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I'm reading Tolstoy's War and Peace (in English) and am baffled by what the joke is in the following passage in Volume I, Part III, Chapter 2:

Он рассказывал дамам с шутливой улыбкой на губах последнее — в середу — заседание государственного совета, на котором был получен и читался Сергеем Кузьмичом Вязмитиновым, новым петербургским военным генерал-губернатором, знаменитый тогда рескрипт государя Александра Павловича из армии, в котором государь, обращаясь к Сергею Кузьмичу, говорил, что со всех сторон получает он заявления о преданности народа и что заявление Петербурга особенно приятно ему, что он гордится честью быть главою такой нации и постарается быть ее достойным. Рескрипт этот начинался словами: Сергей Кузьмич! Со всех сторон доходят до меня слухи и т. д.

— Так-таки и не пошло дальше, чем «Сергей Кузьмич»? — спрашивала одна дама.

— Да, да, ни на волос, — отвечал, смеясь князь Василий. — «Сергей Кузьмич... со всех сторон... Со всех сторон, Сергей Кузьмич...» Бедный Вязмитинов никак не мог пойти далее. Несколько раз он принимался снова за письмо, но только что скажет Сергей... всхлипывания... Ку...зьми...ч — слезы... и со всех сторон заглушаются рыданиями, и дальше он не мог. И опять платок, и опять «Сергей Кузьмич, со всех сторон», и слезы... так что уже попросили прочесть другого.

I've tried all kinds of Google queries and come up with no explanation of this passage. I've asked two Russian speakers (one a native and one with a M.A. in Russian) and neither understood what the joke was, although they did tell me that Кузьмич can mean blacksmith.

Of course, it's possible that there is no joke, and the point is that one can make society people laugh merely by signaling that one is supposedly telling a joke, even if they don't understand it (similar to how the Emperor's New Clothes worked for everyone except the child at the end). I'd like to first eliminate the possibility that there really is some kind of wordplay going on here.

(Please explain in English, as I took one year of Russian over 20 years ago, and forgot much of it, although I can still read Cyrillic.)

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    pretty strange claim for one who knows Russian - Кузьмич has nothing to do with "кузнец" - nothing at all, in any context. – shabunc Aug 4 '15 at 14:14
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Actually, there is no joke there, on the contrary, it is supposed to be a highly serious and patriotic passage. It goes like this:

Prince Vassily was telling how Sergey Kuzmich, the governor of St. Petersburg, was reading aloud a letter he received from the Emperor, in which the Emperor wrote how he was moved by the statements of patriotism, loyalty, and devotion to the Emperor he received from all the parts of the country. The letter began "Sergei Kuzmich, from all the parts ...", but Sergei Kuzmich could not read it further, because each time he tried to, he choked with tears and sobbing, so moved he was by what the Emperor wrote to him, by that degree of patriotism which was in the society at that moment.

But Prince Vassily, who was telling this story, did it with a joking smile, perhaps an ironic smile, or maybe Sergei Kuzmich' crying because of his feeling too patriotic and loyal looked compunctionate to Prince Vassily. I cannot explain the reason of his smile exhaustively, I am not a great specialist on War and Peace, but definitely there is no pun, or wordplay, or joke based on Сергей Кузьмич and со всех сторон, Prince Vassily smiled at the very fact that Sergei Kuzmich cried while reading a patriotic text.

Besides, Кузьмич cannot mean 'blacksmith'.

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Mechanical repetition of a word or a part of a phrase is one of Tolstoy's personal tropes. Also in War and Peace, you have Pierre's dream about сопрягать; in Дьявол, there are the words фосфориты оправдают stuck in the protagonist's head at the very beginning; and this is another one of those examples. While there may be some humour in it sounding like "Sergey Kuzmich is everywhere" as @user4419802 suggested, this was probably the kind of humour that was more like a little theatrical performance than the retelling of something witty. What's more,

Сергей Кузьмич, со всех сторон,

со всех сторон, Сергей Кузьмич

— is accidentally iambic, which adds some vague effect to repeating and recombining this barely meaningful line (one is reminded of Joyce's "apologise, pull out his eyes, pull out his eyes, apologise").

Кузьмич is the patronymic formed from Кузьма, a name entirely unrelated to кузнец — while it is, technically, related to космонавт.

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  • Well, that's a type of a "comedy play" joke. There's no need to find parallels with Joyce here. Although a bit of "scenic play" is not a mandatory tool for a written novel yet even in XIX century that wasn't too much of modern. – Matt Aug 2 '15 at 8:15
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The joke is about no gap between sentences. Remember that in Russian the verb "to be" is usually omitted.

Thus "Sergei Kuzmich! From all sides...", saying it fast, may also mean: "Sergei Kuzmich is from all sides..." that is "Sergei Kuzmich is everywhere" ;-)

P.S. "Blacksmith" = "Кузнец". While "Кузьмич" is a patronimic of "Кузьма" which originates from greek "Κοσμάς" (consider also Italian "Cosimo").

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