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August 14, 2019

Diagram for schoolchildren of the layers of a tree trunk: outer bark, inner bark (lub), cambium, sapwood, heartwood

The word лубок (lubok, plural lubki), as used by nineteenth-century writers, is one of those frustrating ones where I know just enough to get it wrong. I know there was a tradition in popular culture of Russian peasants buying unpretentious pictures, sometimes satirical in content, produced through a printmaking technique that may have involved the bark of the linden tree. (The root lub means “bark of a tree” in many Slavic languages.) If you do a Google image search for лубок, you’ll see example after example of these prints.

But when famous authors talk about these prints, it’s often without using the noun lubok. Turgenev’s narrator in A Sportsman’s Sketches (Записки охотника, 1847-51, 1872, 1874) says they were in almost every peasant house, though almost unknown in rural taverns. But instead of lubki, he calls them lubochnye kartinylubok pictures, bark pictures.’ The adjective lubochnyi is used later in the cycle to talk about the warped bast/bark bottom of a cart. In Nekrasov’s Who Can Be Happy in Russia? (Кому на Руси жить хорошо, about 1863-1877), pictures sold at a country fair are called simply kartiny ‘pictures,’ with a passing reference to Lubianka, the Moscow street where the prints were sold wholesale (see this 2014 Languagehat post quoting José Alaniz on Lubianka as a possible origin of lubok in this context). In the same poem a peasant couple loses their life savings when instead of rescuing 35 rubles in cash from their burning house, the woman goes after the icons, while the man grabs the pictures (kartinochki) off the walls.

On the other hand, the noun lubok, without kartina, seems to mean something different every time I see it. In Tolstoi’s “Master and Man” (Хозяин и работник, 1895), it can be part of a sleigh: lubok sanei is rendered by an early translator as “the bark matting of the sledge.” Gippius, in a 1911 review where she urges people in so many words to judge books by their covers, uses lubok as an abbreviation for lubochnaia literatura (Ushakov: literature that is ‘vulgar, of low artistic quality, inartful’):

I am not talking about a forthright lubok; no, this is the lubok that clambers into literature and is of the opinion that its dirty clothes are quite charming and not at all dirty.


I understand the popularity of the forthright lubok, like the Arsène Lupins and Nat Pinkertons; it can be “interesting.” The chief, incurable trait of the lubok that is trying to be literary, on the other hand, is its absolute lack of interest. (Russian below)

I am honestly not sure what kind of sheets of bark or pictures or splints or boxes or woodcuts for printmaking (Ushakov’s five definitions for lubok, with literature as a figurative extension of the “picture” meaning) I am supposed to imagine in this image from Bunin’s The Village (Деревня, 1909):

The morning was gray. Under the hardened gray snow the village too was gray. Laundry hung on clotheslines under the roofs of the hay-barns like gray frozen lubki.

Isabel Hapgood has “The frozen household linen hung like grey boards from the rafters under the roofs of the sheds.”

The passage that got me thinking about the word is a story told by the bearded Old Believer Ivan Sidorov Razuvaev in Sukhovo-Kobylin’s The Case (Дело, published abroad 1861, published in Russia 1869, first performance 1882):

Ivan Sidorov (examines the icon and prays; then bows): I lived with a merchant as one of his contractors; we would buy up leather, lard… we bought and sold livestock too. But the boss died—what was I to do? How about I go into business myself, I say, and be my own boss. I had a bit of money; found a partner; people gave… we went to Korennaia [location of a major market and a monastery]. My partner and I walk about the fair for a day, sir; for two—no goods that suit us, everything’s out of our reach; and you know it yourself, to make a profit, the thing that’s for sale needs to be in one pair of hands. We walked and walked around—we bought lubki! At ten rubles a hundred; we bought all there was. We received the goods, paid half the money, with the rest to be paid at the end of the fair. The usual thing—lubki, to cover the goods. Time passes. Weather’s clear; the heat’s intolerable; not a cloud in the sky; time passes… No one buys a single lubok! I’m ready to despair! Fair’s winding down, my partner goes on a binge…! I pray in the morning, I pray in the evening, and that didn’t make it any better…! The fifth day of June’s the day of the Mother of God of Korennaia… a procession… tons of people… carrying an icon… Mother!! Help!!! The procession passed. I look and see the goods have appeared coming from Stary Skol!!! A raincloud the likes of which I’d never seen in my life. I go to our booth—one of the merchant Khrennikov’s contractors runs up: got any lubki? “Yes.” “How much?” “A hundred rubles for a hundred.” “How can that be?” “That’s how it is.” “Have you lost your mind?” “Another day and I would have.” “You better cross yourself!” I crossed myself: “You’ve had it good here; did you eat, drink, and sleep well? Meanwhile my belly’s worn a hole in half an arshin of dirt…” He squirmed and squirmed but paid up in the end; and by evening we were sold out… So, then, everything is in the Lord’s hands! The Lord sees a man’s labor and sees his troubles… oh, he does indeed.

This was confusing, since the two things I thought I know about lubki is that they were pictures and they were sold at rural open-air markets, but only the latter can be true here. My edition of Sukhovo-Kobylin has a helpful footnote: “Lubok: a sheet of bark torn off a tree. Rows of booths at bazaars were covered using lubki. The playwright heard a story about selling lubki at a fair from M. S. Shchepkin on August 29, 1856, and made a note about it in his diary.” Harold B. Segel translates this lubok as “mat.”

Russian version of quotes above:


Не о лубке откровенном я говорю: нет, — это лубок, лезущий в литературу и мнящий, что грязное платье его очень мило и совсем не грязно.


Я понимаю распространие лубка откровенного, вроде Арсенов Люпенов и Нат Пинкертонов; он может “интересовать”. Главное же, неисцелимое свойство лубка “под литературу” — абсолютная неинтересность.


Утро было серое. Под затвердевшим серым снегом серой была и деревня. Серыми мерзлыми лубками висело на перекладинах под крышами пунек белье.


Иван Сидоров (высматривает образ и молится; потом кланяется) жил у купца в прикащиках; скупали мы кожи, сало, — ну, скотиной тоже торговали. Однако умер хозяин — что делать? Дай, мол, сам поторгую — сам хозяин буду. Деньжёнки были кое-какие; товарища приискал; люди дали; — поехали в Коренную. Ходим мы, батюшко, с товарищем по ярмарке день; ходим два — нет товара на руку: все не по силам; а сами знаете, барыши брать, надо товар в одних руках иметь. Ходили, ходили — купили лубки! По десяти рублев начетом сотню; сколько было, все купили. Товар приняли, половину денег отдали, а остальные под конец ярмарки. Обыкновенно — лубки, товар укрывать. Живем. Погода стоит вёдряная; жар — терпенья нет; на небе — ни облачка; живем… Ни одного лубка не покупают! Тоска взяла! Ярманка на отходе; товарищ спился!.. Утро помолюсь — вечер помолюсь — и почину не сделал!.. Пятого числа июня праздник Богоматери Коренныя… Крестный ход… народу куча… несут икону… Мать!! Помоги!!!.. Прошел ход — смотрю: от Старого Скола товар показался!!!.. Туча — отродясь не видывал; я к лабазу, — от купца Хренникова бежит прикащик: лубки есть? — Есть. — Почем цена? — Сто рублей сотня. — Как так? — Да так. — Ты с ума сошел? — Еще сутки, так бы сошел. — Ты перекрестись! — Я крестился; вы хорошо пожили; ели, пили, спали сладко? А я вот — пузом на пол-аршин земли выбил… Повертелся, повертелся, ведь дал; — да к вечеру и расторговались… Так вот: все в руках Господних! Господь труд человека видит и напасть его видит — ой, видит.

Words new to me: болярин

August 1, 2019

I’m cheating a few years on the early end of the century this time. These are lines 61-64 of Derzhavin’s poem “The Grandee” (Вельможа, 1794):

Я князь — коль мой сияет дух;
Владелец — коль страстьми владею;
Болярин — коль за всех болею,
Царю, закону, церкви друг.

The gist of this part of the poem is that what matters is acting nobly rather than having the trappings of nobility. Lines 61-62 are something like “I am a prince if my spirit shines; a ruler, if I rule my passions.” Line 64 is “a friend to the tsar, the law, the church,” in apposition to the poet’s “I.” But I thought line 63 must be a typo, since it looked like “a rooter, if I root for everyone”—weird and anachronistic. And boliarin was awfully close to boiarin ‘boyar, nobleman whose nobility does not depend on his family’s service to the tsar,’ possibly corrupted by the phonetically similar boleiu.

But no—it turns out boliarin is a real word that means the same thing as boiarin and is in fact closer to the Old Church Slavic form болѩринъ. So the last two lines are “…a gentleman, if I feel compassion for everyone, a friend to the tsar, the law, the church.” What really struck me about the etymology, though, is something that’s obvious in hindsight: barin, the word serfs would use for their master, comes straight from boiarin, which by the nineteenth century was used in its original form and sense mainly to talk about pre-Petrine history.


The 3% of the 2%

July 31, 2019

Russia is a vast country, but for the upper gentry (the ones who are typically featured in novels), as far as exogamy was concerned, it may actually have felt quite small. It is tempting to think that in novels authors exaggerated the degree to which all the characters in society were connected. When Count Bezukhov is dying at the start of War and Peace, even the most disparate characters suddenly turn out to be in some way his relations, from Pierre to Prince Vassily Kuragin, to Anna Mikhalovna Drubetskaia, to the Princess Catiche. Or in Anna Karenina almost every single one of the main characters is connected through being siblings-in-law (and even Anna and Vronsky have a family tie through cousins who are married). But in fact this may not have been such a stretch. In 1834 there were only 1,453 nobles who owned over 1,000 male serfs, and only 2,273 who had between 500–1,000 (the categories that qualify as well-to-do). Together, they made up just 3 percent of serf owners.

One quick thought about Anna Berman’s article from yesterday. I’ll believe that nobles who owned over 500 male serfs (the 3% of the 2%) were often related by blood or marriage in both life and fiction. But are they “the ones who are typically featured in novels”? That seems like a Tolstoi-centric view of the nineteenth-century canon. I know peasants, house serfs, merchants, “townspeople,” and the clergy were less common in literature than in the population—there’s a reason people make a big deal of Leskov or Nekrasov writing about these social estates—but what about all the middling-to-impoverished nobles and raznochintsy? It felt unusual to me when a Tolstoi character would know someone in the Senate or claim to have personal access to a minister or the Sovereign himself, and the particular slice of the nobility Berman is talking about must have been far above Chichikov, Devushkin, Goliadkin, Rudin, Kalinovich, or even Oblomov (who I think had 300 “souls”).

That said, I imagine Berman’s claim is also true if you look at the nobles of a given province rather than the nobles with the most property.

“The Limits of Family”

July 30, 2019

You can’t accuse Anna A. Berman of sensationalism for writing about incest, since she hardly mentioned it in a whole book about siblings in Russian literature. But she asks why there is so little discussion of it even though a lot of nineteenth-century Russian novels have women choose a man who is family, or who is like family, instead of a dashing stranger. Meanwhile, incest comes up all the time in studies of English literature.

Why this difference? First, literary context. English literature was full of scandalous incest plots in the eighteenth century. Lovers would learn too late they were sister and brother (84-85). The Romantics in a parallel literary strain “conceived of the sister-brother bond as the highest form of perfect unity” (85). In eighteenth-century Russia only Karamzin’s “The Island of Bornholm” (Остров Борнгольм, 1793) centered on incest, and even there extratextual evidence is needed to make it clear what the terrible secret is (84). So there were differences in the traditions nineteenth-century writers were reacting to, which moves back a century the question of why things were different.

Another answer: the social and economic context. Following Ruth Perry, Berman says that in England primogeniture plus the eighteenth-century rise of the nuclear family meant that “women were disempowered in their consanguineal families, where they became a burden to be given away in marriage, a transient being, rather than a stable member” (85). In Russia not only the first-born son inherited, and women’s property rights were stronger (89). Those who wanted to keep wealth in the family had different incentives.

Perhaps most significant is the religious and legal context: the Russian Orthodox Church, and subsequently Russian law, defined incest broadly. People were prohibited from marrying not only their blood children, grandchildren, siblings, first cousins, and (until 1810) second cousins, but also their in-laws (you couldn’t marry your late husband’s brother) and spiritual relatives, like godparents of the same child (87-90).

In this 2017 Russian adaptation of Anna Karenina, we watch Anna and her brother through the train window with Vronsky, who explains this is when he fell in love with her

If you restrict yourself to amorous love between blood siblings, you won’t find many examples in the nineteenth century either, except the Kuragins in War and Peace (Война и мир, 1863-69). But if you look at incest sensu lato, cases abound of (1) love between cousins and more distant relatives, or between in-laws or spiritual relatives, (2) love for people who are not family but are in some sense like family, and (3) love modeled on the love of a sister and brother (90-92, 92-96, and 96-99). And these different kinds of quasi-incest could be presented in two manners, (A) a positive one, where a lover is made sibling-like, and (B) a negative one, the “sibling made lover-like” (95, 97). In Anna Karenina (Анна Каренина, 1873-77), Levin is drawn to Kitty’s whole family, feeling almost a part of it, so the Levin-Kitty couple could be classified as 2A, while Vronsky falls for Anna after watching her embrace her brother in “the most explicit description of an embrace in the whole novel,” so that their relationship is type 3B. (Berman doesn’t use numbers and letters, but this is how I understand her typology.) We see other combinations in examples from Odoevskii, Goncharov, Turgenev, Dostoevskii, Tur, Leskov, and Aleeva (the pseudonym of Natal’ia Ieronimovna Utina, née Korsini).

What Berman wants us to notice is how unjudgmental everyone is in these books. Sometimes two characters who would not have been allowed to marry are together, but onlookers either don’t mind or critique them on grounds other than incest. In Turgenev’s “Three Portraits” (Три портрета, 1846), a man uses the intimacy that being family gave him to “seduce his adopted sister during her engagement,” and “the narrator seems to condemn him for the seduction of an innocent, but not for their degree of kinship” (91). And here’s the insight into cultural difference that I’m going to remember from this article: because in Russia the circle of who counts as family was drawn so broadly, “the line between kin and non-kin” was ”not as clear as in England” and, moreover, “people were less concerned about it” (101). There was an inner line drawn around close relatives like blood siblings or parents and children, and in Russia as in England the taboo against sexual relationships within this circle was always extremely strong. But the outer line that decided whether first cousins or siblings-in-law or co-godparents counted as family (and were therefore out of bounds as marriage prospects) ended up mattering less in Russia precisely because so many people fell inside it, especially in the small world of the “upper gentry” (100). With Russian culture’s “expansive open vision of family,” the problem is that “if all people are brothers and sisters, then all sex would be incest,” and one can either “reject sex” like Tolstoi in “The Kreutzer Sonata” (Крейцерова соната, 1889) or be more laid-back about the incest taboo (101).

See Anna A. Berman, “Incest and the Limits of Family in the Nineteenth-Century Russian Novel,” The Russian Review 78.1 (2019): 82–102. Berman was interviewed in 2017 by Kate Holland over at The Bloggers Karamazov.

What khokhol means in Dagestan

July 29, 2019

This paragraph from Sarah Kapp’s review of a 2018 translation of a 2015 book made me think about two issues that have come up here before:

Having translated [Alisa Ganieva’s first novel] “The Mountain and the Wall” and therefore already experienced with Ganieva’s multi-lingual prose, Carol Apollonio skillfully renders the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of the original, including local slang. For example, in the Russian text, Marat’s friend Rusik has “a fancy way of talking, with no local accent, like a proper Russian.” In the original Russian, however, he talks like a khokhol, a word some readers may recognize as a derogatory term for Ukrainians, but that in Dagestani slang, as Ganieva makes clear in an interview, can be used to refer to ethnic Russians. And while the original edition released by AST Publishers provides glosses for the Dagestani and Arabic phrases that punctuate characters’ speech, the English edition preserves them in italicized transliteration without glosses. But while addition of footnotes would have allowed the translator to preserve some of the interesting linguistic dimensions of the text, these are likely to have had narrow appeal and risked overcrowding the novel.

First, it’s interesting that the offensive word khokhol can mean different ethnic groups in different places, and not just that—the group (ethnic Russians) that stereotypically would level this word against Ukrainians is on the receiving end of the same slur in Dagestan.

Second, faced with translating a text that’s mostly in Russian but includes other languages, Apollonio leaves the non-Russian, non-English words untranslated. The choice seems bold, since the words are presumably farther from most English readers’ cultural context than most Russian readers’, and the Russian edition does translate these words for the reader. Kapp seems to think it works, though. Maybe the fact that Apollonio’s translation is a translation means she felt more pressure not to overexplain than Ganieva or her editors did.

See Kapp’s review of Apollonio’s translation of Ganieva’s Bride and Groom (Жених и невеста, 2015). The novel itself sounds interesting: Kapp says it returns to the theme of xenophobia and tensions in and between Moscow and the Caucasus, treated more directly in The Mountain and the Wall (Праздничная гора, 2012), “through the unlikely framework of an Austenian marriage plot.” Disclaimer: I know the reviewer and have briefly met the translator.

Free e-book: “It Didn’t Come Off” by Sof’ia Engel’gardt

July 15, 2019

Use the links below to download a dual-language e-book of my translation of “It Didn’t Come Off” (Не сошлись), an 1867 novella by Sof’ia Engel’gardt, also known as Sophie Engelhardt, Софья Владимировна Энгельгардт, and Ol’ga N. The Russian text is in the public domain, and the translation is free to use with attribution under a CC license.

download “It Didn’t Come Off” (Не сошлись) in .epub format

download “It Didn’t Come Off” (Не сошлись) in .mobi/Kindle format

download “It Didn’t Come Off” (Не сошлись) in .pdf format

The e-book is the serial translation that appeared on this blog from June 2017 to January 2018, with minor revisions. Thanks to everyone who read along and gave me feedback, especially the always generous and perceptive Muireann Maguire and Steve Dodson, whose specific suggestions made the translation come out better than it otherwise would have.

Poems and Problems

July 11, 2019

My friend and former colleague James McGavran has started a website called Poems and Problems, which has his original translations from 17 Russian poets from Pushkin to Alexander Skidan, his academic articles (mostly on Maiakovskii), his slideshows on Russian literature (Leskov gets one to himself), and more. A chess section is said to be forthcoming.