Digestive metaphors for a healthy nation

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.”


  1. How long will the dangerous Western liberal Turgenev remain on the school syllabus in Russia? I’ve heard rumours he even disapproved of serfdom, unlike the cutting-edge thinker Valery Zorkin.

    • I’ve looked through Zorkin’s article in Rossiyskaya Gazeta. The keyword is skrepa, a bond or brace or fastener: serfdom was a bond between landowners and peasants that held the country together, according to Zorkin. The awkward term goes back to Putin’s address to the federal parliament in March 2013, “Russian society is experiencing a deficiency of spiritual bonds [dukhovnykh skrep] today,” said Putin. Zorkin is a veteran asslicker. If he’s being pushed to the brink of retirement to clear room for Medvedev, Zorkin may have tried to boost his pension by flattery – using an expression from Putin’s speech sounds like sophisticated, “intellectual” flattery. BTW, Putin has a legal degree.

      As for the substance of Zorkin’s piece, every Russian school kid is supposed to know that the peasant reform satisfied no one. By 1861, there was a consensus in Russia that serfdom was wrong on several levels but none on what was to be done. Zorkin’s PhD thesis was on Boris Chicherin, the prominent legal theorist of the 1860s-80s, so Zorkin’s an expert on that period, compared with the average Russian. It would have been great to hear Zorkin defend serfdom before a Soviet PhD board.

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