Russia and the USSR: a fructohistorical overview

August 18th, 2011

FruitMany things in life are both idle and curious. Trivial observations may neither enrich nor fortify, yet it is perhaps worthwhile to record them should their utility ever become manifest. With this in mind, here are a few words on various public figures who have adorned Russian and Soviet national life in the 20th century and beyond. They are united merely by the frivolous notion that their names in some way refer to fruit, however obliquely.

Let us first take Genrikh Yagoda. This ruthless third director of the NKVD was born Enokh Gershevich Ieguda (or possibly Heinrich Yehuda) in Rybinsk, to a Jewish family. Various far-right websites claim that his surname is the Russian word for ‘Jewish’, ignoring the fact that ‘Evreiskiy’ already accounts for this term, and thus adding to their already copious stock of errors. ‘Yagoda’ is actually the Russian for ‘strawberry’ — it was not uncommon in earlier times for Ashkenazim to name themselves after fruit and trees, amongst other things.

Yagoda and Yezhov

Yagoda’s gloomy and callous career came to an eventual end at the hands of his successor, the Russian Nikolai Yezhov. The diminutive Yezhov managed to exceed even his predecessor’s grotesqueness, and under his brief yet sordid stewardship, the NKVD descended into the very darkest period of the Purges. This prodigiously sadistic Narkom for Internal Affairs was known by the nicknames ‘Iron Hedgehog’ and ‘Blackberry’ (‘Yezhovka’), a play on his surname. Yezhov’s mercifully brief career was terminated by his deputy, Lavrentiy Beria, and although his name sounds conspicuously like ‘berry’ to the English-speaking ear, it is in fact derived from his Mingrelian-Georgian ethnicity, rendering any further fructopraetorian frolics futile at this point. It might be mentioned, however, that Beria’s close ally (and, briefly, Stalin’s successor as Chairman of the Council of Ministers) was Georgy Maximilianovich Malenkov, whose surname bears a resemblance to ‘malina’ which is, of course, the Russian word for ‘raspberry’.

Just as all this is beginning to become rather tenuous, along comes the luckless Vladimir Vinogradov — or Vladimir Grape — personal physician to Josef Stalin himself. Vinogradov, along with others of the Kremlin’s medical retinue, ran afoul of the final paranoiac paroxysms of Stalin’s last days. The Doctor’s Plot, as it became known, was another of Stalin’s wild concoctions, aimed this time at what he perceived as Jewish bourgeois nationalism. A previous anti-Semitic campaign had been pursued under the guise of stamping out ‘rootless cosmopolitanism‘, which itself followed on from the persecution of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC) in the late 1940s.

Mikhail SuslovOne of the early critics of the JAC was the future éminence grise, and Leonid Brezhnev’s ideological chief, Mikhail Suslov, whose name, of all things, means ‘pulp’ (‘suslo’). The festive Russian spirit knows its new wine as ‘vinogradnoye suslo’, and ‘pulped grapes’ is its literal and uncomfortably apposite translation. Although, given Suslov’s future role in Nikita Khrushchev’s ouster, this was more a case of pouring old wine into old bottles.

Our field becomes fallow for what seems like a dry eternity until the anointing of the bovine Konstantin Chernenko, by which time almost the entire power structure of the USSR had become fossilized to the point of gerontocracy. Chernenko can merely offer us the similarity that his name bears to ‘chernika’, or blueberries.

Chernenko and Gorbachev

This tremulous potentate whom history failed to notice remains obscure today, but his more illustrious successor in all probability derives his name from a corruption of ‘gorbaty’, meaning ‘hunch-backed’. However, it may be tempting to delude oneself that it etymologises from ‘gorbushka’ or ‘end-crust’, for such was the state that Gorbachev inherited from his blueberried predecessor. Gorbachev himself almost lost out on the promotion to Viktor Grishin, or Viktor Pear, a hardline old-schooler who reluctantly followed the new line.

Ultimately the USSR collapsed under its own weight and internal contradictions. The Russian Federation which succeeded it inherited much of its apparatus, but also had to invent, create or revive much of which was previously lacking. One such absence was a functioning liberal democratic party, and in 1993 one was formed by Gregor Yavlinsky, Yuri Boldyrev and Vladimir Lukin. The party name, an acronym of their surnames, is Yabloko, which is also the Russian for ‘apple’. The party hit its electoral apex in in the early to mid 1990s, though never gaining more than 10% of the popular vote. The subsequent years have seen its presence almost wiped out.

Apple, shackles, lemon

One less savoury note is the revival of various forms of nationalism in modern Russia. Eduard Limonov (you guessed it) is one of the more colourful demagogues, who exemplifies the National Bolshevik weltanschauung. This shady character has in more recent times attempted respectability in co-operation with Gary Kasparov’s United Civil Front, prompting a split within the NBP itself. The United Civil Front is part of a wider coalition known as Other Russia, which was formed out of a discontent with the increasingly authoritarian methods of Vladimir Putin.

Putin’s name could not be for a moment confused with any kind of berry or other fruit — in this case, the closest we get is ‘putiy’, meaning ‘shackles’. Any speculation as to its aptness must, of necessity, be fruitless.