Speaking in The Language Of Shvonder
- By Michele A. Berdy
- Mar. 21 2008 00:00
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Setting: a Moscow apartment. Characters: Expat (E) and Russian Significant Other (SO).
Scene opens with E lying on couch, sipping beer while SO organizes scattered piles of DVDs.
E: Сначала снесём стену между кухней и гостиной. А потом построим стеллажи в прихожей. (First we’ll take down the wall between the kitchen and the living room. Then we’ll build open shelves in the entryway.)
SO: Хватит заниматься маниловщиной! Лучше помоги мне убраться! (Quit your Manilovshchina! Instead, help me clean up!)
E (confused but recognizing dangerous tone): Больше не буду! (I won’t do it anymore!) А … что такое маниловщина? (But … what’s Manilovshchina?)
Good question. Manilov is a character in Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls.” He is a landowner who fantasizes about home improvements he might carry out … but never does. In Russian, when you call someone a Манилов or accuse him of маниловщина (acting like Manilov), you are saying that he is a dreamer.
In Russian, names of real people or literary characters that stand for particular characteristics are kinds of имена нарицательные (common nouns). In English, we’d say that a name was synonymous with something, the way Benedict Arnold is synonymous with being a traitor in the United States.
Contemporary Russian speech is filled with dozens, if not hundreds, of references to these characteristic characters from literature and life. You can hear them cited from political podiums and around the dinner table.
Many come from works by Ilf and Petrov. For example, Эллочка-Людоедка (Ellochka the Cannibal) from “The Twelve Chairs,” who легко и свободно обходилась тридцатью [словами] (managed to converse easily and fluently using just 30 words). When someone has primitive and jargon-filled speech, you can say: В отделе появилась новая сотрудница — типичная Эллочка-Людоедка! Слушать её невозможно! (We have a new employee in our division — a typical Ellochka-the-Cannibal. I can’t stand listening to her!)
When you come across crooks who use fraudulent identities to commit crimes, you can call them Дети (or Сыновья) лейтенанта Шмидта (Children or Sons of Lieutenant Schmidt), from Ilf and Petrov’s “The Golden Calf.” These were swindlers who passed themselves off as the children of a famous revolutionary hero for personal gain. Он одолжил большую сумму денег под честное слово, выдав себя за сына олигарха. А потом исчез — прямо сын лейтенанта Шмидта! (He borrowed a large sum of money on just his word, passing himself off as the son of an oligarch. And then he disappeared — just like the son of Lieutenant Schmidt!)
Mikhail Bulgakov’s “A Dog’s Heart” has given us Шариков, the mutt that was turned into a man without human morals. Today, a Sharikov is a crude and pushy boor. In the same work, another character, Швондер, is a low-class bounder who becomes the apartment management head and acts like he is master of the universe. Today, a Shvonder is any crude, hot-shot bureaucrat. Anatoly Sobchak, the late St. Petersburg mayor, once said: Я прекрасно понимаю, каким количеством швондеров и шариковых я окружён. (I realize perfectly well how many Shvonders and Sharikovs surround me.)
Ivan Goncharov’s literary hero, Обломов, lay on his couch all day, enjoying pleasant reveries and fantasies. If you are called an Oblomov, or accused of обломовщина, it means you are a lazy and apathetic idler. Apparently, Обломов is also what Russians call говорящее имя (an expressive name, one that suggests the person’s characteristics). In the dialect used near Oblomov’s estate, облом is a clumsy and slow-moving person.
The great joy of these characters for Expats is that you can try to justify your bad behavior as part of your assimilation process. So when your Significant Other accuses you of маниловщина, you can say: Ну и что! Хорошая русская традиция! (So what? It’s a fine Russian tradition!)
Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based interpreter and translator.