‘Pozor i styd’: Russian has two words for shame

‘Pozor i styd’: Russian has two words for shame

Translated from the French by Filip Noubel

This is the translation of a long Facebook post published by France’s leading translator of Russian literature André Markowicz. He is known for having retranslated the entire fiction works of Dostoevsky, Pushkin’s most famous poem “Evgeny Onegin,” and co-translated with Françoise Morvan Chekhov’s entire plays, as well as Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita.“.

He is also one of the most vocal critics of Putin and has condemned Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine from the very first day. He considers Facebook to be “l’intermédiaire entre l’écrit et l’oral”  — that is the “intermediary stage between the written and the spoken word” and runs his Facebook page as a platform for long essays about literature, translation, and now the war in Ukraine.

Here is a post published on June 23 on Markowicz’s Facebook page, just one day before Yevgeny Prigozhin’s attempt to take arms against Vladimir Putin, which ended in a fiasco.

Pozor i styd

“Styd i pozor,” my grandmother (I was, what, three years old) used to say to me when I had done something wrong, and I knew that meant I had to be ashamed, because it was a “pozor,” for a “mal’tchik iz intelligentnoy semïi” (literally: a little boy from a family belonging to the intelligentsia, or let’s say a well-educated little boy), for example, to rush first to his plate, or to forget to wash hands before sitting down to eat. Once — and, in my memories, only once — I remember the expression, but I no longer remember the occasion, she reversed, and she said “pozor i styd,” and the tone was really very different at that moment. In fact, I’m not at all sure she was speaking to me, but the fact is that there was something of great indignation in her voice.

Russian often has two words whereas French has only one. One serves to describe the outer thing, while the other describes the inner thing. You have, for example, “svoboda” which means “freedom” — but that is external, political freedom. Far more important in people’s consciousness is “volia,” which is inner freedom, but also “will.” You have — this is the radiating nucleus of the “Brothers Karamazov” — two words for “temptation.” There is the external temptation (that of St Anthony): “iskouchénié,” and you have the internal temptation, the one that comes to you as if from deep within yourself: “soblazn” (the only word used by Dostoyevsky). And you have two words for shame: “pozor” is external shame (the word comes from the same, very old root as the verb “to see”), the one that everyone notices. And you have the “styd,” the shame that you feel, if you have even the slightest bit of conscience, in front of the “pozor.”

“Pozor i styd,” this expression of my grandmother, and almost 60 years later, strangely, the timbre of her voice comes back to me today when I think of Putin, the person who once said that he himself had “many Jewish friends since childhood” (yes, for example, the Rotenbergs), and later says that Zelensky is “the shame of the Jewish people” (“pozor evreïskovo naroda”). I don’t know if Putin is the shame of the Russian people (this would presuppose that such people exist in Russia, that is, a Russian people distinct from the Jewish people …), but, what is certain, is that never, no, never since, at least, the Mongols, has Russia been reduced to such a state of shame. And never has she brought so much shame to those who, in one way or another, love her (even if I don’t know what it means to love a country, and I absolutely don’t want to know). Let’s say, to those who, for bad or for good, have linked their destiny to hers, to those who, like me, in any case, spend their lives trying to convey what is alive and moving, and burning, and sublime, for example, in books written in Russian.

I’m not going to repeat here everything I keep saying, not since February 22 [full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine], but since I’ve been on FB, that is to say for exactly 10 years (June 2013), Russia has always been ruled by tyrants. I have no example of a leader, or a tsar, as far as I can go back, who did not launch massive repressions against this or that category of his population, since Ivan the Terrible, and well before. But what happens with Putin, which is the shame of Russia, “pozor Rossii,” is that to tyranny he added the most overt mafia, and its vulgarity. Yes, Russia is a country run by the mafia, like, I don’t know, the Panama of Noriega. Corruption, which has always been endemic, catastrophic, in Russia — again, since there are many memoirs about Russia — is absolutely total. There is nothing else than that. And then, this misery, black, grime, of the life of people in the provinces. And this violence, which we see unleashed in Ukraine, and which we saw in Chechnya, and, afterwards, in Syria (without the world saying anything, doing anything). And this permanent, shameless lie of people who speak in the name of the regime, or who have the right to speak, and this hatred that they belch out, and this cynicism of lying. Yes, this shame, constant, in everything that happens, day by day, without there being a single sphere of life that is not contaminated by this shame.

It is here that, from “pozor,” from visible shame, I move on to “styd,” to this feeling which, day after day, night after night, consumes me and pushes me to continue, in an exhaustion that on the one hand is more and more final, it seems to me, yet is also by itself a source of energy. “Mne stydno.” I am ashamed. I look at what is happening in Russia, I look at these people who are calling for even more repression, for even more hatred, these people who will not hesitate to blow up the world if they face the danger of losing power, when I listen to Prigozhin’s little nursery rhymes, the intonation of his voice, atrocious, dirty, his perpetually obscene language (obscenity used as a political weapon, and … obviously, it works), Putin’s rhyming formulas, this feeling of inner defilement, of burning, black shame, which spreads over the whole of life.

I grit my teeth. I clench my fists. And then, I unclench them, those fists, and I try, day after day, to write my shame. Not to evacuate it. But to make it something we all share.