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)

(translation mine)

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 reference 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)

    (translation mine)

  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.

    Chapter two
    And around the old city Peter,
    which rubbed out people's sides
    (As the people said back then)
    , —
    In manes, in harnesses, in flour wagons,
    In painted tea roses
    And under a cloud of raven wings.

    (translation mine + Google Translate)

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.

One example of this kind is the semantic and formal reincarnations of the old, one might say "classical" proverb about St. Petersburg - Peter has gone overboard, and Moscow is beating off his toes, the meaning of which V. I. Dal in his famous "Proverbs of the Russian people" lapidarily defined as follows: "Everything is expensive, unprofitable." N. A. Sindalovsky lovingly collected the most complete collection of versions of this proverb, pointing out their sources: And if it had brought you to St. Petersburg, he would have washed your sides - the inscription on the popular print of 1812 "Elder Vasilisa", which became a proverb and originally referred only to to Napoleon's army; Peter the father rubbed off our sides, factories the brothers shaved off years of our lives, and the ditch the mother did us in completely - about the hard life of the working people in St. Petersburg (Kanava - Obvodny Canal, on the banks of which in the second half of the XIX century. A lot of industrial enterprises appeared); Red Peter wiped Yudenich's sides - the saying was born in 1919, after the rebuff given by the workers of Petrograd to an attempt to capture the city by the troops of the White Guard army under the command of Yudenich; Moscow beats off his toes, and Peter has his sides worn out - both in St. Petersburg and in Moscow life is hard; Peter's side was worn out, but in Moscow they ring thickly, but eat thinly - life is hard in Petersburg, but it's expensive in Moscow; Peter's sides have been wobbly, and Moscow is beating off its toes - life in both capitals is not much different; If you got to Peter, he would wipe your sides - about braggarts and idlers; Peter is a fine city, but rubbed out sides - Petersburg is a wonderful city, but it's difficult to live there.

(translation mostly from Google)

The overall wording of the majority of the versions cited explicitly mentions again effect on people ("вам", "наши", "тебе").

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.

Not all provincials were able to handle Peter. Up close, freedom turned into an illusion, wealth into a ghost. Battered by the life of the capital and sobering up, Pskov and Yaroslavl residents became cabbies and lackeys, laborers and porters. To this day, many proverbial variants on the same painful theme are preserved in St. Petersburg city folklore: "The city of Peter is good, but wiped the sides"; “Peter cleaned out our pockets”; "Father Peter rubbed off our sides"; "Mother Neva has washed our sides." Chastooshkas echo proverbs and sayings:

How to start with Peter,
Finish before Kazan.
Like in St. Petersburg Neva
She flushed our sides.

(translation mostly from Google)

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

  • I already upvoted this answer a year ago, but it would be improved by adding an English translation for the quoted texts. I just set a bounty as extra motivation to edit this answer :-)
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 24 '21 at 8:01
  • @Randal'Thor - I'm tempted (more out of respect for you than the bounty) but in all honestly SE/SO killed almost any desire I have to go an extra mile or even extra inch.
    – DVK
    May 24 '21 at 13:21
  • I added some English version from Google Translate, but it didn't manage to parse one word ("povyter") in the last quote. Can you check what this is supposed to be? (Now there's English versions of everything except the biggest paragraph, which I didn't check yet.)
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 24 '21 at 17:26
  • @Randal'Thor - you rock. "повытер" means "rubbed out"/"rubbed off", or "scuffed off", or "wiped off", or "grated/shaved off", or something to that effect depending on exact context. The root "тер" is basically anything to do with friction/rubbing. I suspect one possible context is shiny "rubbed off" clothes? Not sure of exact English idiom.
    – DVK
    May 24 '21 at 20:21
  • 1
    There you go, last bounty I can give you here until I rescind my personal rule on this site of not bountying people who already have Trusted User privs. Congrats on 4k and on re-overtaking Valorum and some others :-)
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 30 '21 at 8:04

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.

  • 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 '20 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 '20 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 '20 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 '20 at 7:32
  • 2
    @DVK thanks for a better answer.
    – svavil
    Apr 6 '20 at 9:06

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