Once there lived a crocodile…

My recent experiments with kvass have been just one of the manifestations of my latest bout of slavophilia.

I have been interested in Russia for quite a long time, at least since a school trip to Moscow and Leningrad (shortly before it was renamed back to St Petersburg) in 1991.  I learned a small amount of Russian for that trip and then had a chance to study the language as a subsidiary module at university for a year in 1997-8.  Hand-in-hand with my interest in the language has been an interest in the culture of Russia.  Along with most of my other interests, these enjoy occasional periods at the forefront of my attention, with often quite long gaps in between.

In addition to various culinary-related activities and a spot of balalaika playing, not to mention listening to quite a lot of Russian music (including some by the Mighty Handful), I have recently been having another attempt to dust off my Russian language skills which have largely languished in disuse since I finished my university course 15 years ago.  My main goal is to be able to tackle some works of Russian literature (which I enjoy reading in translation) in their original language.

Most of my knowledge of Russian literature (in translation or otherwise) is confined to prose, but I have enjoyed my limited exposure to Russian poetry too.  In particular, I have fond memories of a poem that I studied as part of my Russian course.  This was Крокодил (Krokodil = Crocodile) by Korney Chukovsky, a popular children’s poet who was mostly active during the Soviet era.  We only actually studied the first 30 or so lines of the poem in our class and I later discovered that it is considerably longer than that (I think I originally thought we’d done the whole thing).  At one time I could remember more or less the whole of the section we’d studied.  These days I only have the first half dozen lines firmly committed to memory, although I can also remember several later snippets.

Here’s how the poem starts:

Жил да был
Крокодил.
Он по улицам ходил,
Папиросы курил,
По-турецки говорил –
Крокодил, Крокодил Крокодилович!

That’s about as far as I can remember without having to look it up (although I did check the spelling).  A rough prose translation is:

Once there was a crocodile.  He was walking down the street, smoking cheap cigarettes and speaking Turkish.  Crocodile, son of Crocodile!

Obviously that translation loses all the poetry, even if it does retain the meaning fairly faithfully.  I did have a quick go at making a verse translation, but I didn’t manage to come up with anything good that stuck reasonably close to the original meaning.

There are a couple of interesting (?) observations about this first bit of the poem.

One is that, when I first learned it (in 1998, fairly shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union), I learned the third line as Он по Невскому ходил (“He was walking down Nevsky Prospect”; Nevsky Prospect is the name of the main street in St Petersburg).  When I looked for a version online a few years ago it had replaced по Невскому with по улицам (i.e. “down the road”, without specifying which road).  I had assumed that this edit was to remove a Soviet-era road name, but on checking it up just now I discovered that Nevsky Prospect was actually the original name (it was changed for a while during the Soviet era to Проспект 25 Октября – “Avenue of the 25th of October” – to commemorate the October Revolution of 1918) and that the poem was written in 1916, two years before the revolution took place.  I’m guessing that the original text had the reference to the Nevsky Prospect, that the other version was a later edit (most likely during the time when the road had a different name) and that both versions are now in circulation.  I think my preference is probably for the Nevsky version, since that’s the one I first learned and it sets the poem in a more definite location.

Another observation is that a reference to smoking in a children’s poem seems quite surprising if we judge by the standards of our own culture but is probably somewhat less so if we remember that the poem was written nearly 100 years ago in another country.  I remember my Russian teacher explaining the meaning of папиросы (papirosi), which is not the standard Russian word for cigarettes (сигареты – sigareti); I can’t remember entirely but I think it was essentially a type (rather than a brand) of cheap cigarettes commonly smoked in the Soviet Union (there are pages about papirosi on Wikipedia in several languages – including Russian, German and Spanish, but not English; I can’t quite follow any of them well enough to do more with a quick skim reading than just confirm my vague memory – it’s not that important for understanding or enjoying the poem anyway).

Finally (just because I know it will wind up a few of my friends to give three observations when I’ve said there were a couple :)), the line “Крокодил, Крокодил Крокодилович!” (Krokodil, Krokodil, Krokodilovich! = “Crocodile, Crocodile, son of Crocodile”) was the first line of the poem that I learned, as our teacher taught us that when she was explaining the Russian naming system (with its strong emphasis on patronymics) sometime before we looked at the rest of (the start of) the poem.  Although it is clear from the rest of the poem that it is about an actual crocodile, the word is here being treated as a proper noun (i.e. a name) and it is the name not only of the eponymous protagonist of the poem but also of his father (or, if not their actual name, it is at least indicating that his father was also a crocodile – probably no great surprise from a biological perspective!).  In any case, it is a lovely turn of phrase that rolls beautifully off the tongue in Russian.

Although we only did the very first part of the poem in my Russian lessons, I have subsequently read somewhat more of it.  I still have quite a lot to get through, though, and I will need to improve my Russian somewhat in order to understand it.  Still, if the start is anything to go by, understanding this poem will itself be a rich reward for any effort I expend in learning the language.

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1 Comment

  1. Jacall

     /  2016/06/08

    Thank you for sharing! I too learned this poem in my Russian class back in the early 80’s. Of course Nevsky Prospect was still refer to in the poem as we memorized it. As our young class recited “Crocodile” out loud, our teacher giggled. One of my fondest memories of high school. Thank you!

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