When I first arrived in Russia, knowing approximately three words of the language of Yury Gagarin, I used to wander round the city gazing at statues of people I failed to recognize or had simply never heard of. It felt good to make up identities for these Soviet heroes.
‘This,’ I would imagine, when confronted with an unknown revolutionary figure, “is the man who brought fishcakes to Russia.” Or, staring at some heroic, barrel-chested communist: “This was the man responsible for the Soviet Union’s first dirty joke.”
I would do the same with Cyrillic language signs that I was unable to decode. Which was most of them at that point. Faced with a billboard for some product or another, instead of the obvious breathless appeals for me to buy juice, sour cream or dried squid (a very popular snack here), I would dream up magical phrases in their place.
“Aliens due to land on Red Square at 3pm tomorrow. All invited!” “Ignore all politicians – they are without exception liars and murderers!” “Don’t leave your limbs at home – you may need them later in the day!”
I enjoyed it anyway. It passed the time and made me feel like I could impose my own (non)sense on the then alien nature of life around me.
Of course, such inaccuracy, deliberate or otherwise, isn’t always good. In the Soviet Union, for example, typos could have horrific consequences, like being shot dead or made to spend the next decade or so digging for heavy metals in freezing temperatures with only the shin bones of your fallen comrades for tools.
Something the editor of a Soviet-era paper in Dagestan (some reports say Voronezh) discovered after an edition went out featuring the worst misprint possible in those times. In place of “Stalin,” Uncle Joe was now … “Sralin.”
Granted, for non-Russian speakers the misprint seems innocuous enough. Typos happen, after all. But for a Russian speaker, which, despite his Georgian roots, Stalin most certainly was, it’s harder to imagine a more unfortunate error.
“Srat" is Russian for “to “sh*t.” “To take a dump.” And so on.
So the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was now ruled by…The Great Leader Sh*talin.
The editor was shot out of hand by the way. At least that’s how the story goes. No copies of the paper remain, and the Soviets didn’t exactly publicize the case. After all, who knows, the nickname might have caught on.
Lenin was also the subject of a famous Soviet typo, although the image it conjured up was more bizarre than offensive. In 1947, readers of the Young Collective Farmer magazine were stunned to discover that the late father of the October Revolution had “given birth to kittens (or baby rabbits, squirrels, lambs - the verb in question is ambiguous)” in the forests of Bryansk in the 1920s.” (He’d actually been hunting - okhotilsya, not okotilsya.)
Let’s stick with the Stalin-era. And turn our attention to the sad case of Osip Mandelstam, a man who made a colossal judgment of error that also cost him his life. And this was no typo. No, it was deliberate. A 1933 poem about Stalin (Sh*talin?) that has sometimes been called a “sixteen-line suicide note.”
“His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,
His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boot tops gleam…”
…read the best four lines. Or the craziest, depending on how you view things.
Of course, Mandelstam wasn’t entirely suicidal and he never wrote his masterpiece down. But, displaying a fatal level of trust in his friends and acquaintances, he recited it to a few of them. Some of them made copies. And at least one of those copies, or its contents at the very least, made its way to the secret police. Mandelstam was called in for questioning.
Six months later, he was arrested. Miraculously, he avoided a death sentence and was instead subjected to internal exile. But the end would not be long. Despite attempting to save his neck by penning such pieces of nonsense as An Ode to Stalin (With Stalin’s eyes a mountain is pushed apart), allegations of anti-Soviet sentiments began to mount against the poet and he was eventually packed off to a Gulag in the Far East, where he died in 1938.
You can read all about in his wife Nadezhda’s excellent memoirs, published in English as Hope against Hope.
It’s a tragic story, to be sure. But don’t let it put you off errors and misconceptions. Like any weapons, you just have to use them properly.
In the right hands they are deadly.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, BBC Russia, New Statesman and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.