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Fourth Way Perspectives

Russian Roots in All and Everything

The Russian ingredient in Gurdjieff's All and Everything is quite strong. Observations about the use of Russian vocabulary, language patterns, and idioms may bring more light to understanding Gurdjieff's thought. In this article I wish to share the impressions and language observations of a native Russian speaker, from which other readers may, in the hope of Gurdjieff, "profit."

Gurdjieff's Name and Place of Birth

Although his father was Greek, the name 'Gurdjieff' does not sound Greek. The Russian ending 'ev/ov' (transliterated in French as 'eff/off') has a meaning of 'belonging to.' For example, the last name 'Petrov' means 'Peter's' or 'son of Peter.' This ending russifies the family names of people inhabiting the Caucasus: that incredible place where Mr. Gurdjieff was born.

The Caucasus is a special place on Earth, the place of origin of the Caucasoid ethnic division. Like the Middle East, it is one of the epicenters of the birth of the human race and civilization. Some of the meanings of Greek and Latin roots of the word 'Cau-casus' are 'stem,' 'reason,' 'discussion,' 'case.'

The meanings attached to Gurdjieff's place of birth and childhood seem relevant to the meaning of Gurdjieff's teaching. As Rev. Varsonofii, a Russian monk and thinker, once said: 'Remember that very often the name of the place where you live, the name of a person you know—in short, the name in itself—bears some mysterious meaning, and to clarify it often appears useful.'

Tens-if not hundreds-of ancient ethnic groups with a mixture of beliefs and cultures populate the Caucasus, sparkling with the beauty of many shades and flavors like the famous Georgian wine, Gurdjaani, named for the village in Georgia where the grapes grow. The Muslims around Georgia call the Georgian people gurdjis. So according to his last name, Mr. Gurdjieff is a George from Georgia.

To Indian (Hindi) ears the name 'Gurdjiev' sounds like 'Guru-Deev,' two words which mean 'close to God' and 'deity.' A Hindi speaker might even ask (this actually happened), "Is Gurdjiev a real or a constructed name?" We do not know how Mr. Gurdjieff's father acquired his last name, but having acquired it relatively far from Georgia and from Greece, the 'Gurdjieff' name symbolizes a caucus of powerful spiritual sources: Christianity, Islam, and teachings even more ancient.

And amidst these antiquities, the influx of a younger civilization: Russia. The mutual influence of the cultures of the Caucasus and Central Asia and Russian culture is cherished by both sides (we are not talking about political grievances) and produces a peculiar and charming hybrid. A great many of the remarkable people that Mr. Gurdjieff met were Russians. Russian culture is an important ingredient in his spiritual make-up and the language he uses in his writings.

Gurdjieff's name presents him as a Russian not by ethnicity, but nationality: Georgii Ivanovich, a given name and patronymic (the father's name) which is not a middle name. Every person in Russia has a patronymic as a part of their formal name which reflects the deeply patriarchal Russian culture. 'Georgii' is pronounced as 'ghe-orghii' and 'Ivanovich' means that Gurdjieff's father's name corresponded to Russian 'Ivan' (John).

About the English Translation

Even if a native speaker of Russian didn't know that the text originally was written in Russian, he would feel that something-maybe the way of describing the thinking process and alluding to oneself-arouses associations, a familiar way of talking and using language. Gurdjieff expresses himself in a colloquial manner as Georgians or Armenians would talk in Russian using phrases, word combinations, and a tone familiar to Russian ears.

Interestingly, the translation of Gurdjieff's writing, especially All and Everything, closely follows colloquial figures of speech, adding a special tone to the text. A regular 'businesslike' literary translator would render this material differently, more 'professionally,' providing English idiomatic equivalents to the Russian idioms rather than translating them literally.