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More post-emancipation ты and вы

September 12, 2011

As before, from Lev Tolstoi’s An Infected Family (Зараженное семейство, 1864):

Village Elder: No, travelers are a good bit better behaved these days. By the by, your honor, I’ve been meaning to ask, what have all the travelers started saying вы [the formal pronoun] to us peasants for?

Postmaster: Education, that is, progress. What’s it to you [ты, the familiar pronoun], you idiot?

Village Elder: It’s just that me and the boys have noticed that if someone calls you вы, then don’t expect a tip [на водку не жди]. And someone who kicks up a fuss and is quick with his temper is the one who’ll give you something. You can count on it, either a quarter or three dimes. (422, Act 5, scene 1)

Again it’s a peasant speaker bemoaning the egalitarian use of вы fashionable among part of the nobility. If the nanny couldn’t stand the practice as such, the even-tempered elder seems only bemused, more troubled by the non-tipping.

Tolstoi also doesn’t seem impressed with nobles who say ты to peasants, like Ivan Mikhailovich in Act 4 (he had used вы in the nanny’s story in Act 1). Disillusioned with his ostentatiously progressive son-in-law, daughter, niece, son, and son’s former tutor, he drops the new egalitarianism like a coal, using ты, threatening beatings, and rescinding the generous economic terms he had planned to offer the local ex-serfs.

Missing from the play is a peasant who wants to be called вы or otherwise cares about symbolic social equality. The egalitarian rhetoric comes from young nobles, who in the same breath proclaim universal equality and their own superiority to their reactionary parents and teachers. If they say вы to peasants, we are led to believe, it’s motivated not by new virtues but old vices – not wanting to give a tip, or repay a debt, or offer hospitality, or submit to legitimate authority.

I went into An Infected Family with low expectations: Jeff Brooks calls it a “biting but not very strong play about women’s liberation that in a way goes back to the furious debates over Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons” (my backtranslation from Russian, sorry). I therefore found Act 1 surprisingly funny and effective, but by the middle it does get tedious. On the other hand, the play gives you a more concrete sense of “nihilism” as a mode of speech and dress, as a pose young people adopt that infuriates the older generation, than Turgenev’s novel.

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