Russia for kids

A little light reading: Osana etoki bankoku banashi 童絵解万国噺, roughly "A illustrated guide for children to the nations of the world." By KANAGAKI Robun 仮名垣魯文, with illustrations by UTAGAWA Yoshitora 歌川芳虎. Here's Russia:

I must confess that the text surrounding this delightful image gives me a bit of trouble. [Update! One kanji fixed, see below!]

此国は欧羅巴州と亜細亜州にまたがりたる地にて本都を伯徳ろと中奥中興の太祖帝アレキは才徳すぐれ大いに其版図を開き帝の位を保つ 帝崩[れて?]後妃加太里那女帝の位に即まつり[ごと?]を執てより其国ます/\開けりとぞ

Which is maybe something like:

This country sprawls between Europe and Asia, and the surpassing wisdom and morality of Peter (伯徳ろ) and great emperor and architect of restoration Alexander (アレキ), great founding emperor of central Europe [?] saw the country's domains expand and the imperial system retained. After the collapse of the emperor, his wife Catherine (加太里那) succeeded to the position of empress and took the reins of government, bringing, it is said, still further expansion to the country.

But here are my caveats:

First, I am no expert in Russian history, but as far as I can tell the above is just a jumble of names thrown together without much concern for the actual historical sequence. (Of course, it doesn't help that so many important people in 18th-19th century Russia were named "Peter," "Alexander," or "Catherine" in the first place.)

Second, I'm not at all sure what 中奥の太祖帝 — literally "great founding emperor of the central interior [or throne room]" — is supposed to mean. I have three guesses: (1) Something to do with the Russian imperial system, about which I am clueless; (2) A write-o for 中欧, "central Europe," maybe referring to Alexander I's dukedoms in Finland and Poland; (3) A wildly anachronous reference to the other Alexander, a "great founding emperor" if ever there was one, inspired by the similarities in names. I went with (2) in the translation because it was easiest to write.

Update: Turns out the kanji were actually 中興の太祖帝, not 中奥の太祖帝. 中興 (chūkō) means "restoration" or "revival", and 中興の祖 (literally "ancestor of restoration") is used to refer to a family member credited with engineering or executing a revival in the family fortunes. 中興の太祖帝 simply expands this "family" metaphor to the imperial nation-state, not at all an unusual idea in Meiji Japan. So, pace languagehat's typically informative comment, perhaps this is actually meant to be Alexander II? [Update II: Probably not, see comments. Also, it wasn't quite Meiji Japan yet. The ideas were already percolating, though, and my analysis of the symbolism remains essentially the same.]

Second-and-a-half, I don't know why 伯徳ろ is written like that, with just the ろ on the outside. Perhaps it isn't actually a ろ. It's late and I'm very tired.

Third, the repeated use of 開く here is interesting. I have translated it as "expand" but it could also conceivably mean "develop," and I strongly suspect it had a special meaning as late-Edo political jargon. Unfortunately, I don't know what that might be off the top of my head.

Popularity factor: 17


Peter's son Alexei fits the sequence, though. I would have thought any reference to a great emperor of central Europe would be the Habsburgs, though, and I can't work out the sense with Russia.

And I think you mean "reins of government." Which would be even funnier if it was Catherine II.


Typo fixed. Catherine II gag unintentional. I told you I was tired!

Alexei would also be a plausible source for アレキ, thanks for the tip. Though reading his Wikipedia entry I find it unlikely that he would be thrown into a list of notable Russians also featuring (I assume) Peter I and Catherine II by anyone who knew what he was talking about.


Being by no means a Japanese speaker, my Chinese mind tells me that "版図を開く" is "to expand territory", but "国開く" is to "開国", to open it up to the world.


And it's "まつりごとを執(とっ)て" rather than "報て".


Thanks again, -273. Your analysis of 国開く makes sense to me too (especially given the time period, right after Perry forced Japan to do the 開国 thing, and everyone knew the word)... but if you look at what Catherine II actually did, "expanded (forcibly)" fits much better than "opened Russia to outside influence." These are the issues that throw me...


... So, what I am muzzily trying to get at is: perhaps post-開国, the term's semantic meaning spread to a more general bundle of associated ideas: "fruitful intercourse with the outside world," of course, but also "development," "modernization," "imperial expansion." This is all just speculation on my part of course.

Leonardo Boiko:

Post more countries!

language hat:

Certainly not poor Alexei Petrovich, who was tortured and killed by daddy before he could even become tsar! No, it's almost certainly Alexander I, who defeated Napoleon and absorbed Finland and much of Poland. And Catherine is certainly The Great, who did indeed expand Russia; she became empress on the death of Peter III, but he is not the Peter mentioned, since he ruled for only six months and was more or less completely forgotten except by the occasional rebel who pretended to be him (the most famous and successful being Pugachev).

He was, however, responsible for the rise of Germany and thus most of the horrors of the last century. Prussia was on the ropes when Peter came to the throne in 1762 and would certainly have been reduced to a marginal player in European politics, but it happened that Peter hero-worshipped Frederick the Great, and the first thing he did on taking power was to withdraw from the fighting and arrange for a truce, bringing about an end to the Seven Years' War on terms extremely favorable to Prussia, enabling it to take over Germany and dream of world conquest. Rot in hell, Peter! I'm glad you're dead, you rascal you!


Why, Languagehat, I didn't know you were interested in Russian history!

See, that's exactly the sort of summary the children of 19th-century Japan would have preferred. Less uncritical praise, more pretenders and consignment to hell.

language hat:

So, pace languagehat's typically informative comment, perhaps this is actually meant to be Alexander II?

Could be, what with the reforms and abolition of slavery, but I'm still betting on Alex I, who rescued his family and the country from the universally loathed Paul (who instituted the militarization of court and country that lasted right through the end of the dynasty and did as much as anything to bring about its fall).

language hat:

When was the Japanese text written? That might give a clue.


Great, cf. 光武中興.


Please Matt, can you translate (or transliterate) one of those later plates written in impeccable, uh, indecipherable cursive kana?


LH: Fair enough; I'll take your word for that. As for when it was written, Waseda says 1861. (So, still Edo, but less than a decade before the Meiji period began.) Which, hm, means that Alexander II was still in power... I should know better than to bet against Hat.

minus273: Sure thing.

language hat:

Well, the liberation of the serfs was announced in March 1861, so I suppose it's conceivable that this breaking news impelled Kaganaki to put him in the pantheon, but the whole tone of the passage suggests a focus on a more remote past, and frankly I'm not sure how much of a damn the Japanese gave about Russian serfs, though you'd know more about that than I.


Probably the smallest possible portion of a damn, yeah. I think that you got it right from the start.


LH, I had no idea you were so anti-Prussian. Do you have Bavarian/Austrian roots?

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