LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2007 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 53, No 2 - Summer 2007
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Remembering Vladimir Toporov
Algirdas Sabaliauskas has written extensively about Lithuanian lingustics and scholars who have studied Lithuanian linguistics. Among his many publications are Žodžiai atgyja (English version (“Noted Scholars of Lithuanian linguistics”) and Mes baltai (English version “We the Balts”). He has also translated into Lithuanian some Latvian literary works.
A TRUE FRIEND OF LITHUANIA
Among Toporov‘s many honours were the USSR State Prize
which he turned down to voice his protest against the repressive
policies of the Soviet administration in Lithuania.
At the end of last year, on the 5th of December, after sixteen days of suffering (a second heart attack, pneumonia), the seventy-eight-year old Vladimir Toporov departed from us. Russian science lost one of its most distinguished personalities. This loss was also terribly painful, not only for Lithuanian and Latvian philology, which the deceased had enriched with splendid research, not only for those who love the culture in general, but also for those who are concerned with the future of these peoples. For Toporov, research on the Baltic languages and learning about their ancient culture was not simply a profession. It was his moral duty as a scholar. He formulated this credo in the preface to his Dictionary of the Prussian Language. “The extinction of the Prussians is a loss for humanity and mankind; and the attempt to recreate lost cultures is, at least to a small degree, connected with moral duties.”
Vladimir Toporov was a man of vast importance for the study of the Baltic languages. In response to the bloody events of the 13th of January, he turned down the prize awarded to him by the Soviet Government. The Lithuanian government awarded him the Baltrušaitis Prize and the Order of Gediminas (Third Degree) and the Latvian government awarded him the Order of the Three Stars.
During his not so short life, the author of these lines has never met a man in whom extraordinary talent, industry, modesty and unusual respect for the work of others was so harmoniously combined.
In 1960, at the Institute of Lithuanian Language and Literature, there was a meeting with the secretary of the Soviet journal Voprosy jazykoznija (Problems of Linguistics), Nikita Tolstoy, the great-grandson of Leo Tolstoy. The administration of the institute assigned me the job of taking care of our guest. We walked about the Old Town of Vilnius; and I was greatly surprised when, at the Orthodox church near the Dawn Gates (Aušros vartai, Ostra brama), our guest crossed himself (these were the times of militant atheism), gave some money for candles and explained to the monk sitting there exactly which deceased persons he was to pray for. Imperceptibly, the conversation turned to Toporov. His translation from Pali of the Buddhist chef d’oeuvre Dhammapada had been published recently in Moscow. I had learned the unfortunate history of this work from Toporov’s letter of 23 March 1960. “The Oriental Institute of the USSR’s Academy of Sciences had published the book.” They had already begun to sell it at the Institute kiosk. After three or four days, however, the distribution of the book was stopped: in the book’s introduction, the translator had published religious views and had not given the Marxist interpretation of this Buddhist work. One hundred and fifty copies of the book had already been sold (with a print run of 40,000). However, all was not lost. Toporov hoped that at least a small portion of the copies would reach the bookstores. He soon sent me a copy. Still, it was difficult to stop the book’s distribution, since the chief editor was the famous Russian Orientalist Yurij Rerich. I liked the introduction to the book very much, and Nikita Tolstoy was particularly delighted by it. I was also intrigued by the fact that the book had been dedicated to the memory of a certain V. S. Vorobyov-Desyatovski. I didn’t know who this man was. Nikita Tolstoy explained to me that Toporov had probably never met this man, but still felt a special respect for him. Considerably later, I learned that he was a Russian Orientalist who had not reached the age of thirty. When Nikikta Tolstoy began to talk about Toporov’s modesty, he said: “You know – he is simply a saint.” It seems to me now that Tolstoy’s words were a very appropriate characterization of Toporov’s personality
The translation of Dhammapada, with the “scandalous” introduction, has now been published for the seventh time, most recently in Novosibirsk.
My indirect acquaintance with Toporov began in the spring of 1956. I first heard about him from Zigmas Zinkevičius. My former teacher talked about this Moscow linguist, whom I had not heard of before, with great respect; he said he was very friendly and simple. Later, he showed me a letter from Toporov in which my name was mentioned. There he wrote that he was already indirectly acquainted with one Sabaliauskas. It seems that in some library where he had asked for Endzelin’s book, The Old Prussian Language, they told him that it had already been checked out by a certain Sabaliauskas. This book has a kind of symbolic significance in my relationship with Toporov. In 1959, when the Latvian linguist, D. Zemzare, gave me this book, I sent it to Toporov immediately. He made himself a copy, which was undoubtedly always to hand on his desk.
In 1957, as a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Lithuanian Language and Literature, I got a month’s leave to work in Moscow. Zigmas Zinkevičius asked me to take a letter to Toporov. One day, I telephoned the number that had been given to me. I still remember the uncomfortable situation when my friend from university times, who was taking care of me, collapsed in laughter when I had to pronounce the name and the patronymic. I could say “Vladimir” all right; but when it came to “Nikolayevich,” I would either completely forget it, or I couldn’t pronounce it correctly. Even later, I still had problems with Russian names and patronymics. I remember that I asked Toporov once if, instead of “Samuil Borisovich,” I could say “Professor Bernshtein.”’ He said that one could say that, but people would take it as a slight lack of respect, if one had already been introduced.
I finally decided to go to Toporov’s place, and walked all the way from Red Square. When, fairly exhausted, I arrived at Leningrad chaussée 68/70 (at that time Toporov and his wife were living with his wife’s parents) it seemed to me that I had traversed half of Moscow. Toporov himself let me in. He was then a rather young, somewhat stout, bearded, blue-eyed man with glasses and he spoke with a mellifluous voice. His appearance bespoke a man of nineteenth-century Russian culture. He differed perhaps only in that he was wearing a blue sport outfit. He excused himself, saying that he had just gotten up, because he had the bad habit of liking to work late nights. I was greeted very nicely. I felt as if I had come across old friends whom I had not seen in a long time. Toporov’s wife, Tatyana Elizarenkova, said that they had vacationed in Lithuania and that they knew Vytautas Mažiulis and Zigmas Zinkevičius. She seemed to me to be a pretty and very elegant woman, considerably younger than her husband (although in fact only a year younger) and with eastern features. And such features harmonized with her specialty, Indic philology. Her mother, who still looked rather young, also had an intellectual face with similar eastern features, but perhaps a bit more severe.
After a few days, I was again at their place. Toporov and I walked about the city; and he showed me the more interesting parts of the old city. He pointed out the house where his parents had lived. Not far from there was a Catholic church, where he had come across Lithuanians for the first time. Sometimes, on his way to school, he met people coming out of the church who spoke a language that was completely unintelligible to him. Only much later did he learn they were Lithuanians. Toporov also told me that the paving in front of the church had been changed overnight. It seems that Charles de Gaulle, a Catholic, might want to pray there.
I got acquainted with the manuscript of Toporov’s doctoral dissertation, which consisted of two volumes of 600 pages each. I knew that, during the course of the dissertation defense, 29 both evaluators said this dissertation was worth, not only the candidate’s degree (= western doctor’s degree), but a doctor’s degree (= contemporary European Habilitation or Lithuanian habilituotas daktaras) as well. It was published as a separate book in 1961 with the title The Locative in the Slavic Languages. In it the history of the Lithuanian locative case is exhaustively studied also. Toporov’s library made a great impression on me. He himself drew my attention to some of the books. The volume For Roman Jakobson lay on his desk. This was a collection of articles dedicated in honor of the sixtieth birthday of this philologist. Toporov told me a great deal about this scholar, whom I hadn’t heard of before this. But when I saw that in this book, in addition to many other interesting articles, there was an article by Alfred Senn entitled “Vincas Krėvė and Lithuanian Folklore,” I could not resist the urge to ask to take the book home for a few days. At that time, Senn was forbidden fruit for us, although it had become possible to talk a little bit about Vincas Krėvė-Mickevičius only a short time before. Even though it was not Toporov’s book, he lent it to me gladly. I became even more convinced about how much this man knew and how pleasant it was to listen to his stories. When I asked his opinion about who was the greatest contemporary Russian poet, he answered, to my surprise and without hesitation, that it was Boris Pasternak. He even began to recite some excerpts of his poetry. Until that time, this poet was unknown to me. And, in Toporov’s opinion, the greatest Russian linguist was the still very young Vyacheslav Ivanov. For me, these were all new discoveries. And, in my eyes, Toporov became even younger.
In those days, I was a special admirer of Sergei Esenin. And, whenever the occasion arose, I recited his verse out loud. Even now, if I am in a good mood and I have an appropriate audience, I can’t help reciting “Letter to my mother” (in Salomėja Neris’s Lithuanian translation). I wanted very much to visit the poet’s grave, which I had not found in the Novodevichee cemetery. Toporov knew where the grave was and suggested visiting it the following day. I have forgotten the name of the cemetery, but I remember that a number of Russian artists are buried 30 there (Surikov, Savrasov). At that time, on Esenin’s grave, there was a very simple stone. Several fresh bouquets of flowers met the eye. What moved one most was the fact that right next to it was the modest grave-stone of the woman who had decided to end her life at the grave of her beloved. Toporov also showed me the Armenian cemetery close by.
I often went to Toporov’s place; and each time I did I was entertained. During our conversations, I was constantly amazed at his knowledge of Lithuanian linguists and their work. I returned from Moscow very happy, since I felt that I had found people there that I would like to visit again.
The first person to urge Toporov to take up Lithuanian studies was Prof. Mikhail Peterson. This professor had acquainted then first-year student Toporov and a group of his friends with the fundamentals of Sanskrit. And in the following year, he taught Lithuanian in the Philology Department. Almost all of the students were the same ones in the above-mentioned Sanskrit course. Although it was as late as 1948, they were still reading Lithuanian tales from August Schleicher’s German book published in Prague in 1857, Litauisches Lesebuch und Glossar (Lithuanian Reader and Glossary). Therefore, Peterson’s lectures to his students were a good stimulus to learn German better as well. During one vacation, Toporov went over Peterson’s lectures by himself very carefully. He was particularly intrigued to find so many interesting facts for the study of the Slavic languages. Toporov came to Lithuania during the first year of his graduate studies. Before the trip, he, his wife and Tatyana Bulygina spent two weeks in intensive study of spoken Lithuanian. This time, their teacher was the Moscow university student, economist and future advanced schools’ docent and even, at one time, chairman of a collective farm, Alfonsas Bunkus.
Toporov knew many languages and he learned them easily. But he did not have the “parrot talent.” He could only speak Lithuanian fluently with children, when adults could not overhear him. When he taught languages to his daughters, within two or three months they began to criticize their father’s 31 pronunciation. His wife, who had graduated as a specialist in English, could pronounce Lithuanian words very well.
Once, at the Curonian Spit, the Toporovs desperately needed a room, but couldn’t get one. His wife got the idea that they should use Lithuanian to try to get a room. Toporov wrote out a polite scenario. His wife learned it so well that they got a room immediately. The hosts were careful of what they said in the presence of his wife, but in the presence of Toporov they felt quite at ease because he apparently would not understand them.
Another memorable meeting with Toporov took place on February 21st, 1958. Preparing to present the Lenin Prize to Janis Endzelin for his Latvian grammar on the occasion of this great linguist’s 85th birthday, the Latvians had prepared a big celebration. Numerous guests had been invited from various republics. Even a Baltic area military commander congratulated the Latvian linguist. An irony of fate: In 1941, the Soviet Latvian government had planned to destroy the work, because, in the foreword to the 1922 German edition, there was a sentence describing the events of the October Revolution in a negative way, but now they were awarding him the Lenin Prize for this very same book.
On the eve of the ceremony, I saw Toporov hurrying down the street with some unknown person with a very young face, almost a child’s face. I immediately suspected that it was the “still very young,” but in Toporov’s opinion, the most distinguished contemporary Russian linguist. I was not mistaken. Then, of course, I could not anticipate how successful the activity of these two good friends, often co-authors, would be in the field of Baltic linguistics and ancient history.
In the summer of that same year, I again met both linguists in Vilnius. And the meeting was very important, since Toporov, at the request of the assistant director, Jonas Kruopas, had agreed to be an examiner for my dissertation.
I even remember our dinner at the restaurant of the Hotel Vilnius. After we had all agreed on what to eat, I asked our guests what we should drink. Toporov said he was a teetotaler. 32 Ivanov said that, as an old sailor, he drank everything but kerosene or water, and sometimes even kerosene, but never water.
The following day, along with a group of researchers from the Institute of Lithuanian Language and Literature, we traveled to the isolated Lithuanian communities in Belarus, this favorite but unfortunate haunt of world linguists since the end of the nineteenth century. We were worried about how our guests, accustomed to the intellectual life of the big city, would feel. We worried unnecessarily. Our guests did just fine. At that time, there were a number of Lithuanians in the area of Zietela and Lazunai. We were met everywhere very cordially. True, we did not avoid all problems of hospitality.
Already, on the first day of the expedition, the owner of a small plot of ground came to greet us. He was holding a bottle of home brew and a glass. First, he poured some out for Toporov, but Toporov shook his head. Our host was amazed: A Russian, even one with a beard, who doesn’t drink whiskey?! The day was saved unexpectedly, however, by a woman who asked whether Toporov might be a Baptist. Toporov answered: “Yes, I’m a Baptist.” This magic word helped Toporov during the entire expedition. The honor of the expedition was saved by Ivanov. When someone poured out a glass for him, he drank it right down without a grimace and thanked the host in a very pleasant voice. After the second drink, his voice became even more pleasant. But don’t think that he was an alcoholic. I never saw him drunk.
But there were other problems too. One day, all three of us got totally separated from our base point. When we asked the way back, we were told that the distance would be about five kilometers going around the swamp, but only about half the distance if we went through it. We chose, of course, the shorter route. Unfortunately, we had made a big mistake. There were moments when we thought that we would never get out of that swamp. In my youth, I had run about all kinds of places with little tussocks, and was used to jumping from one to the other. But my friends weren’t able to do this. They were getting soaked in the swamp. Toporov could see practically nothing through his fogged glasses. Perhaps it isn’t proper to brag, but taking them by the hand, I led them out of that swamp. When our frightfully exhausted feet reached firmer ground, Ivanov smiled and said that it was most probable that the Indo-European language had developed in just such a landscape.
I remember one sleepless night,when I learned a Russian word that I still remember after a half a century, that is, komar “mosquito,” which probably has the same root as Lithuanian kamanė “bumble-bee.” But at that time it seemed to me, for some reason or other, that the Slavic name for the mosquito should, like the Lithuanian name for the same insect, uodas, be connected with the verb denoting “to eat.” For our night’s lodging we had selected a large barn at some distance from the huts. While we made ourselves comfortable in the hay, however, we heard a distant buzz. The buzzing kept getting closer. At last, we felt what kind of frightful creatures swamp mosquitoes are. Our resistance was in vain. About 2:00 a.m., we abandoned our sleeping places and headed off in the direction where we thought the sun would come up. Going barefoot at night through a refreshing peat bog and contemplating a starry sky was a pure delight. The mosquitoes did not bother us then. The fundamental topic of our conversation was the incorporation of Lithuania into the Soviet Union. They were most interested in my childhood impressions of these events.
Ivanov recalled these events in one of his recent publications, Linguistics of the Third Millennium (Moscow, 2004).
In the fall of 1958, I met Ivanov and Toporov again in Moscow at the Fourth International Congress of Slavists. For me, this congress was an extraordinary event. I saw many legendary figures, whose names I had only known from the covers of books, journal articles or the pages of encyclopedias. It was thanks to Kostas Korsakas that I, who had not yet defended my doctoral dissertation, had the chance to go to this scholarly gathering. Ivanov and Toporov’s lecture on the relationships of the Baltic and Slavic languages made a great impression on me.
I once had occasion to participate, along with Ivanov and Toporov, in a lottery. In 1939, the Finnish Academy of Sciences had published Valentin Kiparsky’s book Die Kurenfrage (The Curonian Question). This book was not to be found in any library in Lithuania or Moscow, most likely as a result of the Russo-Finnish war. The author of this work, at that time a professor at the Free University of Berlin, had brought two copies with him to Moscow. But how divide them up? There were two books and three persons. Nevertheless, he decided to give me one, since that way there would be one book in Lithuania; and for the remaining one, lots were drawn. Ivanov won the lottery.
For Vytautas Mažiulis, Zigmas Zinkevičus and myself, the conference ended with a party at Toporov’s place. In addition to us and our hosts, the participants included Dmitri Shmeliov, a specialist in the history of the Russian language (later an academician) and his wife, Tatyana Bulygina, one of the closest friends of the Toporov family. There was a lot of talk about the Congress and its participants. The International Congress of Slavists had taken place in Moscow for the first time. The government had a lot of concerns. Many emigrants and their children had come. There was talk that they hadn’t wanted to admit Vladimir Mayakovski’s friend, Roman Jakobson. Jakobson’s talk had to be rescheduled from the original room to the central hall, since so many people had wanted to attend.
From my dissertation defense, perhaps, I remember best the “necktie” incident. Toporov and I were walking around the Old Town quarter of Vilnius. When there was only about an hour left before the defense, Toporov suddenly said that he had to go to my room (I was staying in the doctoral students’ dormitory of the Academy of Sciences), because he had to get his briefcase. I said that there wouldn’t be any need for that, because I had his evaluation of the dissertation with me. Unfortunately, the problem was more complicated. Toporov’s wife had asked him to wear a necktie to the dissertation defense. He had promised to, but the necktie was in his briefcase. We had to hurry. The defense took place in the university’s so-called Hall of Columns. Everything went well. After the defense, upon his first step outside the hall, Toporov hastily tore off the necktie and stuck it in his pocket.
Not wishing to make more difficulties for the person defending his dissertation, my examiner left for Moscow late in the evening of the same day. Along with the other examiner, Prof. Merkelis Račkauskas, we had supper in the railroad station’s restaurant. Račkauskas was amazed by the guest’s “Baptist” abstinence from liquor. Still, he soon became very happy. He related all kinds of adventures from his life. He explained that he was older than Prof. Juozas Balčikonis, who, like Toporov, didn’t drink at all. (But note which one looks better.) Our conversation was so animated that our guest almost missed his train. And upon our meeting many years later, Toporov and I recalled that supper and Prof. Račkauskas’s stories.
But Toporov was not only remarkable for his scholarly achievements. In the summer of 1968, Simas Karaliūnas and I were staying at Toporov’s place waiting for our trip to Prague, where the Sixth International Congress of Slavists was to take place. The situation there was tense. It wasn’t clear who would arrive in Prague first: we, or the tanks. But we left, and the tanks came later.
At about that time, Toporov and I had agreed to go someplace together. The appointed time came, and he still wasn’t there. Finally, through a window, I saw someone approaching at a run. All out of breath, he apologized for his tardiness. One of the employees at his Institute had just brought home a baby from the hospital, but didn’t know how to wash it. Toporov had gone to help.
There were occasions when Toporov apologized for not being able to see me off at the railroad station. I would know then that the Moscow Spartacus soccer team was playing, and my friend had to hurry to the stadium. Toporov never missed a game of this soccer team. Later, I would accompany him and his friends to the Spartacus games. For the most part, these were high school friends or the children of friends. At the stadium, Toporov changed completely. Like other soccer fans, he would 36 wave his hands and shout. At times, he seemed to be a very knowledgeable soccer specialist. I remember a game between Spartacus and the Doneck Shakhtyor (Miners’) team at the Luzhniki stadium. A penalty kick was announced at the Shakhtyor goal. The crowd was screaming that the referee had placed the ball too far away. Toporov explained calmly that there was no reason for the protest. If Gavrilov kicks, the added distance would help. Gavrilov kicked, and the ball landed in a corner of the goal and saved Spartacus from a loss. I was amazed at how much Toporov and his friends knew about Lithuanian sports. Without any trouble, they could give the names of all our most distinguished soccer players and say something about their style of play.
Toporov’s connections with Spartacus and his attention to soccer were not accidental. In high school, he had played on the same team as the famous Russian soccer player Igor Netto, who was not only on the Spartacus team, but captain of the Soviet Union’s national team as well. When a European or World soccer championship was being decided, Toporov’s work tempo slowed down significantly.
I usually went to Moscow in the beginning of July. Then Toporov’s apartment and his huge personal library were at my disposal. He and his family regularly stayed at their summerhouse (dacha) then and rarely came to Moscow. I usually went to their summerhouse on the fifth of July. I had to go about twenty kilometers from the Yaroslavl railroad station. I would get off at Valentimovkaya, and Toporov would meet me there. The summerhouse stood in a nice place in the forest. It belonged to his wife’s parents. Their neighbors were, for the most part, distinguished Moscow theater personalities. The villa of the famous Moscow comic Yuriy Nikolin was not far away. I didn’t remember the places very well, and I was always afraid of getting lost. But when the train stopped at a place called Mystishchi, I knew I was going in the right direction. Before my eyes would then appear the painting by Vasilii Perov entitled “Drinking Tea at Mystishchi.” I loved this painter very much.
Usually, the same people would celebrate Toporov’s birthday. The regular guests were his sister Irina, with her daughters and her husband Pavlik, Tatyana Bulygina, Dmitrii Shmeliov, and Pavel Grincer. They were all very nice to me. It seems that only certain people could gather at Toporov’s place. Speaking about Toporov’s family, I must not fail to mention their housekeeper of many years, their daughters’ nurse, Aunt Masha. She was a simple, good-hearted woman from the Russian provinces, very much attached to the Toporov family. I remember her cabbage pirozhki, an especial favorite of my wife’s. She explained to us that Toporov’s house was very solid, because it had been built by German prisoners of war.
I also remember from that household the beautiful, nice, hairy brown dog – some kind of English breed. They said that, of all the members of the household, the dog especially loved Vladimir. The love was apparently mutual, because, after the dog had gone through the first volume of Kazimieras Būga’s Collected Works, tearing up the volume with all of Toporov’s notes, the relationship between the offender and the master did not suffer. So Tatyana Bulygina gave Toporov her copy of the book.
The last time Toporov and his wife were guests at our place was during the fall of 1994. At that time, along with the political scientist, Thomas Remeikis, the Jesuit historian Paulius Rabikauskas and the American Baltic specialist, William R. Schmalstieg, Toporov was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Vilnius. Vytautas Mažiulis, Toporov’s graduate school friend, was also invited to lunch, on this day, but he felt ill and was unable to attend. This would perhaps have been the only time that the most distinguished specialists in the Old Prussian language would have gathered under one roof. Toporov joked that this was the first time in his life that he had seen himself on television. From his studio, the sculptor Konstantinas Bogdanas had brought William R. Schmalstieg and his wife to our place after considerable delay, since on the way his car had run out of gas and he had to fill a container and pour it into the tank. After Bogdanas left, Toporov talked about his ordeal in the sculptor’s studio. In the first place, the sculptor had looked right through him with a frightful look. Then, he began to beat the clay head with sticks. Then he spit water out of his mouth. It seemed to Toporov that the sculptor was taking something out of him and putting it into the watered-down clay.
It is sad to think that all that is in the past and will never return. The Russian scholars with whom I had various degrees of contact, and whom I liked to a greater or lesser degree, have left us one after the other. Tatyana Bulygina and Dmitri Shmelyov are no longer with us. Toporov had just time to write an obituary for his friend, the academician Oleg Trubachev. The academician Nikita Tolstoy, who first characterized Toporov for me so aptly, is now resting at Yasnaya Polyana beside his famous great-grandfather, the novelist Leo Tolstoy.
This is a slightly revised English translation of “Keletas smulk-menų Vladimiro Toporovo portretui,” (A Few Details for a Portrait of Vladimir Toporov) which appeared in Šiaures Atėnai, May 8, 2006, No. 14 (792).