The Perjured Saint

Cold Friday

by Whittaker Chambers
Random House, 327 pp., $5.95

This collection of posthumous fragments—notes, letters, articles—is of little importance in itself. The main themes—Communism, God, Whittaker Chambers—have already been thoroughly ruminated in the copious pages of Witness, and Cold Friday offers us no new revelations of any great importance about any of them. What the book does, however, is to raise again the interesting question of the liar as saint: the question of why this veteran liar should have become a saint in the eyes of so many intelligent people who dislike lies, or say they do. That is the question I propose to discuss.

In a piece of Cold Friday called “The Third Rome,” Chambers, who loved to educate his readers, especially about Russia, imparts some information about the Russian feeling for Constantinople:

On that strange horizon, the Russian eye sees, flaring in imagination, the domes and minarets of the Second Rome—Byzantium (Constantinope, now Istanbul), by which Christendom and culture reached the steppes. It is a legendary vision, and the Russian does not call it Byzantium. He has his own special word for it: Tsargrad—the Imperial City, city of the Tsar (Tsar, the Russian form of Caesar). The depth of the special Russian feeling for Byzantium is perhaps suggested by the fact that Tsargrad alone, or almost alone, among the names of foreign cities is declined through all nine of the inflections of the Russian noun; is treated as a Russian word.

One can imagine the confrontation before the House Committee:

Mr. Nixon: Mr. Chambers, do you know the Russian noun?

Mr. Chambers: I do.

Mr. Nixon: How many inflections does it have?

Mr. Chambers: Nine.

Mr. Mundt: Thank you, Mr. Chambers, for that frank testimony, very different from some of the witnesses we have had here today.

Mr. Nixon: Mr. Noun, does Mr. Chambers know you?

Russian Noun: It depends what mean by “know.”

Mr. Nixon: That’s not a very sattory answer. How many inflection you have?

Russian Noun: Six—you could call it seven if you include the archaic vocative

Mr. Stripling: Make up your mind. is it? Six or Seven?

Russian Noun: It depends whether count the vocative. You see…

Mr. Mundt: We’re wasting our I’ve had enough of these evasions. you a relative called Tsargrad?

Russian Noun: Yes—as a matter of he’s considered rather unusual in our family—he’s declined fully in both components. Rather jolly, really.

Mr. Nixon: You say Mr. Chambers doesn’t know you. Yet he has already—quite spontaneously—testified to this Committee about this little detail, which could hardly be known to someone not on intimate terms with your family. How do you account for that, Mr. Noun?

Russian Noun: Well, you see, I didn’t exactly say he didn’t know me. We have met on a couple of occasions…

Mr. Mundi: Now we’re beginning to get somewhere. Can you still not remember how many inflections you have?

The Committee would undoubtedly have concluded that …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.
Letters

Russian Grammar January 28, 1965