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Prominent Russians: Vladimir Dahl

November 22, 1801 — October 4, 1872
Владимир Иванович Даль. Портрет кисти В. Г. Перова. Vladimir Dahl. Portrait by V. Perov. Владимир Иванович Даль. Портрет кисти В. Г. Перова.

Vladimir Dahl was a Russian lexicographer, ethnographer and writer. The greatest work of his life is the “Explanatory Dictionary of the Live Great Russian Language,” the first of its kind ever written or published in Russia. It is still one of the most popular and widely used resources of the Russian language.

Family background

Of the two essential things required for creating the most famous Russian dictionary – being Russian and having good linguistics genes - Vladimir Dahl had only the genes. His father, Johan Christian Dahl, was a Danish linguist whose brilliant career reached the ears of the Russian Empress Catherine the Great, and she invited him to Saint Petersburg to be a librarian. However, he later returned to Germany to continue his medical education and returned to Russia as a doctor. In 1779 he was granted Russian citizenship, got married and was sent to work in the little mining town in Lugansk, in modern day Ukraine.

Dahl Sr. married Maria Freitag who was of German and French descent; she was the daughter of a translator and spoke five languages. On November 10, 1801 she gave birth to a son, Vladimir. Vladimir spent his childhood in the little town of Lugansk, which later gave him his penname Kazak Lugansky (The Cossack of Lugansk).

The years of Navy service

In 1814 Dahl’s father took Vladimir to St. Petersburg to study at the Navy Cadet School, thereby committing the next ten years of his life to serving in the Navy. “The Navy school is a hateful memory for me, I literally killed my time there all the way up to 1819. The things I remember most vividly are the rod, and the classes – everything we were taught there was just for show,” Dahl wrote.

He spent his five years of service in the Black Sea Fleet. He sailed to Ismail, Odessa and Sevastopol, enduring heavy service and harsh conditions. While serving in the Russian Navy, Vladimir Dahl visited Denmark. On the way back he wrote: “Sailing to the shores of Denmark, I was very excited about seeing the motherland of my ancestors - my motherland. However, it was the shores of Denmark that convinced me that my motherland was Russia, and that I don’t have anything in common with my parents’ homeland.”

From Navy officer to doctor

The service weighed Dahl down – he wasn’t fond of the sea, but most importantly he felt the need for a proper education. In 1826, Vladimir decided to retire from the Navy and change his life in the most drastic way. Being a midshipman by that time didn’t stop him – he entered the medical faculty of Derpt. The years he spent there he called the golden age of his life. This free merry student town encouraged a liberal lifestyle, the kind he never experienced before or after. Here he could study to his heart’s content. Dahl was overtaken by science and foreign languages, memorizing a hundred Latin words daily. He studied surgery.

In March 1829, the 28-year old Dahl became a Doctor of Science. Right after that he became an army doctor in the Russo-Turkish War.

In the early 1830s Dahl fought the plague and cholera in Ukraine, before going back to the war, this time with Poland. There are tales of how Dahl saved a whole infantry unit. He came up with a way to build a bridge over the Visla River by connecting empty barrels into a floating bridge. After the unit crossed the river he was the last to retreat, destroying the bridge to keep enemy troops away. He was highly awarded for his bravery – he received the Vladimir’s Cross and an honorary certificate in addition to the Order of St. Anna he had been awarded for his part in the Turkish War.

No matter where Dahl went or what he did – he took down notes. He collected fairytales, proverbs, songs and words. The Navy and the army were a great place for that, because they provided the opportunity for extensive travel and exposure to people from all regions of Russia. Soon he became rather possessed by this hobby, and it grew into a life calling.

Dahl and Pushkin

In 1832 Dahl met Aleksandr Pushkin, who had already risen to become Russia’s greatest poet and writer.

“I took my new book and went to introduce myself to the poet. My book was called ‘Russian Fairytales. The First Five by Kazak Lugansky.’ The servant opened the door, took my coat, and went to tell Pushkin about my visit. I was anxious walking through the room, empty and dark in the dusk. Pushkin took my book, opened it and began reading at the beginning, at the end, and at random places.” He laughed at the stories and said “very good.” Pushkin so loved Dahl’s fairytales, that he gave him a handwritten manuscript of one of his tales with an inscription “To the tale writer Kazak Lugansky from the tale writer Aleksandr Pushkin.”

Pushkin also asked Dahl about his current work. Dahl confessed his old passion for collecting words, which by then amounted to some twenty thousand. “Why don’t you make a dictionary,” said Pushkin. “We really need a dictionary of the live spoken language. You have already practically completed a third of it. You can’t quit now.”

Pushkin agreed with Dahl that the Russian language, with its proverbs and sayings, held such richness, it needed to be preserved for generations to come. No one had ever done anything of this sort in Russia and Pushkin highly encouraged Dahl to continue in his undertaking. Their acquaintance grew into a strong and sincere friendship, which lasted until Pushkin’s death. Although Dahl lived in Orenburg he visited St. Petersburg often and even traveled with Pushkin in Russia.

During the tragic days of 1837, when Pushkin was injured after a deadly duel, Dahl as a doctor and friend took care of the writer. Pushkin gave Dahl a ring, which Dahl kept as a talisman along with Puskin’s frock with the hole from the deadly bullet. Dahl also took part in Pushkin’s autopsy and recorded the cause of death: “the injury is certainly of the deadly kind.”

A hobby grows into a life calling

In 1833 Dahl took an official post for the Interior Ministry and moved to Orenburg, a city on the outskirts of the Russian Empire. That same year he married Yulia Andre, who bore him a son, Leo, and daughter, Yulia. He lived for seven years with his family in Orenburg, until the death of his wife.

Working for the governor, Dahl didn’t make a good bureaucrat – he was too honest and sincere. He hated when people asked for privileges for their friends and refused giving promotions to those who didn’t deserve it. Despite heavy bureaucratic procedures, he was able to accomplish a few things for the people – he built a pedestrian bridge across the Ural River, created a local museum, solved a number of arguments and protected the steppe nomads under his jurisdiction.

He also had time to pursue his hobby, going on long trips exploring the Orenburg region, its inhabitants and their customs, along with the flora and the fauna of the area. As a result he compiled textbooks on Botany and Zoology, which received good reviews and were published several times. As for the ethnographic and historic findings, they were so significant that the Russian Academy of Sciences admitted Dahl as a member in 1838. It was here in Orenburg that he discovered his talent for writing as well. He published a volume of fairytales under the penname Kazak Lugansky. They were thought to be defamatory to the State and Emperor Nicholas I. Dahl was arrested and released only after the Tsar was convinced that putting Dahl in prison was a disproportionate response and only damaged the monarch’s reputation.

Памятник Далю в Луганске The Dahl monument in Lugansk, Russia

The success of his undertakings didn’t distract Dahl from the greatest work of his life – the collection of ethnographic and linguistic material. Despite Orenburg being a sort of a dump hole of the country, it was an open treasury for someone who was interested in the dialects spoken in the region. The place was a concentration of all kinds of ethnicities – besides Russians it was populated by Bashkirs, Kalmyks, Tatars and Mordovians. Dahl recorded everything – new words, songs, fairytales, riddles and fables. He went around to the houses and asked about old crafts and traditions, recording them in notebooks. After seven years of his work in Orenburg he had gathered several boxes worth of such notebooks.

Back in St. Petersburg

In 1840 Dahl’s superior was transferred to St. Petersburg and appointed Minister of the Interior. Dahl followed him to the capital. Here he married for the second time – to Ekaterina Lvovna Sokolova. Together they had three daughters – Maria, Olga and Ekaterina. 

In September 1845 Dahl held the first meeting of the Russian Geographic Society. He hoped that the members of the society would come up with a plan that would help collect more words, phrases and customs. Soon all regions of Russia received an Ethnographic Guide, which explained how to record and describe local traditions, legends, skills, family and home life of peasants, proverbs, fairytales, tongue-twisters of common people in the exact phrases, pronunciations and words they used. Soon material started trickling in to the Russian capital, uniting into a tremendous treasury of recourses.

The Dictionary of Live Great Russian Language

While living in St. Petersburg, Dahl greatly missed provincial lifestyle – its freedom and unpretentiousness. So in 1849 he moved to Nizhny Novgorod –where he spent the next ten years of his life collecting more words. Here as well he held an administrative position, which also obliged him to keep up his medical practice. However, Dahl soon realized that his life wouldn’t be complete if he didn’t organize all his findings into a dictionary.

In 1859 Dahl resigned from his service and moved to Moscow to pursue his ambition. He wanted to systematize the materials he had gathered and to publish them. He tried to offer his “treasures” and his services to the Imperial Academy of Sciences, but his offer wasn’t accepted.

He took the work upon himself, working day and night, many times in despair because of the tremendous responsibility of his undertaking. Since he didn’t have a philological education Dahl was learning on his own. This explains the reason why the dictionary gained such immense popularity. It was written from the perspective of a scholar, not an instructor. It didn’t display a haughty approach, but rather that of a person who worked hard gathering little grains of the living Russian language.

After every word had been written and its meaning decoded the next big task was to have it all printed. The only problem was that in the 40 years of his government service Dahl hadn’t saved enough money to publish his work.

The first editions of the dictionary were published by the Society of Lovers of the Russian Word. After the ninth edition it was announced that any further publication would be sponsored by the government.

The work done by Dahl was unprecedented. He put together and explained nearly 200 thousand words and nearly 37 proverbs and sayings of the Russian people. He has been called the Magellan who sailed across the Russian language from A to Z. Many find it hard to comprehend that all that work was done by one person. He alone produced a work that would have taken decades for a humanitarian institute with a large staff and modern technology.

The Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov, while studying in Cambridge, bought a copy of Dahl’s dictionary and read at least ten pages from it every evening. Alexander Solzhenitsyn took a volume of Dahl with him as his only book when he was sent to a prison camp in the 1940s. To this day Dahl’s dictionary remains the most popular and one of the most comprehensive resources of the Russian language and culture.

The latter years and legacy

By the time the dictionary came to print Dahl’s health had significantly deteriorated. The end of his work should have relieved him from pressure and helped his health. However, it turned out just the opposite – the long-term habit of hard work, once stopped, had a devastating effect on Dahl. He died on 22 September 1872 and was buried at the Vagankovskoe Cemetery.

A year before his death, he received confirmation that his ancestors from his father’s line were not Dutch but Russian. It turned out that Dahl’s predecessors were wealthy Starovers, or old believers, who had to flee Russia for Denmark under Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich. When he learned this, Dahl converted from Lutheranism to Orthodox Christianity. He had thought of himself as a Russian all his life, dedicating his life to the Russian language and people, and in the end he learned that Russian blood did flow in his veins after all. 

Written by Olga Prodan, RT

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