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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

BOOKWORM: An End to All Those Shameful Lacunas




Foreign names have always been a subject of confusion in Russia.


At an aristocratic party in St. Petersburg in the early 19th century, the Countess Bezobrazova overheard someone mention an interesting new Scottish writer by the name of Walter Scott.


"I must object," she butted in. "I wholeheartedly agree that Monsieur Voltaire's fiction is not of the highest quality, to say nothing about him as a philosopher, but to call him a brute is surely excessive." Skot, I should explain, is Russian for 'cattle,' 'brute' or 'boor.'


To avoid similar confusion by Russians when writing or referring to names popular in Western civilization but meaningless to the Russian ear (such as Beau Brummell or Twiggy), the Moscow publishing house Russki Yazyk has released a second edition of "Anglo-Russky slovar personalii," or "The English-Russian Who's Who In Fact and Fiction."


The book contains about 5,000 entries with the names of historical and literary characters, accompanied by necessary explanations in Russian and examples of usage.


At 40 rubles to 50 rubles, it sells in paperback at the larger Moscow bookstores.


Reference books are all the rage in the Russian market at the moment, and film director Nikita Mikhalkov has also jumped on the bandwagon. A commentary on the historical context of "The Barber of Siberia" was released to coincide with the premiere of the multimillion dollar epic. The publication of "Rossiisky istoriko-bytovoi slovar," or "Russian Dictionary of History and Manners," was financed by Mikhalkov's studio Tri T so that movie-goers could better understand the everyday realities of Russian life 100 years ago and not just admire Nikita's whiskers. The book is the result of decades of research by Professor Leonid Belovinsky.


As a collection of 4,000 words and notions dating from the 18th to the early 20th century that have fallen out of common usage, it reads as a colorful description of a long-forgotten civilization, like a journey to the lost Atlantis.


It is also a must for any student of Russian history. I do not consider myself a slouch in these matters, but I would be hard-pressed to explain half of the entries.


It starts with "a la furshet," a light lunch of cold dishes, ready on the table before the meal and to be consumed while standing.


On the same first page a reader will find "abshid," a letter of resignation, and "abrek," a fearless and intrepid male from the Caucasus, who renounces personal pleasures, affections and affiliations to fight the enemy.


The last entries are no less obscure. A "yatagan," it turns out, is a long Turkish sword with a double-curved blade, while a "yakhont" is the obsolete name for a ruby or a sapphire.


The illustrated hardcover dictionary sells at 65 to 75 rubles.