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“…though he was 14 vershoks tall and a skewed sazhen across in the shoulders…”

May 13, 2013

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.

Evgeniia Tur and her sisters in an 1847 portrait by P. N. Orlov

Evgeniia Tur (left) and her sisters in an 1847 portrait by P. N. Orlov

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.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2013 8:49 am

    I’ve been reading about Sukhovo-Kobylin, who had a pretty horrible life — in 1850 he was accused of the murder of his French mistress, and not acquitted for seven years because of the bribery and extortion that were a routine part of the corrupt tsarist legal system (and which feature significantly in his plays); then Nadezhda Naryshkina, the woman he had planned to marry, went to France to escape the publicity (where she had their child before becoming the mistress, and then the wife, of Alexandre Dumas fils); he married another Frenchwoman, Marie de Bourglon, whose family insisted that her inherited wealth remain in France but neglected to inform him that she had contracted tuberculosis, from which she died within a year after their marriage; his second wife, the Englishwoman Emily Smith (why did he keep marrying foreigners?), survived for an even shorter time after their marriage in 1867 (the same year his beloved sister Sofiya died); and he had endless troubles with the censors over his plays: Delo [The Case] was published in Leipzig in 1861 in an edition of 25 copies at the author’s expense but not allowed to be published in Russia until 1869, and not allowed performance until 1882; Smert Tarelkina [The Death of Tarelkin] was allowed to be published in 1869 only as part of a trilogy named Kartiny proshedshego [Pictures of the past], and not allowed performance until 1900. And the last was partly his sister’s fault! Tur had been editing Russkaya rech but turned it over to Evgeny Fedoktistov, a bitter enemy of her brother, who was in 1883 appointed Head of the Main Directorate of Publication Affairs, a position that allowed him to keep Smert Tarelkina off the stage for years (eventually Suvorin was able to pull strings and get it performed in SPb before its author’s death).

    • May 15, 2013 3:10 pm

      He did have an unusual life; from Penskaya’s second article, here’s part of his letter inviting his old teacher Moroshkin to the premiere of Krechinskii’s Wedding in 1855: “The illegal and most unconscionable six months’ deprivation of liberty that came down on me last year gave me enough leisure to complete once and for all the revision of several scenes jotted down previously, and the calm of a spirit persecuted but never broken [угнетаемого, но никогда не угнетенного духа] provided the internal tranquility that is a necessary condition for our Spirit to create.” From what little I’ve read, S-K strikes me as someone who was pretty fiercely independent and probably not tolerant of fools, and I suspect he reacted to his ordeal as a prisoner and defendant with more impotent rage than others would have. His plays have enough of an edge to them that I’m not surprised about censorship troubles (especially for performance) with or without the machinations of his personal enemies. (I didn’t know about the Tur/Fedokistov angle, though, and I’ll be curious to find out more – Penskaya gives the impression that sister and brother were “literary enemies” more generally.)

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