2018 at the Cheliabinsk Chamber Theater, and blogger Penelopa Urgumova liked it, finding it “so topical it’s disgusting […] if anything has changed, it’s whose portraits are on the wall.” Urgumova also says the play had trouble getting past the Brezhnev-era censor, so that wasn’t just me.

Words new to me: боскетная

August 13, 2020

On my third pass through Pisemskii’s The Masons (Масоны, 1880) I’m noticing a bunch of words that already sounded old-fashioned then and helped give the novel its 1830s period piece flavor. One is bosketnaia, from the French word bosquet ‘grove,’ a diminutive of the Occitan bosc ‘woods,’ related to the French bois ‘woods.’ It’s clearly a kind of room:

Sin’kovo, which Petr Grigor’evich had let fall into neglect, was being renovated and rebuilt day by day. First of all the interior of the manor house was repaired: the marble walls in the great hall, which had cracked in a few places, were made entirely anew; the walls of the living room were covered with the green cloth hangings then beginning to come into fashion; the bosketnaia was repainted; but as Catherine wished, most sumptuous of all were the new decorations of her and her husband’s bedroom: its walls were entirely covered with a doubled-over pink damask; its furniture was upholstered with the same fabric. The ordinary stove that used to be in the bedroom was replaced with an attractive fireplace, and finally the newlyweds’ marriage-bed was an improbable sight: it was extremely wide, made out of an entire alder, and enormous mirrors had been installed at its head and foot, so that anyone lying on the bed could see themselves from head to toe. (part 3, chapter 2; Russian text)

The focus is on the bed, of course—Catherine, a previously single 28-year-old who has inherited a lot of money from her late father Petr Grigor’evich Krapchik, recently married Chentsov, a broke spendthrift, gambler, heavy drinker, and ladies’ man, with her eyes wide open because, as the narrator almost tells us in so many words, she wants to have lots and lots of sex with him. I’ve been reading Maya Jenkins’s excellent dissertation on Pisemskii, and she occasionally seems surprised nineteenth-century critics found Pisemskii so risqué, but sometimes it’s easy to see why. Besides the mirrors, we have Catherine constantly trying to get rid of everyone else to be alone with Chentsov, the two of them reading the erotic Paul de Kock and Boccaccio (undoubtedly “Putting the Devil Back in Hell”), and Chentsov making remarks about how insatiable Catherine is until he starts escaping by playing checkers at night with the estate manager (who will become Catherine’s second husband). But what is this bosketnaia?

It really is a “grove room”: the definition in Efremova’s dictionary is “room (usually in a manor house) whose walls are painted to look like a park scene.” It gets a page on a Russian website devoted to forgotten words, which gives a different work by Pisemskii as a usage example. And it’s not a recently forgotten word:

I was evidently destined never to find the count at home. This time too he was absent. The same servant informed me that “his lordship has gone riding to the water mill, and her ladyship is in the bosketnaia [italics in original].”

I did not entirely understand what sort of a thing this “bosketnaia” was at first. But I gathered enough courage to ask to be taken to the countess. I was dirty all over, and although they did brush me off a bit in the entryway, there were several pounds of dust on my face and in my beard. I paid no heed to any of this.

I was taken through a large, long dining room into another corner room, painted to look like a garden with a “hill” in the corner covered with all kinds of stones and shells. This, it turned out, was the “bosketnaia.” The count kept up this decoration from the era of Alexander. (Russian text)

That’s from Pisemskii’s former colleague Petr Boborykin’s novel Half a Life (Полжизни, 1873). The phrase I translated as “servant,” by the way, is vyezdnoi lakei, a highly specific bit of realia in its own right.



August 8, 2020

August is Women in Translation Month, but Russian literature bloggers started early.

“…equally voracious, submissive, and improbable”

August 7, 2020

Muireann Maguire recently reviewed Lisa Hayden’s translation of Eugene Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov (Соловьев и Ларионов, 2009). In it a post-Soviet graduate student (Solovyov) researches a fictional White Army general (Larionov):

Solovyov visits Yalta, where the general spent his final decades as a tenant in a communal apartment, to make contact with the woman to whom the old man dictated his memoirs. Instead, Solovyov meets—and is rapidly seduced by—her daughter Zoya. Here and elsewhere, Vodolazkin struggles to write convincingly about female sexuality. Leeza, Solovyov’s first love, is a study in Portnoy-ish passivity, constantly available and readily forgotten. The Crimean seductress Zoya is equally voracious, submissive, and improbable. Take their first encounter: “He went over to Zoya’s bed and pressed his legs into her. […] A moment later he was lying next to her. […] As if out of nowhere, she took a condom and placed it in Solovyov’s hot hand.” Compare Ustina, the hero’s perfect helpmeet, in Vodolazkin’s second novel, Laurus; or Anastasia in his third, The Aviator, whose romantic interchangeability with her granddaughter Nastya (both are, at different times, engaged to the narrator) is ludicrous. Vodolazkin captures minor female characters brilliantly (like Solovyov and Larionov’s glorious Professor Dupont), but as soon as a woman becomes a love interest, she loses all subjectivity. This is a rare weakness in the author’s otherwise carefully crafted style.

I haven’t read Vodolazkin yet, but Maguire’s examples are persuasive. I’ve been wondering lately why we as readers have such strong reactions to how authors write about sexuality. In a way the topic is like all others: artifice is required to make a literary simulation of something seem like the real thing. But since sexuality is typically private and clearly different from person to person, you’d think we’d be forgiving, even credulous, when reading about it, leaving open the possibility that the author is accurately describing something we’ve never encountered. The opposite is true: we’re strict on this point. Many ways of writing sexuality don’t feel right, and they quickly start to seem ridiculous.

Our instinct that an author does this well can also be strong. Anna Kozlova’s F20 (F20, 2017) felt like the most convincing portrayal of female sexuality I’d ever read—but why do I have an opinion? I also thought male sexuality in Roman Senchin’s Nubuck (Нубук, 2003) and Moscow Shadows (Московские тени, 2008) seemed realistic, even though what many of his male characters feel—a minor temptation for adulterous or otherwise illicit sex with female strangers, in service of a major temptation to wreck one’s own life—is as far from my experience as Kozlova’s teenage girl protagonist.

I suspect readers often agree about which portrayals of sexuality seem plausible (just as they agree about which written simulations of oral speech sound authentic), but not always. To move to a nineteenth-century example, I once thought Fet’s poems written from a female persona would seem implausible to a female reader, but I’ve since heard women say that “Sister” (Сестра, 1857) rang true to them.

Maguire’s full review is mostly about other things and makes the book seem well worth reading!

Kinship terms in one picture

July 28, 2020

Via Ilya Klishin (@vorewig) on Twitter:

I’ve seen versions of this, but this one is as compact and intuitive as any I’ve seen. Note that two words are given common but prescriptively incorrect spellings: husband’s father should be свёкор (not свёкр), and one’s wife’s sister is properly one’s свояченица (not своячница).

This isn’t a complete picture. Your wife’s sister’s husband is your свояк, for instance, and your husband’s sister’s husband is your зять, the same term used for your daughter’s husband or your sister’s husband. Also notice the asymmetry of зять and невестка. Невестка works for your brother’s wife and, if you’re a woman, for your son’s wife, but if you’re a man, your son’s wife is your сноха; on the other side зять covers all the analogous relationships. The situation has become even less parallel as сноха has expanded to encroach on невестка: now сноха can be used to mean a woman’s son’s wife as well as a man’s son’s wife. Ushakov’s dictionary says this is absolutely not allowed (with an exclamation point that proves people were using it that way anyway), and Ozhegov’s more recent dictionary matter-of-factly says it is.

The tweet accompanying this chart says “the human brain is not capable of mastering this information,” which matches my impression that native speakers of Russian recognize all these words as kinship terms and use the ones that mean mother- or father-in-law all the time, but parts of the chart get a bit hazy for them too.