Skip to content

Words new to me: куделька

March 10, 2020

Dictionaries say куделька can mean кудряшка, a curl of someone’s hair, or it can be a diminutive of кудель or куделя, either meaning “sliver” with a long “i,” or it can be used in the regional idiom дать кудельку or дать куделю, meaning to pull someone by the hair or severely punish them. But I came across a different meaning in what’s reported to be a nineteenth-century context. According to Erast Kuznetsov, soldiers in the time of Nicholas I would use куделька to refer to the “ceremonial march past the emperor” that came at the end of an elaborate military parade. He explains why right away, so I didn’t get the pleasure of struggling with this one the way I did with шаккендс: “this march was called a coup d’œil for some reason, and the soldiers, following Russians’ age-old tradition of adapting everything to their own way of doing things, called it a kudel’ka” (51).

Kuznetsov also mentions “Бом двысь!”: sentry jargon for an order to raise the gate once someone’s papers have been checked, short for шлагбаум подвысь (49).

See E. Kuznetsov, Pavel Fedotov (Leningrad: Iskusstvo, 1990). For a biography of an artist, this book spends a lot of time on details of day-to-day life at military schools and in military units—not stories of Fedotov’s particular army career, necessarily, but what it must have been like for a person like him.

“…exclusively artists who are Russian by descent and education.”

January 13, 2020

I’ve started Pisemskii’s Масоны (The Masons, 1880)—so far, not terrible!—and I want to leave this look back on Russian and Western visual art through the 1830s (when the novel is set) here, so I can find it later.

Fedor Ivanych has found an oil painting of John the Evangelist by Domenichino (1581–1641) and offers it to the prince as a gift. The prince, embarrassed, asks why Fedor Ivanych, as a collector himself, wishes to deprive himself of such a find. Then:

“I have begun to collect only Russian artists, your excellency!” explained Fedor Ivanych.

“Russian artists!” exclaimed Sergei Stepanych [another of the prince’s visitors], “But where do you find them…? It seems to me there are not yet any Russian artists!”

“No, sir, there are!” said Fedor Ivanych, again with a pleasant smile.

”But what works of theirs do you have?” Sergei Stepanych continued his cross-examination.

”Not many, of course,” replied Fedor Ivanych, taking a seat at a gesture from the prince, “I have one very good painting, St. Petersburg on a Moonlit Night by Vorobyov…! Then The Mother of God with the Eternal Infant and John the Baptist by Borovikovsky…”

“But surely that isn’t the Orthodox Mother of God?” Sergei Stepanych interrupted him. “She is never depicted with John the Baptist here; it is a Madonna!”

“Not just a Madonna; it is even a copy painted from a Madonna by Correggio, and I do not mean a Russian school as such, but am merely saying that I should like to have in my collection exclusively artists who are Russian by descent and education.”

“Ah, that’s another matter!” said Sergei Stepanych grandly. “We do have some gifted artists; I won’t argue with that. But we do not have any original ones, nor do I know whether we ever shall!”

“There are many gifted ones,” the prince agreed, “which I know makes the Sovereign extremely happy…! But wait, Fedor Ivanych,” he continued, wiping his forehead under his umbrella, “what shall I give you to thank you for your gift?”

Fedor Ivanych blushed even more at this.

“There is one treasure by whose gift you should make me happiest of all,” he said, bowing his head, “if you were to allow me to paint your portrait for my little gallery.”

“Gladly… whenever you like… anytime…!” said the prince, “Only what artist should be entrusted with that?”

Briulov, I think!” replied Fedor Ivanych.

“Certainly!” agreed Sergei Stepanych. “Who but Briulov could render the prince’s quite subtle features and the expression of his inner life?”

“Ask him…!” the prince said to Fedor Ivanych.

“Certainly, I’ll do it tomorrow!” the latter said quickly. “The one hindrance is that Karl Pavlych leads an extremely artistic life… besides which he is so busy with various commissions and even more with ideas and plans for his new works that I don’t know when he will take it upon himself to do it!”

“That’s as he likes,” replied the prince, “it’s all right if he takes his time; if not this year, then the next, or even the one after…!” (part 2, chapter 5, found in Volume 1, pp. 222–224)

Briullov is usually spelled with two Ls now, but in Pisemskii the name gets one. I assume Sergei Stepanych’s argument that Russia may never have any original artists is supposed to sound like dramatic irony, since the characters can’t know about Ivanov’s Appearance of Christ before the People (1837–57) or the works of Ge or Kramskoi or Repin or Kuindzhi or other peredvizhniki/Itinerants/Wanderers. Or maybe we’re free to think they’re also all derivative. It’s interesting that there’s no mention of Venetsianov.

Words new to me: сбитень

January 7, 2020

You can buy sbiten’ right now (320 rubles for 250 ml)

Sbiten’ (сбИтень, genitive сбИтня), a hot drink made using honey and various herbs. It’s old: as one of several YouTube recipe videos explains, the Domostroi explains how to make it (search on this page for збитен). But maybe it’s coming back: the Russian National Corpus has 112 results in 68 documents, all from 1993 or later. Збитен returns no results in the corpus and збитень gives one from 1751 and one from 2006.

I came across it in Erast Kuznetsov’s 1990 biography of the artist Pavel Fedotov (1815–1852), in a description of the routine Fedotov (from age 11) and the other boys of the First Moscow Corps of Cadets endlessly repeated in military school:

Then they would form ranks and go to prayers; after prayers (also to the sound of the drum) they went to the dining hall. Breakfast was meager: a roll and a cup of sbiten’ (though even the sbiten’ was added only in Fedotov’s last two years of study). From the dining hall they marched to class, still to the sound of drumbeats. Classes started at eight o’clock. It was especially unpleasant in winter: they could hardly keep their eyes open in half-dark, cold rooms lit by a scant few stinking tallow candles. (20)

Потом строились и шли на молитву, после молитвы (также под барабан) — в столовую. Завтрак был скуден: булка и кружка сбитня (впрочем, и сбитень явился лишь в последние два года обучения Федотова). Из столовой под все тот же барабан шли строем в классы. Классы начинались в восемь часов. Зимой было особенно несладко: морил сон, в полутемных комнатах, освещенных скупо расставленными и вонючими сальными свечами, стоял холод. (20)

Fedotov is best known for The Major’s Courtship (Сватовство майора, 1848) and other 1840s paintings classified as satirical. His late work, like The Gamblers (Игроки, 1852), shows, in Rosalind P. Blakesley’s words, a move towards “a starker language of obscured form, heightened chiaroscuro and stabs of light” (215). The critic Vladimir Stasov argued in 1883 that Fedotov is to Vasilii Perov (1834–1882) in art as Aleksandr Dargomyzhskii (1813–1869) is to Modest Musorgskii (1839–1881) in music or as Gogol is to later nineteenth-century prose writers.


December 14, 2019

Last month Notes from Poland started a new podcast with an interview with Jennifer Croft, who translated Olga Tokarczuk’s Bieguni (2007) into English as Flights (2017). The discussion of why Croft chose Flights instead of Runners is interesting (19:32–23:33), and while I was initially worried the treatment of translation in general was going to be frustratingly vague for my tastes, there were nice and specific points about language too:

Stanley Bill: You are a writer and a translator. So, you’ve just published your first book, the memoir Homesick. Perhaps you can tell us a little bit about it, but also I’m very interested in how you view the difference between writing and translating […] the prize you won together with Olga Tokarczuk, the [2018] Booker International Prize very much acknowledges the writer and the translator together on the same level […] How do you compare these two creative acts?

Jennifer Croft: I always thought of translation as a kind of apprenticeship in writing, and I always chose books to translate that really spoke to me on a kind of emotional level, but also on an intellectual level, and books that I thought would be able to teach me something about how I was eventually going to write. And it took me a long time and a lot of experiments to come to a style that I felt really worked for me. But translating along the way was essential, I would say. And I was very mindful of what elements I was taking from each writer I was working with, and also the elements that I was taking from the particular languages. Like I am fascinated by the Slavic grammars. I have always been a real grammar nerd when it comes to my studies of the Slavic languages, so I love the fact that…

SB: You taught Polish, by the way, at Northwestern University in Chicago, did you not?

JC: I did, yes, I…

SB: So your knowledge of Polish grammar is serious.

JC: Yeah, I mean, I, well, I started… part of what Homesick is about is how I started studying languages, and I really started by learning Russian grammar, and I was really fascinated from the beginning by the fact that Slavic languages have grammatical case, which English of course used to have, and other languages have as well, but what that means is that you can… you have to change the ending of a noun in the same way that we might change the end of a verb to show who’s doing what or how many people are doing it. So, because the form of the noun changes in the sentence to indicate its function, it frees up word order in a way that…

SB: Yes.

JC: …we don’t have in English, so I have always really loved that idea, that in order to emphasize something, or even to generate microsuspense in an individual sentence, you can play around with the order of the words and thereby change the order in which you convey the information you need to convey. So that was something that I also tried to introduce into my own writing in English. I tried to play around with the syntax…

SB: Very interesting.

JC: …as much as I could.

(episode 1, 24:33–27:47)

Croft, who has translated from Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, and Argentine Spanish, seems brilliant (which I wrote before reading she started college at 15), and I’m looking forward to more podcast episodes from Bill (who’s worth following on Twitter). I absolutely love “microsuspense” as a cover term that includes what Languagehat called Tolstoi’s “sucker punch.”


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.