In his 1976 essay Less than One, Joseph Brodsky writes:

For the beginning I had better trust my birth certificate, which states that I was born on May 24, 1940, in Leningrad, Russia, much as I abhor this name for the city which long ago the ordinary people nicknamed simply “Peter”—from Petersburg. There is an old two-liner:

The people’s sides

Are rubbed by Old Peter.

I am not certain how to interpret the above two-liner, my question is:

Question. Is the above two-liner referring to the charm that the blessed city bestows upon its residents?


TL;DR: the meaning of the saying varied with time, with original meaning being life in Peter was "expensive", and some drifting to general "difficult".

Original meaning was recorded by none other than the famous Vladimir Dal', in his 1862 monumental work "Пословицы и поговорки русского народа" ("Proverbs and sayings of the Russian people").

Хорош город Питер, да бока повытер (дорог).

Peter is a fine city, but rubbed out sides (is expensive - Dal's editorial)

Please note that the explicit meaning noted fully rejects the descriptive meaning of "old looking" proposed by the other answer - "expensive" implies unambigously that the verb applies to its affect on its populace.

Now, let's dig into details.

First of all, I was able to find both a literary refernce to a more expanded saying from Anna Akhmatova's 1940-1962 poem "Poem without a hero"; as well as the source of the saying in academic literature. BOTH expanded wordings actually fully match the translation you saw Brodsky use (and contradict the previous answer).

  1. Academic source:

    Батюшко Питер нам все бока повытер
    Это поговорка Олонецкой губернии
    (Пословицы, поговорки, загадки в рукописных сборниках 18-20 веков. М.,-Л., 1961, с. 1, Микаэла Яковлевна Мельц)

    "Father Peter rubbed out all our sides* (emphasis mine)
    It is a saying in Olonetsky Governorate.
    (Source: "Proverbs, sayings, riddles in manuscript collections of 18th-20th centuries", 1961, by Michaela Yakovlevna Meltz, published by USSR Academy of Science)

  2. Literary source: Анна Ахматова. Поэма без героя

    Глава вторая
    А вокруг старый город Питер,
    Что народу бока повытер
    (Как тогда народ говорил), —
    В гривах, в сбруях, в мучных обозах,
    В размалеванных чайных розах
    И под тучей вороньих крыл.

Prosaic translation being "And around the old city Peter, which rubbed out people's sides (as the people said back then).

I don't know whether Brodsky's source was Akhmatova or they both just heard the same saying, but either way the meaning is relayed identically in both sources to Brodsky's translation.

More interestingly, I actually was able to find a whole discourse on the topic of that saying, in the 2014 re-published book "Словарь петербуржца. Лексикон Северной столицы. История и современность" ("Dictionary of denizen of petersburg. Lexicon of Northern Capital. History and Modernity") by Наум Александрович Синдаловский (Naum Alexandrovich Sindalovsky).

I was unable to find the full text of the book yet, but the annotation actually quoted extensively from that chapter:

Один пример такого рода – смысловые и формальные перевоплощения старой, можно сказать «классической» пословицы о Петербурге – Питер бока повытер, да и Москва бьет с носка, смысл которой В. И. Даль в своих знаменитых «Пословицах русского народа» лапидарно определил так: «все дорого, убыточно». Н. А. Синдаловский любовно собрал максимально полную коллекцию вариантов этой пословицы, указав на их источники: А кабы занесло вас в Питер, он бы вам бока повытер – надпись на лубочной картинке 1812 г. «Старостиха Василиса», ставшая пословицей и относившаяся первоначально только к армии Наполеона; Батюшка-Питер бока наши повытер, братцы-заводы унесли годы, а матушка-канава и совсем доконала – о тяжелой жизни рабочего люда в Петербурге (Канава – Обводный канал, по берегам которого во второй половине XIX в. появилось множество промышленных предприятий); Красный Питер бока Юденичу вытер — поговорка родилась в 1919 г., после отпора, данного рабочими Петрограда попытке захвата города войсками белогвардейской армии под командованием Юденича; Москва бьет с носка, а Питер бока повытер – и в Петербурге, и в Москве живется несладко; Питер бока повытер, а в Москве толсто звонят, да тонко едят – в Петербурге жизнь тяжела, а в Москве дорога; Питер бока повытер, да и Москва бьет с носка – жизнь в обеих столицах мало чем различается; Попал бы ты в Питер, он бы тебе бока вытер – о хвастунах и бездельниках; Хорош город Питер, да бока вытер – Петербург – город замечательный, но жить в нем трудно.

I won't translate the whole thing (sorry, 3am here and I'm on more or less SE strike), but the overall wording of the majority of the versions cited explicitly mentions again effect on people ("вам", "наши", "тебе") and the last meaning explained is:

Хорош город Питер, да бока вытер – Петербург – город замечательный, но жить в нем трудно.

Peter is a fine city, but rubbed out sides - Petersburg is a wonderful city, but it's difficult to live there.

Additionally, in another book by the same author (Sindalovsky), 2002 "Мифология Петербурга: Очерки" ("Mythology of Petersburg: Essays"), he quotes yet another version of the saying, which even more clearly conveys "Expensive to live" context/meaning:

Далеко не всем провинциалам Питер оказывался по плечу. Вблизи свобода превращалась в иллюзию, богатство – в призрак. Помятые столичной жизнью и отрезвевшие псковичи и ярославцы становились извозчиками и лакеями, чернорабочими и носильщиками. До сегодняшнего дня в петербургском городском фольклоре сохраняется множество пословичных вариантов на одну и ту же болезненную тему: «Хорош город Питер, да бока вытер»; «Питер – карман вытер»; «Батюшко Питер бока наши повытер»; «Матушка Нева испромыла нам бока». Пословицам и поговоркам вторят частушки:

Уж как с Питера начать,
До Казани окончать.
Уж как в Питере Нева
Испромыла нам бока.

The bolded version explicitly says "Peter cleaned out our pockets" (instead of "sides")

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  • Thank you very much for your thorough and most helpful answer. I presume "clean out" in the last line was meant to be "cleaned out"? – Ali Enayat Apr 6 at 16:25
  • Good catch - fixed! YVW – DVK Apr 6 at 17:14

The Russian for that two-liner is

Старый Питер, Бока повытер.

See DVK's answer for a much better analysis than mine. I now agree that my assumptions below were incorrect.

I would argue that the correct translation into English has nothing to do with people: it's a saying that describes the city itself: Old Petersburg, with its worn out sides. It alludes to a certain charm that old buildings have due to their imperfect façades.

In the next passages, Brodsky mentions how the buildings remind him of old Petersburg and not of contemporaneous Leningrad.

And yet I’d rather call it “Peter”, for I remember this city at a time when it didn’t look like “Leningrad” – right after the war. Gray, pale-green façades with bullet and shrapnel cavities; endless, empty streets, with few passerby and light traffic; almost a starved look with, as a result, more definite and, if you wish, nobler features.

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  • Thank you for your answer. Based on your reading, do you have an explanation for why Brodsky chose the expression "the people's sides" in his rendition of the two-liner into English? – Ali Enayat Apr 4 at 0:41
  • @AliEnayat the more I read, the more I'm puzzled by this. I don't know if this part of the essay was written in English by Brodsky himself or translated by someone else. I know Brodsky was pretty demanding when it came to translating his works. – svavil Apr 4 at 0:50
  • To my knowledge, the essay is not a translation into English of an original Russian text. This is corroborated by some passages in the text, for example, the last two sentences of the paragraph before the part of the essay quoted in my question. – Ali Enayat Apr 4 at 1:05
  • Sorry - this answer is 100% wrong. it's contradicted by both academic reasearch (starting with Vladimir Dal') and ending with wording used by other authors which fully implies "sides of the people", not buildings. Please see my answer for details. – DVK Apr 6 at 7:32
  • 2
    @DVK thanks for a better answer. – svavil Apr 6 at 9:06

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