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Global Archive: Russia, Part 1

In our Global Archive series, we get to know the world a little better, one country (or territory) at a time. Today’s installment: Russia!

Looking at Russia | PolyArchive.com

So let’s start at the very beginning. Modern Russia has origins in about the 8th century CE. Vikings (called Varangians by the Greeks) came to rule over the people known as Slavs.

  • Is the word slav related to the word slave? Maybe. Some linguists think they have a shared origin in Latin. Slavic people were often enslaved in the 3rd through 8th centuries. It might also be derived from slovo, “word”–people who spoke the same language or “word” might have called each other Slavs, then other people heard them calling each other Slavs, and then decided that that was their name…

In 862, Rurik, a Varangian prince, came to rule over the area around Lake Ladoga, not too far from modern day St. Petersburg. He founded a new settlement at Novgorod. Rurik’s descendants would be the first dynasty of Russian rulers.

By the 9th century, the Varangians had assembled the Slavic tribes into a loose federation of city-states. At the time it was called “the land of the Rus'”–though linguists argue about what Rus’ means. Nowadays it is often called Kievan Rus’, because Kiev became the most powerful city after Novgorod.

Slavs were pagans and worshiped nature. There were at least 6 major gods representing things like thunder, the sun, and women’s work. In 988, the Grand Prince of Kiev, Vladimir, forcibly began converting people to Orthodox Christianity in order to strengthen his relationship with the Byzantine empire. The people did not totally want to give up some of their pagan traditions though, and for years priests complained about “dvoeverie” or having two faiths.

Learn about Russian history on PolyArchive.com
Kievan Rus’ around 1100 CE.

As Kievan Rus’ eventually began to decline, Mongols started invading. Kievan Rus’ fell in 1240 to the “Mongol Yoke.” The cities of Rus’ had to pay tribute to Mongol leaders. Finally, the princes of the city of Moscow got strong enough to fight back in the 1400s, and by 1480, Moscow rose as the new powerful, independent city. It conquered its neighboring areas.

As Kievan Rus’ eventually began to decline, Mongols started invading. Kievan Rus’ fell in 1240 to the “Mongol Yoke.” The cities of Rus’ had to pay tribute to Mongol leaders. Finally, the princes of the city of Moscow got strong enough to fight back in the 1400s, and by 1480, Moscow rose as the new powerful, independent city. It conquered its neighboring areas.

Learn about Russian history on PolyArchive.com
Moscovy by 1525.

In 1547, Ivan the Fourth, more famously known as Ivan the Terrible, took a new title: The Tsar of All the Russias.

  • Ivan’s name in Russian, Иван Грозный, does not mean “Ivan the Terrible”–it means “Ivan the Terrifying.” He was a scary guy!
Learn about Ivan the Terrible on PolyArchive.com
Tsar Ivan IV as depicted by Sergei Eisenstein in a 1944 biopic.

He conquered the far eastern territories of Kazan and Siberia, and Russia became a multicultural country.

The Romanov dynasty came to power in 1613. They strengthened Russia and kept expanding its borders. By the late 17th century, Russia had absorbed half of Ukraine.

In 1721, Peter I (the Great) named himself emperor. The Russian Empire was born. He built a new capital at St. Petersburg, and led a cultural revolution to modernize Russia. Catherine the Great continued these imperialist ways, and added enormous amounts of land to the empire through conquest and colonization.

Learn about Russia on PolyArchive.com
Russian Empire in 1866. Hey, there’s Alaska!

Eventually, the empire declined. When Russia entered World War I, the high costs of war and dissatisfaction with corruption led the people to unrest. Two revolutions took place in 1917–the first in February forcing Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate in favor of a Provisional Government and eventually the Russian Republic, and another in October seizing power for the Bolshevik party, led by Vladimir Lenin. By January 1918, the Soviet Union, the world’s first Soviet state, was born.

  • The official name was The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics– Союз Советских Социалистических Республик. Soviet refers to the elected council that governed each republic. It is the same word as совет– advice!
  • Here are the 15 republics that were part of the Soviet Union: Russian SFSR, Ukrainian SSR, Byelorussian SSR, Uzbek SSR, Kazakh SSR, Georgian SSR, Azerbaijan SSR, Lithuanian SSR, Moldavian SSR, Latvian SSR, Kirghiz SSR, Tajik SSR, Armenian SSR, Turkmen SSR, Estonian SSR (SSR means “Soviet Socialist Republic”)

In order to achieve the monumental goal of modernizing the vast territory of the former Russian empire, the Soviet Union had to be organized. It is no secret that these modernizations, such as the forced collectivization of farmlands, came at an appalling human cost. The Second World War took an enormous toll on the USSR as well; however, the rapid industrialization of the previous decades made for an effective wartime infrastructure.

I think I’ll leave discussion of the rest of the 20th century and beyond for another day, as this post is already getting quite long. To be continued!




Андрей Вознесенский | Первый лед || Andrei Voznesensky | First Frost

Андрей Вознесенский
Первый лед
Телефон-автомат советского образца
Телефон-автомат советского образца (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Мерзнет девочка в автомате,
Прячет в зябкое пальтецо
Все в слезах и губной помаде
Перемазанное лицо.

Дышит  в худенькие ладошки.
Пальцы—льдышки.   В ушах—сережки.

Ей обратно одной, одной
Вдоль по улочке ледяной,

Первый лед. Это в первый раз.
Первый лед телефонных фраз.

Мерзлый след на щеках блестит —
Первый лед от людских обид.



Andrei Voznesensky 
First Frost

A girl is freezing in a telephone booth,
huddled in her flimsy coat,
her face stained by tears
and smeared with lipstick.

She breathes on her thin little fingers.
Fingers like ice. Glass beads in her ears.

She has to beat her way back alone
down the icy street.

First frost. A beginning of losses,
the first frost of telephone phrases.

It is the start of winter glittering on her cheek,
the first frost of having been hurt. 

(This was one of the first Russian poems I ever read (in translation), and I'm fairly certain
 this is the very translation. I don't know who the translator is, though--please 
contact us if you know!)

Анна Ахматова | Меня, как реку… | Anna Akhmatova | This Cruel Age has Deflected Me…

Анна Ахматова

beaver dam Lama river, Russia, Moscow region
(Photo credit: Gnilenkov Aleksey)

                Меня, как реку,
Суровая эпоха повернула.
Мне подменили жизнь. В другое русло,
Мимо другого потекла она,
И я своих не знаю берегов.
О, как я много зрелищ пропустила,
И занавес вздымался без меня
И так же падал. Сколько я друзей
Своих ни разу в жизни не встречала,
И сколько очертаний городов
Из глаз моих могли бы вызвать слезы,
А я один на свете город знаю
И ощупью его во сне найду.
И сколько я стихов не написала,
И тайный хор их бродит вкруг меня
И, может быть, еще когда-нибудь
Меня задушит…
Мне ведомы начала и концы,
И жизнь после конца, и что-то,
О чем теперь не надо вспоминать.
И женщина какая-то мое
Единственное место заняла,
Мое законнейшее имя носит,
Оставивши мне кличку, из которой
Я сделала, пожалуй, все, что можно.
Я не в свою, увы, могилу лягу.
Но иногда весенний шалый ветер,
Иль сочетанье слов в случайной книге,
Или улыбка чья-то вдруг потянут
Меня в несостоявшуюся жизнь.
В таком году произошло бы то-то,
А в этом – это: ездить, видеть, думать,
И вспоминать, и в новую любовь
Входить, как в зеркало, с тупым сознаньем
Измены и еще вчера не бывшей
Но если бы оттуда посмотрела
Я на свою теперешнюю жизнь,
Узнала бы я зависть наконец…
1945. Ленинград


This cruel age has deflected me,
like a river from its course.
Strayed from its familiar shores,
my changeling life has flowed
into a sister channel.
How many spectacles I’ve missed:
the curtain rising without me ,
and falling too. How many friends
I never had the chance to meet.
Here in the only city I can claim,
where I could sleepwalk and not lose my way;
how many foreign skylines can I dream,
not to be witnessed though my tears.
And how many verses have I failed to write!
Their secret chorus stalks me
close behind. One day, perhaps,
they’ll strangle me.
I know beginnings, I know endings, too,
and, life-in-death, and something else
I’d rather not recall just now.
And a certain woman
has usurped my place
and bears my rightful name,
leaving a nickname for my use,
with which I’ve done the best I could.
The grave I go to will not be my own.
But if I could step outside myself
and contemplate the person that I am,
I should know at last what envy is.
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the infinite sky

There’s a Peanuts cartoon (wish I could find it), in which Charlie Brown says, “I’ve watched this movie 29 times, and Shane never comes back.”

I feel the exact same way about Prince Andrey Bolkonsky in War and Peace. Recently, I did a freelance project (a Cliff Notes type thing) for W&P, and so I read it for the fourth and most deliberate time (though not the most painful–that would be the time I had to do it in Russian). And I’ve watched some of the film adaptations–some of which are harder to get through than a 560,000 word novel.

And every time, I keep hoping that Andrey won’t die and leave everyone else to sink into mediocrity. But he always does, and they always do. When he dies, his transcendent vision of the infinite sky expires with him.

I may post some excerpts of my project here. It really is an amazing book, all hype aside.

In looking for images for this post, I found the various interpretations of Andrey to be fascinating:

First, an illustration by Valentin Serov:

Valentin Serov - War and Peace's Prince Andrei Bolkonsky

Then, Mel Ferrer, 1956 USA version:

That is a terrible, terrible blond toupee.

Daniel Massey, 1963 UK version:

I can’t find a bigger photo, or any footage of this…

Vyacheslav Tikhonov, 1965ish USSR version:

v.tikhonov bolkonskyGood casting. Bondarchuk almost redeems himself for casting that sweaty old guy (himself) to play Pierre. Oh wait, no, it doesn’t at all.

Oh hai Napoleon.

And then, my friends, we have Alan Dobie in the 1973 UK miniseries (with Sir Anthony Hopkins as Pierre):




Nathan Gunn, French opera production, 2000:nathangunn

Alessio Boni, 2007 miniseries by multiple European countries: alessio

James Norton, 2016 BBC adaptation:

“So insignificant at that moment seemed to him all the interests that engrossed Napoleon, so mean did his hero himself with his paltry vanity and joy in victory appear, compared to the lofty, equitable, and kindly sky which he had seen and understood, that he could not answer him.

“Everything seemed so futile and insignificant in comparison with the stern and solemn train of thought that weakness from loss of blood, suffering, and the nearness of death aroused in him. Looking into Napoleon’s eyes Prince Andrew thought of the insignificance of greatness, the unimportance of life which no one could understand, and the still greater unimportance of death, the meaning of which no one alive could understand or explain.”

–Lev Tolstoy, War and Peace

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Russia archive

Infographic ranking the difficulty of different languages for English-speakers – 22 Words

Infographic ranking the difficulty of different languages for English-speakers – 22 Words.

Translator’s Notes to “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino, excerpts of which I translated into Russian.

Italo Calvino Luigi Silori
Italo Calvino, Luigi Silori (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


(This was a class project, but I thought I’d share.)

Translator’s notes

It is often said that every translation is an interpretation.What is more, I often find that attempting translation leads me to better interpretation, and vice versa. The mind, when not in translation mode, has a tendency to skim over less-understood words, phrases, and concepts, or to fill in the blanks with its own biases. When translating, however, you must face directly what you do not understand, and painstakingly confront it. You go to dictionaries, encyclopedias, native speakers of the language, even, if they exist, other peoples’ translations.

Therefore, as I considered what to do for an “Alternate Journeys” project, I knew that I would best be served by a translation project. (Not to mention that it has been many years since I have practiced other creative arts.) Since Russian is my second language, and really the only one into which that I am fluent enough to translate, I knew that I was limited in what course materials might make good candidates for translation. Shakespeare is widely translated already in Russian (most of which with only moderate success), and I would guess that the same reasons that make the Bard difficult to translate (how far do you go in reproducing 16th- or 17th-century language?) would present difficulty in translating other older texts we read during this course.

I was already enjoying Invisible Cities, and, in fact, already considering it a candidate for translation, when I read the following passage:

The atlas depicts cities which neither Marco nor the geographers know exist or where they are, though they cannot be missing among the forms of possible cities: a Cuzco on a radial and multipartite plan which reflects the perfect order of its trade, a verdant Mexico on the lake dominated by Montezuma’s palace, a Novgorod with bulb-shaped domes, a Lhasa whose white roofs rise over the cloudy roof of the world. For these, too, Marco says a name, no matter which, and suggests a route to reach them. It is known that names of places change as many times as there are foreign languages; and that every place can be reached from other places, by the most various roads and routes, by those who ride, or drive, or row, or fly.

Suddenly it clicked. A Novgorod. In all the course materials, as closely as the travels and transformations have skirted the Russian empire (the actual Silk Road, of course, ran through Central Asian territory which Russia always sought to control), Russia has always been left out of the exchanges. Although participating in a world culture from earliest times, drawing culture from Byzantium and government from the Vikings, then inspiration from the Western European Enlightenment, then competition from the capitalist rivals of the 20th century, Russia has always been somewhat isolated. This is probably as practical (the country is vast and difficult to travel) as it is ideological: from Orthodoxy to Communism, there has always been a line drawn in the intellectual sand. Here, though, Calvino is reaching out to the far-flung cities of the world, and he includes Novgorod, one of the most ancient Slavic cities and the first capital of the people of Rus. Cuzco and Novgorod might be left out of Marco Polo’s itinerary, but intellectually they exist as equals with the myriad other cities mentioned in Calvino’s book.

Once I had selected the last section of the book to translate, I set about my task. The florid language with its many descriptive clauses at once presented a challenge. While Calvino’s vocabulary itself is fairly straightforward–I did have to find out the Russian words for things like stevedores and ocean beds, etc.–the way the sentences are arranged can create a fair amount of confusion if one translates them word for word and comma for comma. Since Russian generally requires more commas than English anyway, I decided that although I would try to preserve the language fairly literally, I would take some license with punctuation and in some cases put periods where the original text had used commas. There were a few times when I preserved a simile very literally because although it sounded a little strange in Russian, it was rather unusual in English as well: the city of York’s “bristling with towers” is one such instance.

There are always times in translation where one is able to place something known for another reason into the whole. Sometimes this means placing the familiar into a new context. For instance, the unhappy city of Raissa is an ironic homonym for the Russian female name Раиса, which is based on the pan-Slavic word for paradise, рай (rai or raj). Yet with every translation, I learn many new things about the Russian language. In this case, I learned many proper names, particularly the not-quite-intuitive Russian name for Kubla Khan, Khubilai. I also verified from a friend that one can speak of an atlas (the book, not the god) without having to specify that it is a “geograficheskii” atlas. The word “atlas” (referring to both the book and the god) is a cognate, by the way.

Every translation is an interpretation, it is true; yet every translation is also a new creation. There were certain phrases which, from an auditory standpoint, I think came out much more beautifully in Russian than they did in English. I do not speak Italian so I cannot comment on how Russian compares to the original original language of the text. Though I do have a friend who speaks both Russian and Italian, who tells me that the two languages have quite a few points of juncture which English does not share. I suspect that Russian, with its heavy borrowings from another Romance language, French, shares some cognates with Italian, particularly when it comes to the consumer goods that Russia was always hungry to import from Europe. Perhaps that is why a lackluster phrase in the English translation, such as “crowded with multitudes in clothing never seen before, all in eggplant-colored barracans, for example, or with turkey feathers on their turbans…” becomes poetry in Russian. In transliteration, the line goes, “prepolnennaya mnozhestvami v odezhde nikogda vidimoi prezhde, vsey v tsvetnom baklazhanom barakanye, naprimer, ili c peryami indeiki na ikh turbanakh…” There is a great deal of alliteration and assonance in this particular story in particular, the story of the city Laudomia. The poetic aspect of the translation convinces me that this alternate journey connecting Venice to Novgorod was ultimately a success.


Александр Пушкин~~Узник

Александр Пушкин
Сижу за решёткой в темнице сырой.
Вскормлённый в неволе орел молодой,
Мой грустный товарищ, махая крылом,
Кровавую пищу клюёт под окном,

Клюёт, и бросает, и смотрит в окно,
Как будто со мною задумал одно.
Зовёт меня взглядом и криком своим
И вымолвить хочет: “Давай улетим!

Мы вольные птицы; пора, брат, пора!
Туда, где за тучей белеет гора,
Туда, где синеют морские края,
Туда, где гуляем лишь ветер… да я!..”


The Captive (translation mine, based on several extant translations)

I sit behind bars in a damp dungeon.
A young eagle raised in captivity,
My sad comrade, lifting his wings,
Pecks at bloody food under the window,

Pecks, and stops, and looks out the window,
As though he and I conceived the same thought.
He summons me with a look and a cry
And wants to declare: “Let’s depart!

We are free birds; it is time, brother, time!
To there, where beyond the clouds the mountain grows white,
To there, where sea shores become blue,
To there, where wanders only the wind… And I!.. ”

Anna Akhmatova–Лотова жена/Lot’s Wife

Lot's Wife on the Dead Sea Shore
Lot’s Wife on the Dead Sea Shore (Photo credit: Ian W Scott)

Лотова жена/Lot’s Wife
Жена же Лотова оглянула
позади его и стала соляным столпом.
Книга Бытия

И праведник шел за посланником бога,
Огромный и светлый, по черной горе.
Но громко жене говорила тревога:
Не поздно, ты можешь еще посмотреть
На красные башни родного Содома,
На площадь, где пела, на двор, где пряла,
На окна пустые высокого дома,
Где милому мужу детей родила.

Взглянула – и, скованы смертною болью,
Глаза ее больше смотреть не могли;
И сделалось тело прозрачною солью,
И быстрые ноги к земле приросли.

Кто женщину эту оплакивать будет?
Не меньшей ли мнится она из утрат?
Лишь сердце мое никогда не забудет
Отдавшую жизнь за единственный взгляд.

24 февраля 1924

But his wife looked back from behind him,
and she became a pillar of salt.

The righteous man followed God’s messenger,
Enormous and bright, across the black hill.
But the voice of distress spoke loud to his wife:
“It’s not too late, you can still look back
At the red parapets of your native Sodom,
At the square where you sang, the yard where you spun,
At the vacant windows of that tall house
Where you bore children to your dear husband.”

She looked back and bound in deadly pain,
Her eyes were no longer able to see;
Her body turned to transparent salt,
Her nimble legs grew into the ground.

Who will lament this woman’s fate?
Does she not seem the least of things lost?
My heart alone will never forget her,
Who forfeited life for a single glance.

24 February 1924

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Sunset on
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Вот бреду я вдоль большой дороги
В тихом свете гаснущего дня,
Тяжело мне, замирают ноги…
Друг мой милый, видишь ли меня?

Все темней, темнее над землею –
Улетел последний отблеск дня…
Вот тот мир, где жили мы с тобою,
Ангел мой, ты видишь ли меня?

Завтра день молитвы и печали,
Завтра память рокового дня…
Ангел мой, где б души ни витали,
Ангел мой, ты видишь ли меня?

3 августа 1865



Here I go along the highway
In the silent light of dying day,
Heavy to me, legs become transfixed…
My sweet friend, do you see me?

It is dark, darker over all the earth.
Day’s last glimmer flying off…
Here is the world where I lived with you.
My angel, do you see me?

Tomorrow is a day of prayer and grief.
Tomorrow a memory of that fateful day.
My angel, wherever souls wander,
My angel, do you see me?

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