In the course of a conversation in Russian a father says to his adolescent son, “Feci quod potui, faciant meliora potentes,” meaning ‘I have done what I could; let those who can do better’ and deriving from a formula uttered by retiring Roman consuls as they transferred the powers of office to their successors. Now, the son has only a smattering of Latin but, having heard this phrase from his father many times before, comprehends the sense. Knowing the father’s biography, which included many years of compulsory Latin instruction in high school and three years’ study of jurisprudence at Moscow University before the Revolution, one might suspect a kind of déformation professionnelle. This would be wrong, however. In the pre-Revolutionary Russian milieu serving as the backdrop for this conversation, it was not unusual for educated persons to sprinkle their native speech with Latin phrases. Here, for instance, is part of a réplique by the schoolmaster Kulygin in Act I of Chekhov’s Three Sisters:
Kulygin: [To IRINA] In this book you will find a list of all those who have taken the full course at our High School during these fifty years. Feci quod potui, faciant meliora potentes. [Кулыгин: (Ирине) В этой книжке ты найдешь список всех кончивших курс в нашей гимназии за эти пятьдесят лет. Feci quod potui, faciant meliora potentes.]
The presumption here is that Irina understands Kulygin’s recourse to Latin. This is not an isolated occurrence. For instance, Konstantin Stanislavskii, the famous actor and stage director, uses exactly this phrase in a neutral context in his widely-read memoirs, My Life in Art [Моя жизнь в искусстве] (1st ed., 1926).
This interpolation of Latin material in an otherwise straightforward Russian discourse is clearly a cultural feature of Russian speech. It mimics and continues the pan-European practice of quoting Latin locutions in order to give one’s utterances a special punch, not necessarily connected with the aim of parading one’s erudition. In this respect, modern Russian resembles older forms of English learned discourse that have largely become extinct. There can even be an interesting interplay in Russian between Latin and Church Slavonic (the liturgical language of Eastern Slavic Orthodoxy), for example with reference to the Latin phrase vox clamantis in deserto ‘a voice crying in the wilderness’, which derives from Isaiah 40.3 (“A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.'”) via John 1:23 (“He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,”’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”). The Church Slavonic version is glas vopiiuscshego v pustyne (глас вопиющего в пустыне). The latter is much more frequent today, but someone speaking Russian can also recur to the Latin for extra paroemic force.