“I think in Rus(s)ian”. On the 150th anniversary of the death of Vladimir Dal

Vladimir Dal was a Russian writer, ethnographer, folklorist, military doctor, and an official. His magnum opus is the legendary Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language. However, few people know that once the dictionary was considered only one of his eccentricities, while Vladimir Dal constantly refined and completed it until his death, never fully satisfied with his brainchild.


Dal was born in 1801 in the village of Lugansky Zavod, and later he used the name of his native place for his pen name, Lugansk Cossack. His father, Johann Christian Dal, was a Dane, fluent in Russian as well as in German, English, French, Yiddish, Latin, Greek, and Classical Hebrew. In addition to this, Johann Christian Dal studied theology and medicine. That is why Catherine the Great herself invited Dal to Russia, as she needed a polyglot and a linguist for the position of a librarian. In Russia, he married a Russian German woman Maria Freytag, who freely spoke five languages and was into translation and Russian literature. It is not surprising that having such parents Dal received excellent homeschooling and became interested in reading and the Russian language from his childhood years.

Versatile person

In fact, Dal was interested in many more things. During his life, Vladimir tried different jobs.

At the age of 11, he entered the Naval Cadet School, after which he was appointed midshipman to the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Empire. Dal soon discovered he was suffering from seasickness, but he had to serve for several years as a payment for state education. Saying goodbye to the sea, Vladimir decided to follow his father’s footsteps, and in 1826 he entered the medical faculty of Dorpat University. There, Dal made friends with Nikolay Pirogov, a famous surgeon in the future, who highly appreciated Dal’s opera­tion skills, calling him jack-of-all-trades.

In 1828, when the Russo-Turkish war began, Vladimir passed the exam for a doctor of medicine and surgery ahead of schedule and went to the front. The young mi­­litary doctor had to work to the point of exhaustion: Dal had often fallen asleep right on the wounded man, the one he had just been operating on. Later, Dal participated in the campaign against Poland. At the end of the war, he entered the Military Hospital in Saint Petersburg as an intern. In the capital of the Russian Empire, Dal won the reputation of an experienced ophthalmologist and performed over 40 cataract removal operations, not to mention others.

After quitting surgeon’s work, Vladimir retained his passion for ophthalmology and homeopathy for the rest of his life. At first, Dal did not take homeopathy seriously and even wrote a critical article on Samuel Hahnemann, its founder. However, after one of his close re­latives, who was considered hopelessly ill, was cured by a homeopath, Dal began to actively study and even promote this type of alternative medicine. What is more, he wrote the first Russian article in defense of homeopathy.

During the suppression of the Polish uprising, Dal managed to distinguish himself in a way unusual for a doctor. Since there was no engineer in the troops at that time, Dal had to build and then destroy a bridge across the Vistula so that General Rüdiger could cross it. The commanders reprimanded Dal for this unsanctioned action, but later he was awarded a medal by order of Emperor Nicholas I.

Vladimir was fond of writing from an early age: as a child, he wrote poetry, and during student years he entertained his classmates with funny stories. His first book, Russian Fairy Tales. The First Five, published in 1832 made Vladimir famous in the literary circles of Saint Petersburg. In addition to many articles and stories, Dal wrote several textbooks on zoo­logy and bo­tany as well as some physiological essays.

For almost eight years, Dal has been wor­king as an official under the military governor in Orenburg, and later, at the Ministry of Internal Affairs. This work turned out to be so demanding and exhausting that after a couple of years Vladimir asked for a transfer to the Appanage Department in Nizhny Novgorod. This position was actually a real step down, but it enabled Dal to complete his years-long collection of Russian words and proverbs.


Dal became interested in folklore when he was a child. Actually, Vladimir wrote down his first word for the future Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language when he was very young, on the way to the Naval Cadet School. Whatever he did later, he kept up his hobby — collecting unique samples of the wealth of folk language. Dal said there was not a single day when he would not write down a word or a phrase to reple­nish his collection. His camp life and travelling benefited this hobby. Dal was sure that “it is impossible to learn Russian if one stays at the same place.” It seems that it was the only way for a self-taught linguist working alone to gather such an extensive material — over 200,000 words and 37,000 proverbs and sayings.

Dal wrote “Great Russian” in the title of his dictionary with one “s.” He believed that the double “s” in the word “Russian” was a Polish influence, while in Russia it had been written with a single letter. Historians and linguists refute this assumption, claiming that the word “Russian” has Greek roots and a double consonant. A corresponding correction was made to the dictionary only at the beginning of the 20th century during the work on its third edition.

Dal grouped the words he had been collecting for 53 years according to the principle of “obvious family connection and close relationship” and spent a lot of time working on the design and proofreading of the publication. He proofread the first edition of his dictionary published in 1863 14 times, and later he devoted all his life to adding new material and improving the dictionary. However, Dal’s lifework did not get the warm welcome of his contemporaries. Despite the fact that Dal was awarded the Academy of Sciences Prize, the medal of the Russian Geographical Society for the dictionary and active public discussion, Explana­tory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language was perceived rather as one of Dal’s eccentrici­ties along with his ot­her impractical hobbies like spiritualism, homeopathy, and playing the harmonica. The huge role of Dal’s dictionary for Russian culture was understood only after his death. Famous Russian writers Sergei Yesenin, Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandelstam, and Vladimir Nabokov referred to the dictionary, and it served as the basis for almost all subsequent Russian dictionaries.

Dal used illustrations in the dictionary twice, anticipating similar endeavors of modern lexicographers. For instance, the entry “Hat” demonstrated different silhouettes of hats, while the entry “Beef” showed a cow divided into parts like a cut chart.

Actually, Dal was rather critical of his works, and he constantly complained, “This is not a dictionary but a stock for a dictionary. Make me 30 years younger, give me 10 years of leisure, and let good people give me sound advice, and we would redo everything, and in the end a good dictionary would appear!” Even when dying, the bedridden Dal asked his daughter to make a collection of four new words he had heard by chance.

Dal and Pushkin

Vladimir was on friendly terms with Russian writers Vasily Zhukovsky, Ivan Krylov, Nikolai Gogol, and Alexander Pushkin. It is worth mentioning how Dal became acquainted with the latter. When the first collection of Russian Fairy Tales made a splash in Saint Petersburg, Dal took a copy of his book and went to present himself to the poet. “Pushkin took my book,” Dal recalled, “opened it and read the beginning, the end, different pages, and kept saying with laughter, ‘very good.’ ”

Dal and Pushkin soon became friends since they both loved fairy tales and folk language. Pushkin highly appreciated and supported Dal’s work on the dictionary. In turn, Dal helped Pushkin collect materials for The History of the Pugachev’s Rebellion and The Captain’s Daughter. It is known that Pushkin told Dal The Tale of George the Brave and the Wolf, while staying at his place in Orenburg. Later, Vladimir published the story referring to Pushkin in the footnote.

Dal learned about Pushkin’s tragic duel on January 28 and, as he was in Saint Petersburg, immediately rushed to the poet’s home on the Moika River. Vladimir was next to his friend until the very end and closed the eyes of the deceased writer. In his notes, Dal recollected the hours spent by the woun­ded poet, “I approached the poor man, he gave me his hand, smiled, and said, ‘It doesn’t look good, brother!’ I came up to the bed of the dying man and remained there until the end of that terrible day.” During those hours, Pushkin often asked Dal to hold his hand and gave his friend an emerald ring, which was his talisman, as a keepsake. Vladimir kept that cherished gift all his life, and in the 1950s the ring returned to the Pushkin Museum-Apartment on the Moika.

Marina Skvortsova