Digestive metaphors for a healthy nation


September 30, 2014 by AK

Sozont I. Potugin, the character from Turgenev’s The Smoke quoted by Dmitry Bykov and Erik McDonald and discussed here and here on this blog, had much more sensible views than his grumbling remarks had initially suggested. Consider this exchange from The Smoke (translation mine):

[Litvinov]: “You have said that we should borrow, that we should adopt from our elder brothers, but how is it possible to adopt without consideration for the climate, for the soil, for local, national particularities? My father, I recall, ordered a winnower from the Butenops – a cast-iron winnower with an excellent track record; it was indeed very good – but what next? It had sat in the barn for five years, unused, until it was replaced by a wooden American one – much better suited to our ways and customs, as are all American machines in general. One should not adopt to no purpose, Sozont Ivanovich.”

[Potugin]: “I did not expect this riposte from you… Is anybody forcing you to adopt things to no purpose? For you import what is foreign not because it is foreign but because it is useful to you; hence you know what you are doing; you are making your choice. As for the results, worry not: their singularity is guaranteed by those very local, climatic and other conditions you have mentioned. Be certain to only offer good food, and the people’s stomach will digest it in its own way. In due course, when the organism becomes stronger, it will secrete its own juice. Take our language as an example. Peter the Great flooded it with thousands of words from alien lands – Dutch, French, German: these words expressed notions the Russian nation had to be familiarized with, directly and without ceremony. Peter poured in these words whole, by the tub, by the barrel into our bowels. At first, indeed, something monstrous came out of that; but later on, there started the digestion I have spoken of to you. The notions have caught on and have been assimilated; alien forms have gradually evaporated; the language has found replacements for them in its own depths, and now your humble servant, a very mediocre stylist, will venture to translate any page from Hegel – yes Sir, from Hegel! – without using a single non-Slavic word. What happened to the language will happen in other areas, one has to hope. The one question is whether [our] nature is strong, and our nature will do just fine – it’ll get over it; it’s been in worse fixes before. Only neurotic patients and weak nations fear for their health, for their independence; likewise, only idle people foam at the mouth with delight at being Russian. I care about my health very much but I do not get delighted over it: that would be embarrassing, Sir.”

Turgenev trivia


September 28, 2014 by AK

Going back to Erik McDonald’s latest post with this quote from Dmitry Bykov,

But except for the Sochi Olympics, Russia hasn’t made any powerful contributions to international culture recently,

I’m not sure the Sochi Olympics was a contribution to anything but the building contractors’ secret bank accounts. But what about Turgenev’s character, Mr. Potugin? What was his view on Russia’s “contribution”?

This last spring, I visited the Crystal Palace near London. As is known to you, that palace houses, as it were, an exhibition of every fruit of human inventiveness — we should call it an encyclopedia of humanity. Well, I kept walking past all those machines and tools and statues of great people, and it occurred to me: if it were ordered that, together with a nation’s disappearance from the face of the earth, everything invented by that nation would also disappear from the Crystal Palace, – our dear mother, Russia the Orthodox, might crash down into Tartarus, and not a single nail, not the tiniest pin would be disturbed: everything would safely stay in its own place, for even the samovar, the bast shoes, the shaft bow, and the knout [he had the good taste to leave out vodka and the balalaika] – these famous products of ours – were not invented by us.

I doubt that gentleman expected to be taken seriously with this line of argument. Curiously, Turgenev’s The Smoke appeared months after Crime and Punishment, less than a year before The Idiot, two years before War and Peace and six years before the first installments of Anna Karenina.

Turgenev as a household name


September 26, 2014 by AK

“The only thing you never turned you hand to // Was teaching English in a boarding school,” wrote Auden in his 1937 Letter to Lord Byron from Iceland. Dmitry Bykov, an influential and remarkably prolific Russian columnist, novelist and poet, teaches Russian literature at one or two Moscow schools. Erik McDonald of XIX век has been listening to Bykov’s discourses on Radio Ekho Moskvy and is wondering (I encourage you to read the whole post):

But would a commentator on the BBC quote Phineas Finn (1867) the way Dmitry Bykov refers to Turgenev’s Smoke (Дым, 1867)?

“Turgenev has one of his characters, Potugin, say ‘if we ceased to exist, the world wouldn’t notice, because we haven’t given it so much as an English pin [the Russian name for a safety pin].’ Of course that’s an exaggeration; it’s said by a negative character. But except for the Sochi Olympics, Russia hasn’t made any powerful contributions to international culture recently…”

Bykov is a Russian man of letters and a teacher of literature so why shouldn’t he be quoting Turgenev? But there’s more to it than Bykov being a literary guy – there’s Turgenev’s slot in the cultural columbarium, or the capsule hotel Kultura.

Turgenev is a household name in Russia because most schoolchildren begin studying Russian literature with his short story Mumu, a sad tale of serfdom, oppression, and silent defiance. It is about Mumu that Russian 10-year-olds write their first literary composition. Things were the same 30+ years ago, when I went to school, and possibly 60 years ago.

Mumu is actually a dog, probably a small spaniel, which ends up forcibly drowned. The story is not so much about the dog as about serfs treated by their masters worse than dogs, and one deaf and mute man who defies his mistress in his own way. The heartless slavemistress who is the story’s anti-hero was based, it is said, on Turgenev’s mother. There’s too much sadness in the tale for children to absorb and, perhaps as a defense mechanism, the dog has evolved into a tragicomical pop culture character.

In the sixth or seventh grade, Russian kids study The Hunting Sketches and a couple of years later move on to Fathers and Sons. All that stuff is studied as thoroughly as is possible at school: kids are required to recite a sizable chunk of Bezhin Lug either by heart or “close to the text”.

I still remember being told by a teacher that there was a landowner called Penochkin (from penochka, “warbler”) somewhere in The Hunting Sketches who enjoyed the sound of a cane hitting peasant bottoms; and by another teacher (a great one), that the first response in the “progressive” press to Fathers and Sons was The Asmodeus of Our Time by Antonovich, Bazarov being the demon Asmodeus, – before Pisarev defended Bazarov as the good guy in his essay The Realists.

Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy do not get the same close reading at school because you cannot assign any major work by either until the kids have grown up a little, and because it’s impossible to study War and Peace in much detail at a regular high school for lack of time. I doubt that most Russian kids leave school having read War and Peace; I’m not even sure about Crime and Punishment.

I have no idea if Trollope has any place at all in the English (let alone Scottish) school curricula. “Trollopian heroines” invite a silly wordplay on “trollop” and “fallopian”. Turgenevskie devushki (Turgenev girls) is a fixed and still relatively common Russian expression although I’ve forgotten what it’s supposed to mean.

As an aside, the Vedomosti columnist and political scientist Yekaterina Shulman, who goes by Catherine Schulmann in the Anglosphere, has wondered what Trollope meant by “b—“. Bedbugs, apparently.

Leave if you’re not determined to fight


September 25, 2014 by AK

Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaking at the Le Monde anniversary celebration at the Opéra Bastille on 21 (?) September. An excerpt in my translation:

Q. Let us discuss Ukraine, our European disaster. This year, you have visited Ukraine several times. You were in Kyiv during the Maidan [revolution]. Could you tell us about that trip and your conclusions?

A. The events in Ukraine were absolutely unexpected for me, as well as for many people in the audience, it seems to me. I felt that I had to explain my stance on this issue. I was unacceptable for me to fit into the ranks of any camp. But to take a stance one needs to get information directly, if possible – and that was possible there. I went to Kyiv, walked over to the Maidan, talked to people there. I saw that the attitude to a Russian, a Muscovite, a Russian speaker was perfectly OK in the Maidan. At that moment, there was no anti-Russian sentiment there. Moreover, when I spoke in the Maidan, a crowd of twenty thousand people chanted: “Russia, rise up!” There was a positive attitude to my country. I promised to these people that I would hold a congress – a meeting between Russian and Ukrainian intellectuals so people would not lose contact with each other even in hard times.

During my next visit, I was offered to take a look at the situation from the other side, and we traveled to Kharkiv and Donetsk. Together with journalists, I interviewed [some of the] people who had seized the regional administration building in Donetsk. All of us were left with the same impression: those were dependent people who were receiving orders from somewhere. At that time we did not understand from where – but no doubt those were orders from Russian special services and members of the [Russian] president’s administration.

I met with Akhmetov and understood his position and the reason while he was behaving so cautiously. He was very much afraid that if he stood up for Ukraine, the Russian government would cancel orders [with his plants in Ukraine], people would lose jobs and would blame him for that.

I met a great number of people who spoke for a united Ukraine – most of them very civil, intelligent [intelligentnye] people. I became convinced of this: In such a situation, if you are not ready for active resistance, you should leave. Because it does not matter that you are in the majority. What matters is there is determination on their side but none on yours. That was a lesson to me.

The second anti-invasion rally


September 21, 2014 by AK

The peace march in Moscow today probably drew no fewer people than the one in March. The picture probably shows the tail of a long line of people marching, that is walking briskly, along a section of the Boulevard Ring in Moscow. The writing on the wall goes, “No war but gender war.”

"No war but gender war"

No War but Gender War

According to Khomyakov, Putin’s successor should be OK


September 19, 2014 by AK

More from S.M. Soloviev’s Notes, this time from the text not included in the truncated online version. The “war” refers to an advanced stage of the Crimean War, probably 1854-55.

At that very time when it began to thunder above Nebuchadnezzar’s [Nicholas I's] head, when Russia began to suffer an unfamiliar disgrace of military failures, when its enemies appeared by Sevastopol, we found ourselves in a difficult predicament. On the one hand, our patriotic feeling was terribly offended by Russia’s humiliation, but on the other, we were convinced that nothing but affliction, namely an ill-fated war, could accomplish a salvific upheaval — could stop the rot; we were convinced that the war’s success would make our bonds more restrictive and decisively establish a barrack-like system; we tormented ourselves with news of defeats, knowing that news of the opposite kind would have made us tremble. One could see indifference among the people at large…

Nicholas I died in February 1855:

After February 15, rumors began that the emperor had been ill. Feb. 19 was a Sunday; I went to Mass to my parish church (St. Nicholas on the Sands in Arbat [in Moscow]) where Khomyakov was also a parishioner. He walked up to me and said: “They must be taking the oath in the Senate now: he’s dead”… Of course I was not saddened by the death of Nicholas but I felt ill at ease. There was anxiety and apprehension: what if it gets even worse?! A man has been taken out of prison – it’s good to breathe fresh air but where are they taking him? Could it be another prison, an even worse one? He would be lucky to be set free. Back home, I found an order to report to the University church in a uniform [professors, as civil servants, had their own] to take the oath of allegiance [to the new emperor]. Arriving at the church, I met Granovsky on the porch; my first word to him was, “Dead!” He replied: “It’s no wonder he is dead; it’s a wonder how we’re alive.” Our anxious, abnormal predicament made us susceptible to superstition. It was Sunday and, as was my custom, I went to dine at my old father’s house and then news came that during the ringing of bells at the Ivan the Great tower part of it collapsed and killed some people. [Wikipedia says it was a bell that came off and crashed through five stories.] The accident, sad by itself, on that day made a particularly adverse impression. People were hoping for the best, and at once there was such a dark premonition! But that impression, needless to say, did not last long; [we] started living by hope.

Once [apparently, shortly afterwards] I stopped by Khomyakov’s house. He was hopeful in his own way. “It’s going to get better,” he said, “note how tsars alternate from Peter on: a good reign is followed by a bad one; a bad reign is unfailingly followed by a good one: after Peter I, Catherine I, a bad reign… [I have omitted six emperors here] Alexander I, a good one; after Alexander I, Nicholas, a wretched one; now, therefore, it must be good. At that,” continued Khomyakov, “our current sire is a passionate hunter, and hunters are always good people – recall Alexey Mikhailovich.” In conversations with Khomyakov, my habit was to smile and be silent. Khomyakov likewise smiled, and prattled on. “But Chaadayev never agrees with me – he says of Alexander II: ‘What good can come of a man with eyes like these!'” and Khomyakov burst into his ringing laughter. This is how the heads of Moscow’s two opposing camps spoke of Russia’s new head.

I’m not sure Chaadayev and Khomiakov were exactly the chief of the Westernizers and the Slavophiles respectively (nor am I sure that Khomyakov quoted Chaadayev faithfully), but they were senior, or possibly the most senior members of the two Moscow circles.

The price of classics


September 17, 2014 by AK

Count Sergey S. Uvarov, the inventor of the official triad, “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality”, was a renowned classicist and the founder of the classics-based gymnasium system in Russia. For more than twenty years Uvarov corresponded with Goethe, who predictably influenced the younger man’s thinking. But here’s what the prominent historian Sergey M. Soloviev says in his Notes for My Children (and If Possible, For Others) [incomplete text]:

Uvarov was a brilliantly gifted man, no doubt; and those gifts, together with his education and liberal mode of thinking… made him capable for the position of a minister of education, a president of the academy of sciences, etc. etc., but there was a great discrepancy between the talents of his heart and of his mind. Playing the part of a patrician landowner, Uvarov had nothing truly aristocratic in himself: on the contrary, he was a servant who had adopted decent manners in the house of a decent master (Alexander I) but remained a servant at heart. He spared no means, no flattery to please the new master (emperor Nicholas), inculcating in him the thought that he, Nicholas, was the originator of a new kind of education based on new elements; Uvarov actually invented these elements, i.e., the words Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality — Orthodoxy, although an atheist, not believing in Christ even in a Protestant way; autocracy, being a liberal; nationality, not having read a single Russian book in his life, always writing in French or German.

Uvarov did not invent classical gymnasia – was it Wilhelm von Humboldt? – and of course they were not based on the OAN triad at all. Perhaps it was a marketing trick that helped Uvarov sell the educational novelty to Nicholas I. That system, later complemented by comprehensive and commercial schools, worked out rather well in pre-1917 Russia. Classics in Russia 1700-1855: Between Two Bronze Horsemen by the Dutch scholar M.A. Wes appears to be an excellent source on Uvarov and his work.

What, no comment on Marianne’s breasts?


September 16, 2014 by AK

A somewhat sanitized version of an old Soviet joke: A group of students at the Soviet Academy of Foreign Relations – all male, all future diplomats – are told to draw up a note of protest to a leader of a third-world nation. The professor goes through the draft they have produced and nods approvingly:

“Good job, boys! Just one little thing – we old-school diplomats prefer to hyphenate ‘mother-f*cker’.”

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA, or MID in Russian) has put up a statement on its website condemning the acquittal by a Paris court of Femen activists accused of degrading a place of worship. Miriam Elder called it “sternly and colorfully worded”: not sure about stern, but colorful it definitely was, which could have been the reason it was not published on the MFA site in any other language but Russian.

And what else could you expect from French justice since the scandalously notorious chieftain of the provocatresses, Inna Shevchenko, was chosen in 2013 as Marianne, the symbol of republican France.

It would take a translator of Zoschenko to convey the taste and tinge of this passage. The word provokatorsha, which I rendered as “provocatress”, is not quite diplomatic. The passage reads like the Russians wanted to add an unflattering comment on that Marianne’s breasts but their fingers froze in a sudden spell of sobriety. Read Elder’s piece to get the whole picture. Also, Interfax’s report on the statement is here, in English.

When science has no chance


September 14, 2014 by AK

An enlightening piece on the 2012 conviction of Italian seismologists by David Wolman.

The prosecutor offered, and the judge accepted, the theory that Italy’s leading seismologists had conspired with the mayor’s office in l’Aquila to send a falsely reassuring message to the town’s residents, who had been warned of an impending disaster by a lay forecaster called Gianpaolo Giuliani, a charlatan by the scientists’ standards.

The scientists said the likelihood of an earthquake was “low”. That meant two things: first, even in a high-risk area like l’Aquila, a major quake was unlikely to occur on any given day; second, the likelihood of it happening within a short-term period was no higher on the day before it did than on any other day.

Unfortunately, some residents latched on to that “low” probability and believed the earthquake was “unlikely”. That’s why they did not leave their homes when the first shocks hit, even though normally they would do just that.

The scientists’ statement, in essence, was: “You should not worry today about tomorrow any more than you worried yesterday or the day before yesterday. This is not to say you should not worry at all – do not forget that you live in a high-risk area. There’s always a risk, although relatively small, but it’s the same every day. When Giuliani tells you that you should worry more today than you did yesterday because of some gases or energy escaping, that’s rubbish.” But it was never communicated properly. The people of l’Aquila were confused and disaster ensued.

At the trial, the prosecutor claimed the scientists had lied: they knew the probability was high, not low. He cited a map produced by the government research center where two of the defendants had worked showing probabilities of a major earthquake occurring within 50 years. The province of Abruzzo and l’Aquila were in a high-risk zone. Bingo! No, not really. In absolute terms the probability of an earthquake happening in l’Aquila within several days was still low, and equally low on any given day. It was only high relative to other places — but the scientists were not warning people who planned to move to l’Aquila from elsewhere. Their audience were l’Aquila residents, for whom this risk was part of everyday life.

The prosecutor also cited a paper published by one of the defendants the 1990s with a hypothetical predictive model which resulted in the probability of an earthquake in Aquila in the next year being 100%. If the model had been correct, there should have been an earthquake there within a year. But there was none. As another scientist explained on the stand, the model proved itself wrong – in a self-evident [and possibly embarrassing] way – and no reasonable scientist, including the author of the paper, would consider that model valid thereafter.

The judge, however, claimed in his written opinion that the author of the paper continued to believe in his own discredited model. That sort of idiocy, as I have learned, is typical of Italian courts. The point of the trial was, apparently, not to find justice but to provide some sort of consolation-through-retribution to the victims of the latest l’Aquila quake – and to humiliate the bespectacled.

Putin and Solzhenitsyn


September 14, 2014 by AK

Miriam Elder and Robert Coalson argue that Putin has been influenced by Solzhenitsyn’s view of Russia’s proper borders. That’s plausible, but Solzhenitsyn was a proponent of grassroots democracy of the sort he witnessed in Vermont. He probably had in mind an honest plebiscite in post-Soviet Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, hardly a hybrid war.

In addition, Solzhenitsyn’s essay known as Rebuilding Russia in English was written in the late 1980s and published in 1990, when redrawing internal Soviet border lines was at least thinkable.

That train has left. Russia has recognized its neighbors’ boundaries. No, Soviet borders were neither sensible nor fair and yes, the treatment of Russian speakers by post-Soviet dictators in Central Asia has been deplorable. But a politician’s or a nation’s idea of a fair world order and the price they are prepared to pay for breaking through to that ideal are not one and the same.


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