Vintage Russian Trash-Talk and Backhanded Complements from The Brothers Karamazov

There’s an old, and quite sexist, quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “If we encounter a woman of rare intellect, we should ask her what book she reads”. And on that note, if I’m in a situation that requires the doling out of some quality, razor-sharp insults – having recently finished The Brothers Karamazov (1880) will definitely work in my favour (or I could just throw the book at whoever’s being lippy – it’s a pretty hefty text and my copy’s a hardback).

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s final novel, chronicles the tumultuous family rivalry between the Karamazov’s – and ultimately the murder of their father (also called Fyodor). It usually features on any must-read classics lists quite rightly, for being both: a dense philosophical pondering on morality and Russian culture, as well as a timeless story filled with drama worthy of the Jeremy Kyle Show (Fyodor spends a lot of his time trying to seduce his eldest son Dimitri’s love interest – he’s a bit of a shit-lord).

But what Brothers Karamazov doesn’t get enough credit for, is the incredible extent of sarcasm, bitchiness and witty put-downs it has scattered throughout it’s 800-something pages. Here are a few of my personal favourite moments where some hash insults and delightful vintage trash-talk enhanced the dialogue tenfold:

[Rakitin to Alyosha] “Your brother Ivan declared once that I was a ‘liberal booby with no talents whatsoever’”

[Dimitri, on why he doesn’t suspect Smerdyakov of Fyodor’s murder] “Because Smerdyakov is a man of the most abject character and a coward. He’s not only a coward, he’s the epitome of all the cowardice in the world walking on two legs. He has the heart of a chicken”

“He’s a puling chicken – sickly, epileptic, weak-minded – a child of eight could thrash him”

[a middle aged market woman at Koyla] “You impudent young monkey. You want a whipping, that’s what you want, you saucy young jackanapes!” 

[Ivan to Smerdyakov – this may be my favourite apology in literature ever] “Yes I am sorry I didn’t punch you in the face…I couldn’t have taken you to the lock up just then. Who would’ve believed me and what charge could I bring against you? But the punch in the face – oh, I’m sorry I didn’t think of it. Though blows are forbidden, I should have pounded your ugly face to jelly” 

[Smerdyakov on Grigory] “He is not a man, I assure you, but an obstinate mule”

[Dimitri on Smerdyakov again] “I don’t want to say more of the stinking son of that Stinking Lizaveta” 

[the narrator on the look Mitya’s sporting to his court hearing] “But Mitya made a most unfavourable impression on me. He looked an awful dandy in a brand-new frock-coat”

[Mitya, on hearing about Smerdyakov’s death] “He was a dog and died like a dog”

Koyla’s insults (a thirteen year old character who needs his own section cause he’s the 19th century Russian equivalent of Holden Caulfield)

[A back-handed complement on Ilusha’s mother]’“….I think she is awfully nice and pathetic”

[on Germans] “…sausage-makers, grovelling before authority” 

[Describing an incident where he inadvertently killed some farmers goose at the market and had to to the equivalent of small claims court] “I looked at him, he was a stupid, moon-faced fellow of twenty” …. “we all went off to the justice’s, they bought the goose too. The fellow was crying in a great funk, simply blubbering like a woman”

[to Kartashov (another child – this one’s pretty harsh)] “I beg you most earnestly, Kartashov, not to interrupt again with your idiotic remarks, especially when one is not talking to you and doesn’t care to know whether you exist or not” 

[talking to a doctor (bit of context, Koyla thinks ‘medicines a fraud’)] “Don’t be afraid, apothecary, ….” “And you know apothecary…” (what a little wise arse)

Versatile Insults You Could Easily Pepper into a Debate

  • Flunkey
  • Viper
  • Serpent
  • Trivial
  • Frightfully Stupid
  • Awfully Stupid
  • Snivelling Idiot
  • Mother’s Darling
  • Wanton Woman
  • Blockhead
  • A Repulsive Mug
  • Sheepishly Sentimental
  • Buffoon
  • Rogue
  • A Soft, city-bred rogue
  • A Mountebank
  • A Bernard (I have no idea why this is an insult, but Mitya repeatedly throws this one out there. Maybe Dostoevsky knew someone called Bernard who was just the worst – or maybe he’s referring to the dog breed)
  • ‘Wisp of Tow’ (apparently referring to someone acting cowardly. It’s quite a layered and intelligent insult for a group of schoolboys, it’s impressive really. They must’ve had a sophisticated-type pow-wow to come up with it)