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Black boxes

May 29, 2020

”Remember how one of Akunin’s novels talks about the wife of a General Sobolev?”

“No, I don’t.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Shrukht. “General Sobolev’s wife was named Princess Titova. I thought a long time about why Boris Akunin, with his exquisite knowledge of the realia of the past, gave a princess what’s obviously a merchant’s last name. And then I found out that the wife of the real General Skobelev was… who do you think? Princess Gagarina!”


“What do you mean?” Shrukht went so far as to spread his hands in disappointment. “You of all people ought to be able to guess, given your… let’s say your gift for historical insight. What do Gagarina and Titova have in common? How could Princess Gagarina turn into Princess Titova?”

I should have told the clown to go to hell and walked out. But unfortunately I’m not indifferent to charades, brainteasers, and intellectual rebuses either. I especially don’t like to admit defeat when it comes to them. I had to furrow my brow. It came to me:

“I’ve got it. Gagarin was the first cosmonaut, and Titov was the second.”

“Correct,” Shrukht said, pleased, and unexpectedly shouted, ”Prize to the studio!”

I was expecting a girl to come out with a black box, but I only saw Shrukht, who had taken an envelope out of the safe.

“Your honorarium.”

On the way there I had firmly decided not to take any money. Now I began to be tormented by doubts.

— Помните, в одном из романов Акунина речь зашла о жене генерала Соболева?

— Не помню.

— Не имеет значения, — сказал Шрухт. — Жену генерала Соболева звали княжна Титова. Я долго думал, зачем тонкий знаток древностей Борис Акунин назвал княжну какой-то явно купеческой фамилией. А потом узнал, что женой реального генерала Скобелева была… кто б вы думали? Княжна Гагарина!

— И что?

— Ну как же? — Шрухт аж руками развел от разочарования. — Уж вы-то, с вашей, так сказать, исторической проницательностью, могли бы и догадаться. Гагарина, Титова — что общего? Как княжна Гагарина может перейти в княжну Титову?

Надо бы послать этого паяца и уходить. Но я, к сожалению, тоже не равнодушен к шарадам, головоломкам и интеллектуальным ребусам. Особенно не люблю признавать свое поражение на этом поприще. Пришлось наморщить лоб. Меня осенило:

— Я понял. Гагарин — первый космонавт, а Титов — второй.

— Правильно, — обрадовался Шрухт и неожиданно закричал: — Приз в студию!

Я ожидал выхода девушки с черным ящиком, но увидел лишь Шрухта, доставшего из сейфа конверт.

— Ваш гонорарий.

По дороге я твердо решил отказаться от денег. Теперь меня затерзали сомнения.

I’ve rarely been so proud of myself as when I thought I’d recognized this “black box” in part 3, chapter 5 of Gleb Stashkov’s International Brigade (Интербригада, 2015)—I was positive it was an allusion to the game show What? Where? When? (Что? Где? Когда?), but given the “prize to the studio!” line, the reference is probably actually to the game show Field of Wonders (Поле чудес), the Russian equivalent of Wheel of Fortune. Inside a black box on What? Where? When? is the answer to a question, while the box on Field of Wonders contains a mystery prize for a contestant. Then again, the question about Gagarin and Titov could be right out of What? Where? When?, a late- and post-Soviet show where a team of six gets a minute to brainstorm an answer to a question that’s often about the most canonical things in Russian (and Soviet) culture (Pushkin, Repin, Tchaikovsky, Ryazanov, Gagarin…).

(I’m sure this is obvious to anyone who lives in Russia or grew up there, but for those of us who know Russia mostly through books, pop culture references are harder.)

In the last few years I’ve watched a lot of What? Where? When? and used clips from it in language classes. So I was delighted to see an article about the show in The Russian Review, with a nineteenth-century connection that gives me an excuse to post about it here. But I’ll save that for tomorrow, and for now I’ll just recommend International Brigade for anyone who wants a dark and funny novel with a fast-moving plot, full of cultural references of various kinds, about different ways members of the post-Soviet intelligentsia can compromise their principles.

A black box is brought out by a man during What? Where? When?

A woman carries in a prize in a black box after the host says the catchphrase “prize to the studio!” on Field of Wonders

6 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    May 29, 2020 7:24 am

    Delightful! (And I don’t want to jinx it by mentioning it, but it’s great to have you posting regularly again…)

    • May 29, 2020 11:17 am

      Thanks! I have missed reading blogs and posting here, and someday I hope I’ll find a way to do those things during a semester of teaching.

  2. languagehat permalink
    May 29, 2020 7:28 am

    Also, how did you wind up reading Интербригада? I thought I was pretty au courant with Russian lit, but I’d never heard of Stashkov.

    • May 29, 2020 11:23 am

      I have my third-year students do an assignment on slang words that refer to male human beings (based on a metonymic use of ватники to refer to a group of prisoners in a 1970s story we read, contrasted to the meaning of ватник c. 2014), and to prepare for it I was researching how the word гопник is used, and an internet search led me to a passage from the middle of Интербригада, which made me curious enough to track down the whole book.

  3. languagehat permalink
    June 5, 2020 5:23 pm

    I posted about this, and SFReader pointed out that “Field of Wonders” is a Buratino reference (and, as he says, “Astonishingly honest choice of a name for this kind of game show”).

    • June 6, 2020 1:38 am

      Very interesting—my thanks to you and SFReader! I didn’t pick up on the Buratino reference, though it certainly felt like that title was a reference to something.

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