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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.

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