Chapter 10


(the anecdotes dated before 1917)


In this section, a number of anecdotes are gathered which represent what was referred to as "anekdot" before the communist takeover of 1917, and which do indeed meet the more traditional definition of the word anecdote (see the Introduction). In 19 th century this word was used in Russian to denote short stories about some funny or unusual events which did really happen. Starting in the early twenties, the word had gradually changed its meaning becoming a term for very short oral jokes created by anonimous authors and not being based on any actual event, but rather reflecting in a comic or more often satiric way some commonly known situations or events.

The wide spreading of this new kind of anecdotes was due to the complete eradication by the communist authorities of all other means of expression. On the other hand, the anecdotes of 19th century simply aimed at preservation of funny stories about famous personalities of older times, often showing the human side of those emperors, famous poets, and statesmen. There are many such anecdotes about the most famous Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin, fable writer Ivan Krylov, empress Catherine the Great, Czar Peter the Great etc.

This section is limited in size as it is included only for the sake of comparison. As can be seen from such a comparison, the anecdotes of the Soviet era stem from a very different tradition and are not at all a simple continuation of the trends of 19th century.

10.1 Once the Empress Catherine the Great walked unexpectedly into one of the back rooms of her palace and saw a servant holding a big bundle. When the man noticed the Empress, he fell to his knees, pale and frightened.

"What's that?" the Empress said.

"Forgive me, your Majesty."

"What have you done?"

"Here it is," the man pointed at the bundle. "I finished my weekly duties and am going home. In the bundle is your Majesty's stuff, some pastries for my kids, and a couple of pounds of candies, and a few bottles of beer."

"And where did you plan to go out?"

"Right through this stairway."

"No, it's a bad way. On that stairway you may run into the Marshal of the court, and then your kids will not see anything of this. Now pick up your bundle and follow me."

The Empress led the servant through several halls to another stairway, opened the door for him and said, "Well, now go and may God bless you."

10.2 Admiral Chichagov came back home after a brilliant victory over the Swedish fleet . The empress bestowed on the old warrior many awards and then expressed a desire to hear the Admiral's story directly from him. The courtiers warned the Empress that the old soldier was an uncouth boor, who didn't know good manners and used obscenities in his speech. The Empress still wanted to see the Admiral. Chichagov came to the reception, the Empress invited him to take a seat and said in a suave manner that she was ready to listen. The old man first seemed to be nervous, he stuttered, but gradually, seeing the Empress' interest, became more and more agitated. Having described the sea battle, and coming to the moment when the Swedish fleet started its retreat, the Admiral seemed to forget to whom he was telling the story. He shouted, cursed the Swedes, and used all kinds of words that could be normally heard only among peasants and soldiers. Then the old man suddenly came to his senses, and, frightened, fell to his knees.

"Forgive me, little mother, your Majesty," he mumbled.

"No, no, go ahead, Vassily Yakovlevich," the Empress said gently. "Don't pay attention, I don't understand your navy terms anyway."

10.3 Catherine the Great had a dog named Tomson. When the dog died, the Empress ordered to make Tomson's dummy. The Marshal of the Court, count Bruce, ordered his assistant Ryleev to take care of the task. Ryleev misunderstood the order. He thought the Empress had in mind a rich merchant by the name of Thompson. He went to the merchant and conveyed the Empress's order to convert him into a dummy. Terrified Thompson, who had no idea what his guilt could be, ran to the Empress' palace, to beg for clemency. On the way to the palace, he died of a heart attack.

10.4 A British envoy presented the Empress with a gift, a telescope. She liked it very much. The courtiers, to please the Empress, all rushed to point the telescope to the sky and reported what they saw. They maintained they saw mountains on the moon. Count Lvov wanted to overdo everybody else and said, "I see not only mountains, but also a forest!"

"You made me curious," the Empress said, moving to stand up from her chair. "Let me take a look."

"Your Majesty, I am sorry, " Lvov said. "They have already started cutting the trees, so you will be late."

10.5 Once count Lvov was traveling in a coach together with the omnipotent favorite of the Empress, count Potemkin. The latter was in a bad mood and did not speak during the trip. Lvov squeezed himself into a corner of the conveyance, not daring to say a word. When they arrived in the Empress' residence, Lvov waited until Potemkin alighted from the coach and said, "Excellency, may I humbly request something?"

"What's that?"

"Please, don't tell anybody what we talked about during our trip."

Potemkin laughed loudly, apparently cured from his bad mood.

10.6 A court violinist by the name of Pedrillo once slapped a servant on his cheek. He was ordered by the Empress Catherine to pay the servant three rubles. Instead of three, Pedrilli hurled on the table six rubles, then slapped the servant on the other cheek and said, "Now we are fully quits."

10.7 A village church deacon who used to teach Potemkin when the latter was just a poor kid, learned that his former pupil grew to become a very rich and powerful person. He went to Sanct-Petersburg, found Potemkin's palace, named himself and was admitted to see the omnipotent favorite of the Empress.

"My old man, why have you come to me?" Potemkin asked.

"Excellency, I served God for fifty years, but now they kicked me out as I am old, weak, and stupid. May you arrange some job for me which would enable me to escape my abject poverty?"

"What kind of a job can you do?"

"I don't know. Just invent something yourself."

Potemkin laughed and said, "Well, I have an excellent job for you. Did you see the Peter the Great monument?"

"Yes, Excellency, I passed it today when coming to you."

"So, go now, look at it, then come back and report to me if it is still there in order."

The old man walked to the monument, and returned to Potemkin.

"So, what?" the count asked.

"It's there."


"Very much secure."

"Good. So, from now on, every morning you shall go there and check if the monument is secure. Your salary will come from my funds. Now go home."

The old man performed the job in regard to the Peter's monument dutifully until the very last day of his life.

10.8 Potemkin had a nephew by the name of Davydov. Once Potemkin reproached the empress for not giving Davydov any errands and for even never talking to the young man.

"That's because he is so stupid, he'll mess up whatever errand I might give him."

Soon afterwards, the Empress and Potemkin passed a room where Davydov was looking through a window. The Empress remembered Potemkin's complaint and said, "Davydov, would you please go and look what the barometer is doing?"

Davydov rushed to the next room, where a barometer was hanging, and when he returned, he reported, "It's hanging, your Majesty."

"You see," the Empress said with a smile, "I was right."

10.9 Emperor Pavel (Paul the First) set out for a pleasure ride in a sled. He noticed an officer who was obviously drunk as he walked in a quite unstable way.

"Mister officer," the Czar said threateningly, "You are drunk like a pig. Step on the back of my sled and stand there!"

The officer, terrified by the Czar's anger, obeyed. The fear sobered him. The sled sped up along the street, jolting the officer on every bump. Suddenly the officer noticed a beggar. "Stop," the officer shouted. Pavel looked at the officer with surprise. The driver stopped the horses. The officer walked to the beggar, gave the latter a coin, then returned to the sled and again took his place at the sled's back. This pleased Pavel, whose mood changed at once.

"What is your rank?" he asked.

"Lieutenant," the officer said.

"Wrong! Captain!"

On the next corner, the Emperor again asked, "What is your rank?"

"Captain, your Majesty."

"Lies! Major!!!"

One more street passed by, and the Emperor asked, "What is your rank?"

"Major, your Majesty."

"Lie! Lieutenant-colonel!"

When the sled approached the entrance to the Czar's palace, the officer jumped from the sled, and said to the Czar in a most suave manner, "The weather is excellent, your Majesty. Would you deign to go through a few streets more?"

"Ah," Pavel said, "Mister lieutenant-colonel, you want to be a full colonel? No, you'll not con me any more!" The Emperor disappeared in the palace, and the officer remained a lieutenant-colonel.

10.10 Once young courtiers were frolicking in the Emperor's palace. One of them, one Aleksandr Bashutski, jumped over the steps that led to the Emperor's throne, sat down on the throne, and started to jesterishly give orders to the rest of the crowd. Suddenly he felt somebody take him by his ear and lead him down from the throne. To his horror, he recognized the Emperor Aleksandr the First who looked at the young prankster angrily. Apparently the frightened expression on Bashutski's face allayed the Emperor's anger, as he suddenly smiled and said, "Trust me, young man, it's not such a fun to sit there as you might imagine."

10.11 The Prince of Georgia was appointed by the Csar Nikolai the First to supervise certain Governmental department. He was known for limited intelligence, and his appointment was obviously only a tribute to the high stature of his family among the empire's nobility.

Once a merchant from Sanct-Petersburg approached the Prince and requested a favor. The Prince promised to do as requested. Soon afterwards, the merchant found that his application was rejected, and that the Prince of Georgia was instrumental in that rejection. When the merchant met the Prince next time, he inquired why the Prince did not keep the word. The Prince answered that he signed the pertinent papers without having read them.

"What, so you sign papers you've not read?" the merchant said.

"Yes, my dear. I tried to read before signing, but it always did the things worse."

10.12 The famous Russian playwright Aleksandr Griboedov was a man of many talents. He was an excellent pianist, especially proficient in playing Mozart, Haydn, and Weber. He also was an accomplished linguist and polyglot, speaking fluently not only all major European languages, but also Persian, and Arabic. Once an admirer said, 'Aleksandr Sergeevich, look how many talents are you given by God: you're a highly skilled horseman, and a musician, and a poet, and a linguist, and a famous diplomat.'

Griboedov smiled and said, "My friend, whoever has so many talents, has not a single genuine one."

10.13 The real story about the Military Covernor General of the Nizny Novgorod region, one Buturlin, may serve as an example of an exceptional ineptness. At that time (the seventies of the 19th century) the city of Nizhny Novgorod suffered from multiple fires, and often the firemen could not cope with simultaneous summons. As a measure designed to alleviate the situation, Buturlin issued an order to all homeowners, to let the police know of the fire two hours before the fire started.

10.14 The Governor of the Erevan region, Prince Andronikov, distrusted the manager of his office, while he himself never knew the contents of the papers he had to sign. Should the office Manager bring a paper for the Governor's signature, Andronikov would usually ask, pointing at the paper on the desk, "Is it true?"

"Yes, Excellency," the supervisor would answer.

"Make a cross before the Virgin."

The supervisor would make a cross in front of the Virgin's icon, and then, satisfied, Andronikov would sign whatever paper sat on his desk.

10.15 The Governor of St. Petersburg count Essen, when presented with a paper for his signature, would ask his office manager, "Who's writing this.?"

"You are," the manager would answer.

"I see. What about?"

The manager would say in a few words about the paper gist, and the Governor would sign it without reading.

10.16 The famous fabulist Ivan Andreevich Krylov was notorious for his gluttony. Once he was invited by the Empress to the palace for a dinner. As the servants circled the table, carrying an endless sequence of trays, Krylov picked up dish after dish, to the amusement of the guests and the hostess, the Empress Maria Fedorovna. Poet Zhukovski, who was sitting next to Krylov, whispered, "Ivan Andreevich, miss some dish, at least once. Give the Empress a chance to offer it it to you."

"Ah, but what if she will not offer?" Krylov said.

10.17. In the eighties of the 19th century, a new bridges were built over the Neva river in St. Petersburg. The process was very slow mainly because of the necessity to drive thousands of wooden poles into the swampy ground. To expedite the works, General of Engineering by the name of Korbetz, designed a machine which made the work with the poles much easier and faster. Having submitted his suggestion to his superiors, Korbets expected promotion, or at least a word of gratitude. But Count Kleinmichel who was in charge of all the bridges building, instead send to Korbetz a paper with a very strong official reprimand. According to the Count's letter, Korbets was guilty of not inventing his machine earlier and thus causing a considerable waste of time and money.

10.18 Count Kleinmichel was a high-ranking official in charge of all Russian railways. Once he set out to visit a number of cities and before leaving the capital city of St. Petersburg sent to those cities telegrams in which he summoned the local railway officials to meetings. Each telegram indicated time of the meeting. When Kleinmichel arrived in Moscow, to his anger, the summoned officials did not show up. Kleinmichel demanded explanation. It was realized, finally, that in the telegram the meeting was ordered to be held at 5 pm, by which Kleinmichel meant the time as shown on his wristwatch, which was of course St. Petersburg time, while Moscow officials naturally thought it meant Moscow time. As Moscow sat at another meridian, Moscow time differed by one hour.

Kleinmichel accepted the explanation. Next day he went to Nizhny Novgorod, and was enraged when the same story took place in that city.

"It's too much!" Kleinmichel shouted. "I can accept Moscow, our historical first capital, but I can't permit every stinking provincial village to have its own meridian!"

10.19 In the city of Tver, there was no love lost between the region's Governor and his first deputy, Vice-Governor. Both officials were not above sending to each other letters full of insults and deriding comments. While the Governor took it more or less as a small nuisance, for the Vice-Governor his feud with his boss had become a sort of obsession. Once the Governor left for vacation, and the Vice-Governor was temporarily replacing his boss. The first day he was occupying the position of the Acting Governor, he received a letter he himself sent to the Governor one day before. The letter was quite offensive to the addressee. The Vice-Governor was a very conscientious man. He considered it his duty to faithfully substitute for his superior in all matters, so he wrote an answer, addressed to himself as a deputy. The answer was a strong rebuke to his own letter, and quite offending in regard to himself as a Vice-Governor. Next day, in his capacity of a Vice-Governor, he sent one more letter to himself as the Acting Governor, in which he rebuffed all offending remarks in his own letter written in his capacity as Acting Governor. Until the Governor had come back from the vacation, the over-honest deputy diligently performed all the exchange of offences serving faithfully both sides of the conflict.

10.20. A descendant of an old family of nobles Naryshkin served as Minister of Court for the Emperor Alexandr the Second. Once a merchant who used to supply the Naryshkins with milk and butter, told Naryshkin about his younger son who, according to the merchant, turned out to be lazy and of low wit and therefore unfit to continue his father's business. The merchant asked Naryshkin for a favor: to get for the lad some position among the court's servants.

"Sorry, no openings," Naryshkin said.

"Well, until an opening is available, make him a supervisor of some small bird, like a canary, or of some potted plant," the merchant said.

"What good would it do?" Naryshkin said.

"What you mean what good? Obviously, the fool at least will be able to support himself and his wife and kids."

10.21 The famous author of many fables, Ivan Andreevich Krylov was notorious for his extraordinaty laziness. He used to spend endless hours on a sofa. On the wall above the sofa, a big painting in a heavy frame hung on two hooks. One of the hooks broke, and the painting now hung askew, scarcely supported by the remaining loose hook. Friends and visitors urged Krylov to fix the hooks because the painting could fall at every moment and if it did, it would hit Krylov. The latter usually answered that he wouldn't bother as he made some calculations in his mind and had found that if the painting fell, it would move on a curve missing his head by a few inches.

10.22. Ivan Andreevich Krylov was so lazy that he could go without washing his hands and face for days in a row. His clothes were always crumpled and dirty, the vest unbuttoned and askew on his obese stomach. Once Krylov was invited to a fancy-dress ball (masquerade). Krylov went to his neighbors to ask for an advice what to wear to the masquerade. They said, "You've not to worry, Ivan Andreevich. If you just wash your face and comb your hair, nobody would recognize you."

10.23 In his effort to pull Russia from its barbaric state and to open a window into Europe, Peter the Great established the Academy of Sciences in his newly built capital city of St. Petersburg. Originally, all of its scientists came from Europe, by invitation from the Russian Czar. During his travels in Europe, Peter made acquaintance with the famous Swiss mathematician and physicist Daniel Bernoulli. Peter extended an invitation to Bernoulli to move to St. Petersburg and to head up the Department of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at the Academy. Bernoulli declined the honor, but recommended to Peter a young scientist by the name of Leonard Euler. Euler was at that time twenty years old, and little known. Trusting the respected Bernoulli, Peter agreed to offer Euler a position at the Academy. Euler set out on a long trip in a horse-driven sled to St. Petersburg. After several weeks of a taxing journey, he arrived in St. Petersburg, only to find that the Csar did not consider him a proper substitute for Bernoully, since the position of the Head of Mathematical department has already been given to somebody else. Euler encountered a dilemma, either to embark on a trip back, which would mean many more weeks in a sled, or to accept whatever position was available. He decided in favor of the second option. The only available position was in the department of medicine, and that was what Euler was appointed to.

As Euler didn't know much about medicine, he worked on mathematical and physical problems, despite his official assignment. After a while, the conscientious scientist decided he had to somehow justify his assignment. So, he wrote a lengthy treatise titled "On the motion of blood in veins and arteries."

Of course, no medical doctor was ever able to understand this paper. But for physicists and mathematicians it turned out to be an extremely important contribution to the science of hydrodynamics. In this brilliant work Euler laid out a highly mathematical theory of the viscous liquids motion in flexible tubes, and contributed considerably to the progress of vector analysis and theoretical physics.

Euler spent many years in St. Petersburg where he grew to become one of the greatest mathematicians and theoretical physicists of all times.

10.24 Toward the end of the 18 th century, one Prince Dundukov was appointed President of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Of course, the Prince had no relation to any science, and his appointment was due solely to his being a noble of high standing in the aristocracy and his being close to the Czar. Dundukov became a target of many jokes, one of them was ascribed to poet Barkov. Its translation into English (which, of course, cannot preserve the rhythm and the rhymes of the very apt Russian original) goes as follows:

In the Academy of Sciences

Is sitting Prince Dunduk.

Some say he's not deserving

Of such an honor.

Then why is he sitting?

Because he has an arse.

10.25 In the 19th century, if one wanted to change one's name, one had to petition the Csar. There was a man whose last name was Semizhop, which literally meant Man of Seven Arses. He applied to the Csar Aleksandr the Third for a name change. The Csar had apparently sense of humor, as well as a degree of nastiness, since he approved the name change, but prescribed what the new name should be, by writing on the application, "Seven seems to be too many. Five would be enough."

10.26 The famous trial lawyer Plevako used to start all of his speeches in the court with a sentence, "It could be worse, respected jurors."

Once he was defending a man accused of raping his own daughter. Everybody in the court waited how the famous lawyer would start his speech. Would it be his favorite sentence? Hard to imagine! Plevako stood up and said, "Respected jurors, it could be worse!"

This time the judge could not restrain himself and interrupted Plevako saying, "What could be worse than that appaling, abominable crime?"

"Your honor," Plevako said, "What if he raped your daughter?"