In response to:
Cranberry Sauce from the November 24, 1977 issue
To the Editors:
Thank you very much for two copies of your review (NYR, November 24, 1977) with the Cranberry Sauce, so tasty, amusing, and informative thanks to Mr. Nicolas Nabokov’s new article. Let me comment very briefly his detailed discourses.
- After my letter, Razvesistaya kliukva became for Mr. Nabokov something different from a kind of blunder while in his own review (March 3, 1977) the writer had used the same word to describe kliukva. If Mr. Nabokov cannot accept anything said by an opponent, why at least not to look up at an impartial dictionary and find that blunder is defined as a gross error through carelessness, ignorance or stupidity, i.e., exact ground to produce a kliukva?
- Strel’tsy. Would it not be much simpler to acknowledge this is a correct English spelling of the Russian word CTPep2yp9%$$$p9% | than to discuss its archaic German transliteration used by Mr. Nabokov NYR, March 3)? On the term itself Mr. Nabokov says: “Dr. Tarassuk asserts that the strel’tsy were originally ‘archers’ and therefore could not be sharpshooters.” How curiously Mr. Nabokov “transliterates” my words can be seen from what I actually wrote: “the name originally meant ‘archers’ and was not at all close to ‘sharpshooters”‘ (NYR, November 24). I am still ready to assert this for the root of the word discussed is strela—“arrow,” same as in “strelyat“—“to shoot with arrows” and in samostrel—“crossbow.” At the age of firearms, the meaning of strelyat and strel’tsy extended to cover, respectively, actions with the new weapons and warriors who handled them. I am sure Mr. Nabokov well knows all this as any “learned gentleman of Russian or Malorossian extraction,” to use his gracious description of myself. Thus, at no time the literal translation of strel’tsy would be close to “sharpshooters,” a modern term meaning highly skilled marksmen. The guns of strel’tsy somewhat resembled military-type arquebuses (bad enough for marksmanship), so, if at all necessary, the strel’tsy should be translated as “arquebusiers.”
Mr. Nabokov gives a series of quotations to discredit what he endeavors to represent as my statements, namely, that strel’tsy were semi-military formations and were not like Byzantine palace guards, nor body guards. But all I actually said on the subject was that some of their regiments were more like semi-military formations than Byzantine or Oriental palace guards (NYR, November 24, p. 58). It is strange that such an assiduous researcher as Mr. Nabokov did not see a difference there. Digging furthur into his literature, he would have found that in time of peace strel’tsy in many units enjoyed full family life in their own homes and were daily engaged in various trades and commerce. Was it not like a semi-military status? A special detachment of strel’tsy did serve as the tsar’s body guard but none of Mr. Nabokov’s selected sources assimilated this unit with Byzantine palace guard.
- Catherine I. I wonder in which adventure stories Mr. Nabokov took his picturesque data on this “Livonian camp follower.” Martha Skavronska was born and lived in and near Malbork (Poland) where she was taken prisoner by Field Marshal B. Sheremetev who sold her to another Russian commander Prince A. Menshikov. And if some Balts in the 18th century erratically included. Lithuania (in union with Poland then) into Livonia, as Mr. Nabokov says, why to repeat this mistake now?
Catherine II, in Mr. Nabokov’s admirable expression, “of course…was a Germanic forerunner of Stalin.” Evidently not satisfied with this original idea, the writer now extends the comparison of the soviet monster to the rest of the Romanovs, kindly exempting from it only Elisabeth, Alexander I and “to some degree” Alexander II. Really, “the ears wilt,” and I would not be too surprised now if Mr. Nabokov, exercising in furthur historic parallels, compares, say, Stalin’s hangman Beria to Catherine II’s military chief A. Suvorov who finally crushed the Pugachov Rebellion and escorted its caged leader to Moscow.
A well-known portrait of Peter I was engraved by E. Chemessov (as indicated in the book reviewed by Mr. Nabokov); under this name references to the appropriate literature can easily be found in any major art dictionary.
To save the time of everybody concerned, including Mr. Nabokov’s, I omit less relevant points in both his review and his letter, like a connection between the Stroganov Palace and Russian costume, or how to translate or transliterate Russian names in English, etc. For the same reason I am writing now on no particular stationery: as Mr. Nabokov pointed out, this detail has direct influence on the length of his answers. But I would not like to end up on this note without saying that in no way I have intended to personally offend Mr. Nabokov, and I will feel really sorry if he has taken my remarks otherwise.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York City
Nicolas Nabokov replies:
My reply to this second letter of the Met’s Docteur Armurier will be as brief as possible and it will be my last.
- Kliukva. Of course the word kliukva, as allegedly used by the exuberant Dumas Père, means a blunder and a boner; it is also something more and—proverbially—much more amusing. It is precisely this something more that I tried to explain to the English speaking reader.
Strel’tsy, or as I called them the “sharpshooter regiments of the Muscovite army of the seventeenth century.” Now really, dear Dr. T., What is the fuss about? There is no need to explain to a Russian-born person that strelyat‘—to shoot—comes from strela‘—arrow. Yet had Dr. T. consulted an etymological dictionary of the Russian language1 he would have discovered that the noun strela‘—arrow—and its correlative verb strelet‘—to shoot—(in its seventeenth-century spelling) are both of South Slavonic origin; only at a fairly late date did they enter the Muscovite or Central Russian patois, out of which grew, two centuries later, the beautiful melange called the Russian language.
By the time this noun and verb appeared in Muscovite Russian, the verb had already acquired its cumulative or generalized meaning. In other words it was not limited any more to the use of bow-and-arrow, but to anythingone could shoot with—cannon, harquebus, musket, pebble, dart. Add an “s” to the seventeenth-century spelling of the verb strelet‘—to shoot—and one gets strelets, i.e., a member of that section of the Muscovite army we’re talking about.
Now—and I hope this is self-evident, even to Dr. T.—the men chosen for service in that particular branch of the Muscovite army were obviously trained in the use of the still fairly primitive firearms of the period—in other words they were taught how to aim properly and hit the target. Indeed there is historical evidence that the training was long and arduous, and that by the time they joined the streletsyan regiments they were in fact pretty good “shooters.” So why the fuss about my translation of strel’tsy as “sharpshooters”?
To call the strel’tsy arquebusiers—or in proper English, harquebusers—as Dr. T. now proposes (having fortunately abandoned archers) would be an historical blunder, as an expert in arms and armor should realize. By the time of the streletsyan riots in Moscow (at the end of the seventeenth century) most of them had turned from cumbersome harquebuses,2 with their supporting tripods, to muskets. When Peter I put down the second streletsyan riot by hacking off several thousand heads (some of them manu proprio) and stringing the headless bodies along the Kremlin walls, the streletsyan firearms were regular muskets imported from Western Europe.
Yes, Dr. T., the streletsyan regiments of the Moscow guard (the actual city police force of the time) lived with their families and, being grossly underpaid by the crown, took up other work. But the streletsyan regiments of the Moscow guard were less than one third of the whole streletsyan establishment. The strel’tsy of the Czar’s guard and the Frontier guard—to which I was referring—were fully employed and housed by the crown.
Peter’s medallion. However famous E. Chemessov may have been as an engraver and however close the likeness of the portrait, Dr. T. misses the point. Since the book is about costumes, the authentic representation of the fully dressed imperial monster by Rastrelli—a much more famous artist than Chemessov—would have been more appropriate to the theme of the book than Chemessov’s useless and ill-reproduced medallion.
Catherine I. No, Dr. T., not only “Balts” but respectable Russian historians mention the fact that Lithuania was often referred to as part of Livonia in the eighteenth century. Catherine I, moreover, spoke pidgin German with her successive lovers including the final one, her husband Peter I.
The rest of Dr. T.’s epistle is pettifoggery, but I am surprised that a scholarly person, who should be conversant with the findings of modern Russian history (from Kliuchevsky onward to Crankshaw), would defend the wholly discredited Romanov dynasty, which inflicted such continuous harm on Russian culture. (There was, by the way, no Russian blood in any of them, at least since Alexander I.) Incidentally, when I called Catherine II Stalin’s predecessor I did not have in mind the ugly fact that her famous field marshal, Suvórov, paraded Pugachov in a cage after crushing his two year long rebellion in 1775. I thought rather of the massmurder—without trial, of course—of those of Pugachov’s followers who were taken prisoner by Suvórov and his colleagues. Within a few weeks some thirty to forty thousand Russian peasants were executed on special orders from Voltaire’s correspondent and Diderot’s pension payer—Catherine II. One can only grant Dr. T. the obvious: the recent Georgian despot was far more thorough than the infamous Teutonic Madam.
March 23, 1978
By far the best is by Max Vasmer printed in German, and in Germany in 1953. It was reprinted a few years ago in an enlarged Russian version by the Soviet State publishing house. ↩
The harquebus was called pishtchal‘ in Russian. It evokes onomatopoeically the verb pishtchat‘ to squel, squeak, or peep. I wonder whether this was only a coincidence or did that firearm, when used, emit a kind of wheezing sound? Old Russian is full of such onomatopoeic incidences cocasses. ↩