Category Archives: history



My apartment building (on the left), photographed in the sunny days of late August.

Although some of you have seen some of my Moscow pictures on Facebook, I’ve been remiss in posting here, so I’ll start with a simple post about my neighborhood. I live in Northern Chertanovo (Чертаново Северное), in the southern part of Moscow, about eight or nine miles south of Red Square (forty minutes by metro).

Chertanovo used to be a small village with an apple orchard, centered far from my apartment; apparently some of the apple trees can still be seen near the district council building (I still need to investigate). In the Second World War, it was the site of a training airfield. Finally, in 1960 it was incorporated into Moscow, and soon after many of the tall apartment buildings were built.

The story will be familiar to those who have seen the Soviet movie The Irony of Fate. After the initial animated sequence depicting marching rows of identical Soviet apartments taking over the world, the narrator gives a brief history:

Подмосковные деревни: Тропарево, Чертаново, Медведково, Беляево-Богородское, и, конечно же, Черемушки — не подозревали о том, что обретают бессмертие в те грустные для них дни, когда их навсегда сметали с лица земли. Деревня Черемушки дала свое имя московским новостройкам, которые расположились на юго-западе нашей столицы. Теперь чуть ли не в любом советском городе есть свои Черемушки. В былые времена, когда человек попадал в какой-нибудь незнакомый город, он чувствовал себя одиноким и потерянным. Вокруг все было чужое: иные дома, иные улицы, иная жизнь. Зато теперь совсем другое дело. Человек попадает в любой незнакомый город, но чувствует себя в нем, как дома. До какой нелепости доходили наши предки! Они мучились над каждым архитектурным проектом. А теперь во всех городах возводят типовой кинотеатр «Ракета», где можно посмотреть типовой художественный фильм.

The villages outside of Moscow—Troparyovo, Chertanovo, Medvedkovo, Belyaevo-Bogorodskoe, and of course Cheryomushki—never suspected that they would gain immortality in those days, sad for them, when they were swept away forever from the face of the earth. The village of Cheryomushki gave its name to the new buildings located in the south-west of Moscow. Now, practically every Soviet city has its own Cheryomushki. In the old days, if a person ended up in some unfamiliar town, he would feel lonely and lost. Everything around him was strange: different homes, different streets, a different life. But now things have changed. A person can arrive in an unfamiliar city but feel quite at home. How foolish our ancestors were! They agonized over every new architectural project. Now, every town has built a typical “Rocket” movie theater, where you can see a typical feature film.

My nearest movie theater is actually called “Formula Kino,” but the basic idea is still largely true. These “спальные районы” (sleeping districts), with their blocks of apartment buildings, inner courtyards, and various shops clustered around transport stations, are similar enough that you could travel to any city across Russia and not find many obvious differences. The same would be true for many former Soviet republics, although the language of the signs would be a giveaway.

Of course, this architectural conformism is not unique to the former Soviet Union. Many suburban developments and strip malls in the United States are equally conformist. But to me as a foreigner, even one who has been to Russia two times before, the different type of conformism is still striking. Nevertheless, as I spend more time in Chertanovo, I continue discovering small differences and unusual points of interest, which I hope to write about more in future posts.


New Blogs for Old

I’m sure many of you have struggled with the great proliferation of blogs in recent years. Some are simply delightful ways of wasting your time; others may be useful professionally; but in every category there seem to be dozens of blogs worth following. Blog aggregators and RSS help somewhat, but I still have not found a perfect solution myself to share with you.

Instead, I’d like to add to your problems by suggesting some blogs that I have found interesting. Here are a few different categories, each with one blog that I have been following for a year or more and one that I have discovered in the past few weeks.


Old: Tenured Radical

I learned about this first from my sister; I believe it is one of the better-known history blogs. The posts are consistently provocative, often dealing with politics, queer studies, or questions of equality in academia. In particular, several of the recent posts on teaching have been quite insightful. Another feature of this blog is the use of pseudonyms for various places and people (Zenith = Wesleyan, Oligarch = Yale, etc.)

New: Executed Today

This won “Best Writer” in the Cliopatra Awards, which prompted me to check it out. As it sounds, it features the description of one historical execution every day. Certainly not for the faint of heart, but it’s not always morbid either. The coverage of times and places is extraordinary, and the categories menu on the right allows you to group executions by method, century, or country, among other criteria. Selecting Russia, for instance, reveals ten more than seventy different executions, ranging from the 1689 burning of the German mystic Kuhlmann to the 1957 execution of the Lithuanian partisan Ramanauskas-Vanagas. Also interesting are his thoughts on historical bias and the meaning of execution on his “about” page.


Old: Language Log

The most prominent linguistics blog, this is regularly updated and covers a wide variety of topics. Among the more prolific contributors are Mark Liberman and Ben Zimmer, who often post on language use in the media, Geoffrey Pullum, who comments on descriptive and prescriptive grammar, and Victor Mair, who writes about Chinese language and translation.

New: Christopher Culver’s Linguistics Weblog

I discovered this blog after reading an Amazon book review. Some entries are a little esoteric (one recent one begins with the disclaimer “This post might not interest readers who don’t know the Romanian translation of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom…”). But historians of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union should check out his posts on the Mari people and on Orthodoxy, while the general reader may enjoy his translations of verse and stories from Turkic and Finnic languages.


Old: A Hamburger Today

Not for vegetarians, this blog features reviews of a variety of hamburgers, ranging from the simple burger stand style to deluxe burgers with foie gras (or even French fast-food burgers with foie gras). My favorite posts are the recipes by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who devotes extraordinary effort to recreating burgers from various places (going so far as to have In-n-Out burgers shipped overnight from California).

New: The Red Cook

A blog about Chinese home cooking, written by a software engineer living in New York. He goes into good depth about ingredients and techniques, and like all good food blogs, his has excellent pictures. The title refers to the dish “red cooked pork”, which I am looking forward to trying soon.

I hope to find out what blogs all of you are frequenting!

P.S. I’ve debated whether to include blogs like these in my links list on the sidebar, so for now I’ve just included people I know. If I know you, let me know if you would like your blog to be added or taken off!


The Oxford English Dictionary recently redesigned its website. The design is in general much slicker, allowing the reader to more easily jump between entries, view timelines of word usage, and consult the Historical Thesaurus, a classification of words in the dictionary. The opening of the new site was accompanied by the usual quarterly update on recent revisions and additions.

I have long been a fan of the OED, appreciating both the quaintness of some of the original definitions that remain from the first edition (1884–1928) and the comprehensiveness of the ongoing revisions. The result is a sort of temporal heteroglossia,* the different styles competing for prominence, sometimes within a single entry.

The OED is also an archive of sorts, and as such can be useful to historians. The dictionary covers more than 600,000 word forms, and aims to provide a quotation of the first written instance of each word. For instance, by looking up the word borsch (the East European beet soup), we find that the first recorded use attributed to the police magistrate John Paget in 1884: “Let. 2 Sept. in Mem. & Lett. (1901) ii. vi. 346   A real Russian dinner—first there was a strange thing called Borsch.”

Apart from looking up individual words, you can also use the advanced search tools. I tried searching for words borrowed from Russian before 1800 and got 94 results, some of which were false positives but most of which are highly interesting. The quotations and definitions in many of them highlight the exoticness of the things defined for the English-speaking reader; one amusing example is the word barometz. The word is apparently derived from the Russian баранец, which means “little ram”:

A spurious natural-history specimen, consisting of the creeping root-stock and frond-stalks of a woolly fern (Cibotium barometz) turned upside down; formerly represented as a creature half-animal and half-plant, and called the Scythian Lamb.

Anyone can contribute to the OED. They are particularly interested in antedatings, i.e., earlier quotations for words (for example, in the previous edition the word dictionary itself was dated to 1526; a quotation is now given from c. 1480). So, if you see an unusual English word in anything old you happen to be reading, be it a 1950s magazine or a eighteenth-century opera libretto, check the OED to see if you can provide an antedating!

*This word, one translation of Bakhtin’s term разноречие, is surprisingly not in the OED yet (probably because the editors are focusing on the second half of the alphabet).

Percy Shelley, Princess Charlotte, and the Pentrich Uprising

A couple of years ago, I became interested in Leopold, prince of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, who became the first king of Belgium, Leopold I (not to be confused with his son, the infamous colonialist Leopold II). Leopold’s biography appealed to me primarily because of his role in the emergent Belgian national identity, but as I read more about him, I was surprised at his connections to other historical interests of mine. Even given the well-known practice of intermarriage among royal and noble families, Leopold stands out as a particularly transnational figure. He fought in the Russian army against Napoleon. Before assuming the throne of Belgium he was offered that of Greece, which he declined. His daughter became the Empress Carlota of Mexico.

In Britain, however, Leopold was perhaps best known as the husband of Princess Charlotte of Wales, the daughter of the prince regent George IV and heir to the British throne. In 1817, after little more than a year of marriage, Charlotte died while giving birth to a stillborn son. Leopold was heartbroken and never fully recovered. He asked in his will to be buried in Windsor next to Charlotte, but the Belgians decided instead to bury him next to his second wife at the Belgian royal castle of Laeken.

This work from which I quote below is not about Leopold, but it is tangentially about Charlotte. Her death, which set the whole country to mourning, happened to coincide with another event of national proportions: the execution of the leaders of the Pentrich uprising. This was when several hundred men, led by Jeremiah Brandreth, marched on Nottingham, partly, it seems, to protest against the taxes levied on the poor by the government to pay the national war debt. The revolutionaries were dispersed, and Brandreth was hanged and beheaded, along with two of his comrades, on November 7, 1817, exactly 193 years ago. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, incensed by the relative silence about the executed revolutionaries when compared with the widespread grief displayed for the princess, set down his thoughts in “An Address to the People on The Death of the Princess Charlotte.” Though acknowledging the princess’s beauty and virtue, Shelley comes to the conclusion that the country as a whole should be more concerned with the threat to their liberty symbolized by this triple execution.

I will quote two short passages, although for the full rhetorical effect, I suggest that you read the entire essay linked to above. In the following excerpt, Shelley makes an argument against capital punishment, by comparing natural death and murder:

Nothing is more horrible than that man should for any cause shed the life of man. For all other calamities there is a remedy or a consolation. When that Power through which we live ceases to maintain the life which it has conferred, then is grief and agony, and the burthen which must be borne: such sorrow improves the heart. But when man sheds the blood of man, revenge, and hatred, and a long train of executions, and assassinations, and proscriptions, is perpetuated to remotest time.

The essay ends with a cry of lament, and a replacement of the figure of Princess Charlotte with the image of a murdered spirit of Liberty:

Mourn then People of England. Clothe yourselves in solemn black. Let the bells be tolled. Think of mortality and change. Shroud yourselves in solitude and the gloom of sacred sorrow. Spare no symbol of universal grief. Weep-mourn—lament. Fill the great City—fill the boundless fields, with lamentation and the echo of groans. A beautiful Princess is dead:—she who should have been the Queen of her beloved nation, and whose posterity should have ruled it for ever. She loved the domestic affections, and cherished arts which adorn, and valour which defends. She was amiable and would have become wise, but she was young, and in the flower of youth the despoiler came. LIBERTY is dead. Slave! I charge thee disturb not the depth and solemnity of our grief by any meaner sorrow. If One has died who was like her that should have ruled over this land, like Liberty, young, innocent, and lovely, know that the power through which that one perished was God, and that it was a private grief. But man has murdered Liberty, and whilst the life was ebbing from its wound, there descended on the heads and on the hearts of every human thing, the sympathy of an universal blast and curse. Fetters heavier than iron weigh upon us, because they bind our souls. We move about in a dungeon more pestilential than damp and narrow walls, because the earth is its floor and the heavens are its roof. Let us follow the corpse of British Liberty slowly and reverentially to its tomb: and if some glorious Phantom should appear, and make its throne of broken swords and sceptres and royal crowns trampled in the dust, let us say that the Spirit of Liberty has arisen from its grave and left all that was gross and mortal there, and kneel down and worship it as our Queen.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, “An Address to the People on The Death of the Princess Charlotte,” in The Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley in Verse and Prose, ed. H. Buxton Forman (London: Reeves and Turner, 1880) 6:101–114.


Title page, w/Russian text; "Былое и думы / Искандера [...]"

Былое и думы (My Past and Thoughts), by Aleksandr Herzen

I have been meaning to start a blog for some time. One of the things that was preventing me was the lack of a title that would be suitably relevant to my life and yet not too obvious. Inspiration came to me after I read a number of books that refer to Aleksander Herzen’s memoirs. Herzen (1812–1870) was a Russian revolutionary leader and writer who emigrated to England in 1852, where he set up the first Russian émigré press. Over the course of the 1850s and 1860s, he published My Past and Thoughts, in eight parts covering an account of his early life, imprisonment, exile, and political activities. The simplicity of the book’s title impressed me and led me to consider using it for my blog. Thinking, however, that it would seem pretentious of me to simply steal the title and realizing that I will be writing not about my past, but about my present ideas (which are, of course, often about the past), I decided to modify it to its current form, My Present and Thoughts. (In future blog posts I hope to say more about the words past and present in English and Russian, and about Herzen, with whose work I have only a brief acquaintance.)

Having decided on my title, for better or worse, I should probably say a few words about the kind of blog that I expect this to be. I do not plan to narrate my daily life. Although the idea of a daily journal is still appealing to me (in fact, I hope to make a post on that very topic), my personal proprieties about what I want to say in public, as well as a wariness of what my eventual audience is and is not interested in, have led me to decide on something different. So don’t expect to hear about whom I met today in the library, how much my new socks cost, or how many doughnuts I ate (which is not to say that I don’t enjoy the blogs of those who do mention such things). I do plan to include some details about travels, and will try to remind myself to take good notes and photographs for that purpose. Most of the time, however, expect to see musings of various sorts, mostly on history (my academic specialization), language, and music, but also on whatever else happens to strike my mood. I hope to write at least once a week, and to keep my posts down to a page or less each.