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The city of N.

November 5, 2013

Languagehat has a wonderful post on not just the “city of N.” convention in Russian literature, but on why Russian literature so often contrasts Moscow and St. Petersburg, named and described in detail, to anonymous and interchangeable provincial towns.  The comments go into a lot of issues I wondered about: NN is said to stand for the Latin nomen nescio ‘I don’t know the name’ and to have been used in many European literatures; other letters stood, more or less transparently, for specific cities; fear of giving offense to particular people may have been one reason for writers to at least go through the motions of disguising a city; the fact that urbanism came later and slower to Russia may have made the cities less distinct from each other in the real world, and/or less relevant to people’s conception of their world, which might instead be centered on a village or country estate. There’s all that and more, plus exceptions like Tula (and the smaller Mtsensk) in Leskov, Yalta in Chekhov, Pyatigorsk in Lermontov, and a few others.

This also comes up in LH’s comment section (relative to Kiev in Bulgakov, I think), but sometimes a city that isn’t named, or is just barely named, in a story is nevertheless described in detail. Leskov wrote about a lot of places few people wrote about, sometimes explicitly, sometimes in an oddly half-concealed way. In No Way Out he illustrates and complicates the phenomenon LH is interested in by naming the three parts of the novel “In the Provinces” (actually a singular В провинции in Russian), “In Moscow,” and “On the Banks of the Neva” (i.e. in St. Petersburg). Then within that “In the Provinces” he gives enough information to identify particular places and gives them some local texture.

Based on my memory of Mikhail Kuzmin’s “Russian Paradise” series of poems, I was going to try to make the opposite point too — that a prominently named city can seem to the reader more watery and indistinguishable from all others than many a city of N. — but rereading the poem I remember, I don’t think I was being fair to it:

А. С. Рославлеву

Я знаю вас не понаслышке,
О, верхней Волги города!
Кремлей чешуйчатые вышки,
Мне не забыть вас никогда!
И знаю я, как ночи долги,
Как яр и краток зимний день,—
Я сам родился ведь на Волге,
Где с удалью сдружилась лень,
Где исстари благочестивы
И сметливы, где говор крут,
Где весело сбегают нивы
К реке, где молятся и врут,
Где Ярославль горит, что в митре
У патриарха ал рубин,
Где рос царевич наш Димитрий,
Зарозовевший кровью крин,
Где все привольно, все степенно,
Где все сияет, все цветет,
Где Волга медленно и пенно
К морям далеким путь ведет.
Я знаю бег саней ковровых
И розы щек на холоду,
Морозов царственно-суровых
В другом краю я не найду.
Я знаю звон великопостный,
В бору далеком малый скит,—
И в жизни сладостной и косной
Какой-то тайный есть магнит.
Я помню запах гряд малинных
И горниц праздничных уют,
Напевы служб умильно-длинных
До сей поры в душе поют.
Не знаю, прав ли я, не прав ли,
Не по указке я люблю.
За то, что вырос в Ярославле,
Свою судьбу благословлю!

Январь 1916

I won’t translate the whole thing, but it starts “I know you not by hearsay, o cities of the Upper Volga!” and ends “I thank my fate that I grew up in Yaroslavl!” It stood out to me mainly because it was so explicitly about a city that is in Russia proper (not in the exotic fringes of the empire or abroad) but not one of the capitals, which, as LH says, is more unusual than you’d think.

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 2, 2013 2:02 am

    I cannot say this poem is a favorite but a few lines have lurked in my memory since the first reading. Kuzmin did not grow up in Yaroslavl. He was born there in 1872 but grew up in Saratov (1874-1884) and St. Petersburg (from 1884).

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