In response to:

Tea with Plums from the April 28, 1977 issue

To the Editors:

Like Professor Harkins (NYR, April 28), I have so far failed to locate in Alexandre Dumas’s works his famous proverbial phrase about razvesistaya klyukva. Nor have I ever heard or seen it quoted in French; it was always in Russian. In my case, my interest in investigating this matter was prompted by one special circumstance: there is a version according to which Dumas was referring to a “branchy cranberry” under which he had tea when a guest of my grandfather, Bernhard Struve, one of the sons of the famous astronomer (a fact which Dumas did not mention and which he probably ignored). My grandfather, then a young man of thirty-one or thirty-two, was the Governor of Astrakhan, at the estuary of the Volga, Dumas’s last stop in Russia proper, before he continued his journey to the Caucasus. However, in Dumas’s account in his Voyage de Russie, of his visits to the Governor’s house, there is no mention of any tea there: the only reference to a meal he partook of is to an “excellent dinner” prepared by the Governor’s French chef and attended by a dozen guests all of whom amazed Dumas by being not more than six weeks behind Paris as far as French literature, arts, and fashions were concerned.

In any case, even an ordinary cranberry—let alone a “branchy” one—would have been something of a miracle in Astrakhan, for it grows only in the marshes of Northern Russia. It would have been much more likely to occur in Dumas’s description of various places he visited on the Lake Ladoga. But it does not occur there, either. I must confess however, that, unlike apparently Professor Harkins, I have not read every line of Dumas’s Voyage; not to speak of all his novels. On the other hand, like Mr. Nicolas Nabokov, I feel somewhat reluctant to believe that razvesistaya klyukva could have been attributed to Dumas without any foundation whatsoever. Perhaps it should be looked for in some of Dumas’s private letters from Russia, or in some of the accounts of conversations with him.

Gleb Struve

Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literature

University of California


To the Editors:

Mr. Nicholas Nabokov’s review of the book In the Russian Style (NYR, March 3) struck me, from the beginning, as an evidence that he just simply likes very much to write, preferably at great length and regardless of the importance of matters considered. Hence, the reviewer’s boringly long digression on the history of the Russian expression Razvesistaya kliukva (“a branchy cranberry”), meaning blunders. After having emphasized that the book reviewed is full of such kliukvas, Mr. Nabokov wordily discusses, here and there, the subjects that are not included in the book, like a photograph of a wax figure, a story about an alleged invention of the peignoir in Moscow, Catherine II’s sexual adventures, and many minor points that Mr. Nabokov would like to see in the book.

After such critical observations, in the most authoritative tone, one would expect the reviewer himself quite irreproachable in dealing with substantial Russian topics. But it is not so. Thus, Mr. Nabokov wrongly describes the strel’tsy as a kind of body guard, while this was a general name for regimented servicemen armed with guns; the name originally meant “archers” and was not at all close to “sharpshooters”; some of their regiments were more like “semimilitary formations,” as said in the book, than like Oriental or Byzantine palace guard, as Mr. Nabokov puts it. Then he denies Empress Catherine I’s Lithuanian origin, saying she was a “‘Livonian camp follower,” while it is well known that she had come from a Polish-Lithuanian community and lived in Malbork, far enough from Livonia.

Much more than a large kliukva is Mr. Nabokov’s almost vulgar description of the Empress Catherine II as a “Germanic forerunner of Stalin” (sic!)—because her officers killed the dethroned Peter III, “using a golden tabatière to do so.” Another legend tells that this very snuff-box was used to kill the Emperor Paul, whose son and successor, Alexander I, knew of the conspiracy and, according to Mr. Nabokov’s criteria, should then also be called a “forerunner of Stalin” (as many other Russian and foreign monarchs in similar circumstances).

The reviewer shows an equally whimsical approach in his observations on pictures in the book. He criticizes, for instance, an illustration of the late-eighteenth-century Stroganov Palace on the grounds that it is accompanied by a 1836 quotation from Gogol’s description of Nevsky Prospect. However, this building did stay there in Gogol’s time (and still is there), being one of the outstanding features of this central street. Mr. Nabokov does not like a Peter I’s portrait reproduced in the book—just one engraved by a very prominent Russian artist and considered, by art historians, one of the best renderings of the Emperor.

Even some slightly inexact transliterations did not escape Mr. Nabokov’s nagging eye—except for his own little kliukva when he writes strel’tzy instead of strel’tsy. Using his own words, “one could go on to show at even more boring length” many mistakes and misjudgments of the reviewer himself…

All this is not to say that the book reviewed is free from mistakes and laps but, being what it really pretends to be, that is, a first and brief introduction to Russian historical costume, it is certainly far from being so thoroughly bad as Mr. Nabokov tries to represent it. For such kind of prolific critical writings, there exists another good Russian expression—Lovit’blokh—“to chase the fleas,” meaning to waste time on criticizing trifles and trying to make them look important. This is the reason why it seems to me appropriate to conclude with an advice to publishers of book reviews, using the reviewer’s own words: “Beware of well-meaning but muddle-headed amateurs, however illustrious their names may be.”

L. Tarassuk

Department of Arms & Armor

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

New York City

Nicolas Nabokov replies:

Dr. Tarassuk’s letter requires, alas, too long a reply, if only because it is typed on the stationery of the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Arms and Armor. It seems therefore to represent the views not only of that Department, but of the Museum itself. Otherwise Dr. Tarassuk might have been expected to use his own private stationery.

He does not begin promisingly: surely he means “chasing fleas.” Nor is the term razvesistaya kliukva (a branchy cranberry tree) synonymous with “blunder” as Dr. Tarassuk asserts. It is something more and something different. However “boring” my introduction may have appeared to Dr. Tarassuk, it was necessary precisely for the purpose of making the term clear to foreign readers, so that they would not mix up kliukva with the non-ironic terms “blunder” or “boner.” Were I to say that I shook the hoof of a curatorial quadruped, I’d be inventing a kliukva. It is strange that a learned gentleman of Russian or Malorossian extraction does not grasp the subtle yet also clear and delicious difference between the two terms.

Transliteration is a constantly changing linguistic (and to some extent musical) process; its aim is to approach as closely as possible the equivalent phonetic sound of a transliterated word in a foreign tongue. Since the beginning of this century several systems and conventional rules have been developed and some of the rules have become universally accepted. For example, to render the guttural sounding “ы” (a “hard” i) which does not exist in English, it has been more or less conventional to use the English “y,” but only at the end of words. Two fairly simple rules have also gradually evolved, both of them simplifying in their effects: a) Do not use wrong vowels that may change the meaning of a transliterated word.1 b) Do not encumber transliteration with unnecessary consonances, a rule that may take many years to be accepted in general usage. It is only recently, for example, that Chaikovsky shed his French T. (Tchaikovsky) when transliterated into English.

In the case of strel’tsy or strel’tzy, both versions are plausible and have been widely used in English. I used both intentionally to suggest that within logical (and musical) boundaries there always remains a certain latitude for proper transliteration. I suppose that the “tsy” ending is phonetically closer to the English than the Germanic “tzy.” The latter comes from the sixteenth to seventeenth century transliteration into German and English of the name of those regiments of the permanent guard of Muscovy called the “Strelitzer.”

Now about the term itself. Dr. Tarassuk asserts that the strel’tsy were originally “archers” and therefore could not be sharp-shooters, as I had called them. But a sharp-shooter can be anyone who aims well, whether what is aimed is an arrow, stone, bullet, snowball, or spitball. Dr. Tarassuk approves of the statement in In the Russian Style that the strel’tsy were “semi-military” formations. Finally he says that they were not like Byzantine or Oriental palace guards, nor body guards. On all points he is contradicted by the relevant authorities:2

1) F.A. Brockhaus (Leipzig), I.A. Efron (St. Petersburg), Encyclopedic Dictionary, 1901, Vol. 62, p. 848.

Strel’tsy” = permanent armed forces [Voisko] of the Moscow state. The time of their appearance is not precisely known. Karamzin thought that they were first known as harquebusers [Pishchalniki]…. The Strel’tsy became an orderly institution under Ivan the Terrible [sixteenth century]…. The Strel’tsy were divided in three establishments: a) the grooms [Stremiannye], who represented the guard of the sovereign [Strasza Gossudaria], b) the Moscow Strel’tsy, c) the frontier Strel’tsy, or frontier guard…. The Streletsian service was a life service and an hereditary service…. The armament of the Strel’tsy were medium sized, but fairly heavy harquebuses.

2) Dictionary of the Contemporary Russian Language (Moscow, 1967), Vol. 14, p. 1027:

A Strel’ets in the Russian State of the sixteenth to seventeenth century was a serviceman of the permanent armed forces.

3) The Large Soviet Encyclopedia (Moscow, 1956), Vol. 41, p. 106:

The Strel’tsy were armed both with firearms [harquebuses] and muskets as well as with side arms called “cold arms” in Russian and including spears, lances, swords, sabres.

(See also Professor V. Kliuchevsky, Course in Russian History [St. Petersburg, 1918], part II, p. 271.)

4) Grigoriy Katoshikhin On Russia During the Reign of Alexei Mikhailovich, i.e., Peter I’s father (St. Petersburg, 1906), third edition by the Imperial Archeographic Commission. This important work by a member of Czar Alexei’s Foreign Service was first published in 1840.

In campaigns the Czar is surrounded by [among other members of the household] a hundred Strel’tsy of the grooms department [Stremiannye] on horses from the Czar’s stables. [Pp. 31-32]

…of all the establishment of the Strel’tsy, one is especially selected and called the Grooms establishment [Stremyannye] because they are always with the Czar and the Czaritsa in all campaigns for their protection…. [See also p. 91.]

5) The Travels of Olearius in Seventeenth Century Russia, translated and edited by Samuel H. Baron (Stanford University Press, 1967), pp. 207-208. (Adam Olearius’s account of the journeys of an embassy from the Duke of Holstein to Muscovy was first published in Schleswig in 1697.)

It happened that in July 6, 1648…His Czarist Majesty, with all his boyars, unaccustomed to such heavy hail on their backs, fled and hastened to the Czar at the Kremlin. Since the people wandering in the courtyard there received them in the same manner, they sprang from their horses and barely managed to get up the great stairway leading to his Czarist Majesty’s chamber, for the enraged people furiously pursued them. The Strel’tsy, who daily stood guard on the stairway, restrained the people long enough for the fugitive to escape into the Grand Prince’s chamber.

At no point do the sources I have cited indicate that the strel’tsy were archers. Their appearance coincides with the rise of Muscovy and the concomitant adoption of firearms. They were not “semi-military,” and indeed did resemble Byzantine palace guards; they clearly acted as bodyguards.

Catherine I: Once more, notwithstanding Dr. Tarassuk, Catherine I was a Livonian campfollower. In the eighteenth century, it was a habit among Balts to include Lithuania in the generic term of Livonia. Hence there are many historical and geographical errors in the texts of those years. She did marry a Lithuanian “neighbor” and spent some time in a place called Malbork (Maalborg in German), but later followed the Russian armies, shedding her husband in favor of Peter’s friend Menshikov. She finally married the fearsome seven-footer with whom she spoke pidgin German interlarded with pidgin Russian.

Catherine II: Not I but In the Russian Style published, for no evident reason (certainly not to illustrate costumes), several little ovals with reproductions of a selection of Catherine II’s lovers. The book also includes excerpts of an ardent letter about one of the lovers addressed to Baron Grimm. All I did is to correct the term “briefly” in the book’s account of Potiomkin’s love affair with Catherine II. That this love affair lasted two solid years is a commonplace of Russian history. (See, for example, part III of Kliuchevsky’s Course in Russian History.)

Of course Catherine II was a Germanic forerunner of Stalin. Consider, for example, the savage way with which she dealt with the prisoners after Pugachov’s rebellion had been crushed. In fact most of the Romanov czars and empresses were precisely in this odious sense forerunners of Stalin. (The exceptions were Elizabeth I, Alexander I, and, to some degree, Alexander II.)

Peter III was killed by one of the Orlovs with a golden snuff box. Paul I was strangled to death by Count Pahlen with a scarf. Both emperors were murdered with the tacit assent of their immediate successors.

I can assure Dr. Tarassuk that I did not invent or repeat legends in my review but stuck carefully to historical sources available to everybody.

The Straganov Palace still stands where it was built toward the end of the seventeenth century, i.e., at the corner of the Nevsky Prospect (or perspective) and one of the three waterways that cross that famous prospect. The engraving or lithograph in the book is poorly reproduced and has nothing to do with costumes in Russia. It shows a bridge across one of the three waterways that cross the Nevsky and a corner of the Straganov Palace. The Nevsky itself is omitted. And yet Gogol’s text deals exclusively with the Nevsky Prospect during the mid 1830s.

Peter I: The oval engraving of his portrait is poorly reproduced even if, as Dr. Tarassuk says, it is by “a very prominent Russian artist” (which one?). “It is considered by art historians to be one of the best renderings of the Emperor.” (Which historians?)

I suggested that instead of printing a poorly reproduced engraving of the eighteenth-century potentate, a book concerned with costumes should have chosen a picture of the fully dressed, life-size, admirably executed (in fact quite famous) wax figure of Peter I with a mask taken from the live model by the illustrious Italian artist Rastrelli the Elder. Clearly this figure is a far more poignant representation of the Romanov giant, with whom the ill-fated book starts and tries to deal, than the one that is published.

The rest of Dr. Tarassuk’s letter is du verbiage.

I have little to say in reply to Professor Gleb Struve’s amiable letter. He too admits that the term “razvesistaya kliukva” has been attributed to Père Dumas, though like Professor Harkins he could not find that term in Dumas’s works.

I agree with him when he suggests that the term could perhaps be found in “some of Dumas’ private letters from Russia, or in some of the accounts of conversations with him.” Here is a field for a striving young Slavicist, provided he obtains, as André Maurois successfully did, access to the private collections of Dumas’s letters in France.

This Issue

November 24, 1977