Skip to content

“…hopelessly dainty for snarling, semiliterate soldiers…”

April 8, 2021

Linguist John McWhorter read War and Peace (Война и мир, 1863–69) in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation and didn’t like it.

His main reason is a familiar one, speech that doesn’t sound like speech:

I’m not sure whether “quick-fingers” has ever been a set term in any dialect of English. But even if it has been, it sounds hopelessly dainty for snarling, semiliterate soldiers mired in suffering. No actor, regardless of chops, could convey it convincingly in a theatrical presentation.

I agree, and so many people have said similar things that I think Pevear and Volokhonsky either don’t prioritize natural-sounding speech as a matter of principle or have idiosyncratic ideas about what sounds like a real person talking. But a sustained (and in McWhorter’s case, admirably specific) critique of P&V always makes me want to defend them. Like this:

Then P&V have him exclaim “Worse luck!” Um – worse than what? Please know: we just met this man – it’s not as if we have seen him experience some previous bad luck, compared to which this is “worse.” The Russian is simply “Bad luck!” or “Misfortune.”

Isn’t McWhorter the one being overly literal here? I take “worse luck” as an idiom, one that I as an American don’t use but have seen a lot and don’t find opaque or off-putting. It’s not shockingly weird like “lido” was for me until I looked it up a month ago.

Here’s a more interesting one:

A little later some soldiers are carrying a dead, or dead-ish, man and P&V describe them as disappearing with their “burden.” Yes, noša’s dictionary meaning is burden, but in English, what Tolstoy described with the word for burden translates as load, which noša can also mean depending on context. Burden, given the brute physical experience these men are described as having in hauling this man’s body, is too abstract. Though we know intellectually that burden refers to something weighing one down, note how seldom we actually use it that way, as opposed to in more abstract connotations relating to dependence and emotion. In the physical sense, we tend in this language towards load, which is surely what these worn-out soldiers are experiencing in toting a body.

This time I follow McWhorter’s reasoning, but “burden” doesn’t bother me the way it bothers him. I actively like it. It’s not hard to imagine it in a nineteenth-century novel written in English. And in fact it took me less than a minute to find examples on Google Books of “burden” describing not just a physical load, but the particular situation of carrying a person, as here (Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, 1864–65) or here (an 1841 book review).

For years I’ve heard it’s a bad thing for a translator to try to make a text sound old and fail. But I always assumed that the problem was the impossibility, not the undesirability, of translating Tolstoi or Dostoevskii into the English of Dickens or Trollope or Gaskell. The style wouldn’t come out cryptic or clumsy, in my ideal world—the Russian author’s individual voice, while remaining individual, would just also have whatever veneer of elegant oldness Dickens and company all have for a twenty-first-century reader. Just recently I’ve been realizing that many people don’t even want that outcome.

My quibbling aside, read McWhorter’s whole post. He compares P&V’s translation to the one by Louise and Aylmer Maude, and it’s the first P&V-related post I’ve seen that draws on examples from the language Boro to make points about how translation doesn’t work.


March 30, 2021

Soviet and post-Soviet links today:

Izabella Laskos in Dawn

March 22, 2021

The journal Dawn started off with Pisemskii’s Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов), Dickens’s “Holiday Romance,” and Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right in 1869, plus “The Eternal Husband” (Вечный муж) by Dostoevskii in 1870, but it wasn’t popular and only lasted until February 1872, when its editor and publisher Vasilii Kashpirev ran out of money.

Dawn was ideological enough that Pisemskii wrote to ask what neo-Slavophile points he should work in to Men of the Forties. In 1871 its cover spelled Заря as Зарѧ—at least I think that’s the right long-obsolete Cyrillic letter. The first issue started with a poem by Apollon Maikov (“Я люблю, перед иконой“) about the feeling of standing before an icon pondering who might have lit the candle in front of it. It had articles on Belorussian schools and Polish history. A Czech story got this footnote:

Translator’s note. This story by Karolina Světlá, printed in the newspaper Kvěly, presents one of those types that is little known to the Russian reader, but quite clear for the Austrian Slav. While Rus was putting everything she had into foreign culture, at first aware neither of the foundations of her own nationality [narodnost’], nor of the historical progression of the Western European Enlightenment, the Austrian Slavs had already felt the full wickedness of an alien culture eating away at their nationality. We find the type of the Czech Slav who has come to understand the wickedness of Germanization well captured in the following story by Karolina Mužákova, known in literature as Karolina Světlá. (253)

You get the idea. So when I randomly read a Russian novella in Dawn, I wasn’t expecting it to be a story where a hurdy-gurdy player from Florence sings a Swedish song in Paris at a critical moment, without a single Slavic character or any allusion to Russia beyond the language the story is written in.

The novella was Magnolia (Магнолья, 1871) by Iza G., who turns out to be Izabella Laskos, née Grinberg (1830 or 1833?–1877).

It opens with a crowd around a private house in Florence waiting to hear the beautiful voice of a Swedish woman, Inna, who sings every evening. The silent and mysterious Castelli is there (along with a cook who loves music and a talented poor boy who plays the hurdy-gurdy), and in fact he’s everywhere the singer goes, to the point that she’s worried. As he stalks her, he overhears her admiring a magnolia, which she would buy for herself if she hadn’t left her money at home. He buys it, is invited to her house, and becomes a constant guest and friend of the family. They fall in love.

On an excursion outside the city, they sit under a magnolia tree; he picks a flower from it and kisses her. That night, she goes out to her balcony, where

She was engulfed by a joyous and powerful feeling of happiness. It was not unexpected for her. She had long known it could be no other way. She had long sensed that he loved her and was aware that she was entirely his. And that kiss today had given her to him forever before God. She would be his before people as well. “So this is happiness!” whispered Inna, welcoming the bliss of life with all her being. All the stars in the sky shone brighter, celebrating with her her great, her sacred joy. (153)

We’re not to the end yet, though. She drops the magnolia he had given her onto the street and superstitiously decides the magnolia’s fate will be hers. It looks like a group of young people will pick it up, but instead a man suddenly crushes it with his shoe. The bad omen comes true: Castelli, given bad advice by a man he knows is a cynic, breaks up with Inna for her sake because his fortune isn’t enough to support them both. She leaves Florence, falls ill, sees him again in Paris, and dies just as he sees the error of his ways. Yet another magnolia wilts as she dies; Castelli had neglected to water it.

The story has a moral: don’t let poverty be an obstacle to love. Inna is right, and Castelli is wrong. They could have been together and happy, working and living frugally. Love and friendship are enough, and if they weren’t, the baker and hurdy-gurdy player prove people much poorer than Castelli can find happiness through art.

But Magnolia is fun to read because it has more supporting characters than it seems to need. Doctor Laurenzi pines after Inna and follows her to Paris to treat her, but she doesn’t love him. The young Ninetta loves Laurenzi. Laurenzi’s sister Carlotta has a wardrobe full of keyhole dresses and thinks the most desirable men in Florence are in love with her, but too discreet to allude to their feelings. Castelli’s calculating high-society acquaintances are the opposite of Inna and her pure kindred spirits. Inna’s father gives his daughter unlimited freedom but won’t listen to his doctor and cut back on his academic work.

Best of all is Inna’s former wet nurse Ulrika, who has gone with the family from Sweden to Florence to France. Whenever things are about to go wrong for Inna, Ulrika sings a mournful lullaby from Inna’s childhood over and over, which Inna, unlike the stereotypical Russian noble, finds creepy. The nurse has a whole backstory, which boils down to “men leave you, and children die young.” Magnolia ends with the nurse, who had buried her own son decades before, singing the lullaby over Inna’s dead body.

Laskos also wrote a play banned in Russia but performed abroad in her own German translation, The Patron (Меценат), and another performed in Russia, The Poor Niece (Бедная племянница, 1862). The latter play is negatively reviewed by an anonymous critic (Saltykov-Shchedrin?) in the same March 1863 issue of The Contemporary that has the beginning of Chernyshevskii’s What Is to Be Done? (Что делать?), though the critic concedes “there can even be found poor nephews who enjoy [the comedy] and loudly cry out for the author of The Poor Niece” (190). Laskos’s prose includes “The Memoirs of a Samovar” (Воспоминания самовара, 1869), another story with a flower title, “The First White Rose (A Christmas Story)” (Первая белая роза [Святочный рассказ], 1870), and the novel At Court (При дворе, 1876–77), plus the article “Jews in Vienna” (Евреи в Вене, 1875).

See Iza G., “Magnol’ia,” in Zaria 3.9 (September 1871): 229–52 and Zaria 3.10–11 (October–November 1871): 129–187. Did she use the initial “G.” to conceal the Jewish-sounding surname Grinberg? (Of course, many women writers used pseudonyms of this kind.)

Femininity and power in the opera Prince Igor

March 5, 2021

My interest in Russian opera is at best half as old as this blog, but so far my one of my favorites is Aleksandr Borodin’s Prince Igor (1869–87, posthumous premiere 1890). Online you can find a 2013 production by the Bolshoi Theater (embedded below) and a 1998 one by the Mariinsky Theater; both use a different order of acts and scenes than this libretto (see this table for how they match up).

I was excited to see Ray Alston’s recent article about Prince Igor. He argues that Borodin was a moderate feminist whose work teaching chemistry to future women doctors in the 1870s and 1880s was important to him. In this work Borodin was close to a group in between the radicals and the conservatives, “the Feminists, who sought to better the lot of women through better education and employment opportunities without necessarily calling for sweeping change”; this group was “more or less led by Maria Trubnikova, Nadezhda Stasova and Anna Filosofova” (695). After a magazine printed an article mocking the women’s courses, Borodin wrote in to defend his students, saying “I have never once met a [female] student who struggled in chemistry classes with the equations, formulas or calculations, no matter how complicated and new they were to her” (qtd. on 696).

These views inform how Borodin wrote the character of Yaroslavna, sung by a soprano. Alston argues that power was associated with low voices in nineteenth-century opera, not just men’s voices but baritones and basses rather than tenors (699). Female characters who held political power were rare and portrayed negatively; they were also usually sung by women with relatively low voices (701–2). At the beginning of Prince Igor, all is as expected: power is held by Igor, a baritone, who begins “surrounded by hosts of people who are literally singing praise to him” (699). But his authority is undermined by an inauspicious solar eclipse and his capture at the hands of Khan Konchak, a bass (699–700).

While Igor is a prisoner, there is a struggle for power back in his city of Putivl between his wife Yaroslavna and her brother Prince Vladimir Galitsky. Yaroslavna comes out mostly on top, and when Igor returns, he has fallen enough and she has risen enough that “Yaroslavna and Igor have become equals” (709). But unlike certain mezzo-soprano roles in other operas, Yaroslavna does not become masculine as she becomes powerful: “she exhibits traditional femininity in both her behavior and the voicing of her role,” and she “proves effective as a leader and thereby shows that a woman can succeed as a woman, that femininity is an asset and not a liability” (704). Women appeal to Yaroslavna to intercede on their behalf and save a woman abducted by Galitsky, making Yaroslavna into a mother-of-God–like figure (705).

Alston describes a dispute in the Borodin literature about whether and how Prince Igor Orientalizes its Polovtsian characters. Richard Taruskin argued in 1997 that “the music of the opera conveys messages of Russian racial superiority and glorifies Imperialism” (692). But Marina Frolova-Walker (in a 2007 book I just started that’s amazing so far) shows that not just the Polovtsian characters, but the Russian ones too exhibit “the musical features that Taruskin sees as Orientializing,” specifically “tied or syncopated melodic undulations, and the reversible chromatic pass between the fifth and the sixth degrees of the scale” (692, 692n2). (Frolova-Walker, by the way, has a lot of good stuff on her website.)

This article was perfect for my interests, because I have a pet theory about feminism and Orientalism in Prince Igor. The two most striking scenes in the opera show abducted women being abused for the pleasure of their male captors. In the Polovtsian camp, Khan Konchak offers his prisoner Igor his choice of the women Konchak has captured and enslaved, who are forced to sing and dance. Though they sing about their longing for their homeland, the song itself is beautiful, and their distress can only be imagined, not seen or heard. In Putivl, Prince Galitsky’s men abduct one woman, and her distress is evident (this is emphasized in the 2013 production, but it’s built into the libretto and music). The women of Putivl appeal to Galitsky, then Yaroslavna to save the woman, and their repeated pleading makes it clear that the abduction violated the norms of their community. That is, the contrast between these scenes is a kind of Orientalizing of the Polovtsians. Men abducting women because they can and want to seems normal, inevitable, and permanent in the world of the Polovtsians, but abnormal, immoral, and reversible (by a powerful woman) in twelfth-century Rus. Men are trash in both cultures, but it’s only the civilized men of Rus that it’s worth being disappointed in, not their exotic neighbors.

All page references are to Ray Alston, “‘Muzhaisia, kniaginia’: Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor and the ‘Woman Question,’” Slavic and East European Journal 64.4 (2020): 692–713 (no link). If you don’t have access to SEEJ, you might check out pp. 117–37 of his dissertation (different but related).

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.