“…though he was 14 vershoks tall and a skewed sazhen across in the shoulders…”
How tall? A vershok is an inch-like unit (1 3/4″, it turns out), so I took that at first to be hyperbole with an oddly chosen number, but it didn’t fit the context. Luckily Elena Penskaya anticipated my question and provided a note (see page 47 of this pdf), explaining that people’s heights were measured in arshins and vershoks, but it was assumed every adult was between 2 and 3 arshins, so only the vershoks were mentioned. Which is convenient! People can be 4, 5, or 6 feet and change, and equally fall on both sides of the 2-meter line, but “2 arshins and change” encompasses everyone between 4’8″ and 7’0″ tall (about 142 cm to 213 cm). That also conveniently allows 1 sazhen, which is 3 arshins or 7 feet, to be thrown around as the approximate height of a really tall person.
As for the skewed sazhen (косая сажень), that apparently means “distance between tip of a raised arm and a tip of an opposite leg slightly put away” and is slightly longer than a regular sazhen. That’s according to the English Wikipedia article on obsolete Russian units of measurement; for some reason it’s missing from the predictably excellent Russian article (which, however, mentions косая сажень в плечах as a set expression for broad shoulders).
Wikipedia also cleared up something that had long confused me: why there were commonly used Russian words for English feet and inches (фут and дюйм), which come out to exact but strange divisions of a sazhen. Alongside the system of
1 sazhen = 3 arshins = 12 piads = 48 vershoks = 100 sotkas
where everything is based on 3s, 4s, and 10s, there’s also
1 sazhen = 7 feet = 84 inches = 840 liniias = 8400 tochkas
where it’s initially hard to see why you’d want to multiply by 7, and further why you need these intermediate measures in addition to the arshins, piads, and vershoks. The answer? Peter I borrowed English units of measure to make it easier to order ships built abroad, and when he did he adjusted the official length of the sazhen and its derivative units to make the math come out neat.
The man who was 14 vershoks tall was Fedor Lukich Moroshkin, one of several Moscow University professors brought in as private tutors (!) for the young Elizaveta Vasil’evna Sukhovo-Kobylina, better known by her pseudonym Evgeniia Tur (and her married name E. V. Salias-de-Turnemir), and her brother, the playwright Aleksandr Vasil’evich Sukhovo-Kobylin. The family also owned quite a few estates. See Penskaya’s recent publications of and commentary on parts of Tur’s memoirs: “Evgeniia Tur’s ‘Paradise Lost’ (Elizaveta Vasil’evna Salias-de-Turnemir and Her ‘Memoirs’)” (pdf) and “Teachers and Students in the Sukhovo-Kobylin Family (On the Problem of the Biographical Roots of the Historiosophy of the Author of the Dramatic Trilogy Scenes from the Past)” (pdf). Three cheers to Toronto Slavic Quarterly for continuing to let people read what they publish! I’ve been reading about Tur to atone for leaving her out when I was counting pseudonyms until Languagehat reminded me about her.