Johnson's Russia List
8 November 2003
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A CDI Project
The Electronic Telegraph (UK)
November 8, 2003
Putin's language is becoming the talk of the vulgar
By Julius Strauss in Moscow
President Vladimir Putin has a reputation for foul-mouthed asides, but
Italian journalists sitting in straight-backed chairs in a Kremlin
reception room cannot have expected what was coming.
Opposite them, Vladimir Putin, immaculately dressed and statesmanlike,
answered a question about one of the country's notorious billionaires. The
interpreter's voice petered away into embarrassed silence. "You must always
obey the law, not just when they've got you by the balls" is a rough
equivalent of what Mr Putin had said.
For a western politician such a salty choice of words, shown on national
television, might mean political embarrassment, even censure.
But President Putin, once seen as a faceless KGB officer with a wooden
delivery, now regularly sprinkles his public statements with the argot of
the street. Moscow liberals are appalled and say he is betraying his lack
of pedigree for the highest office in the land.
But many ordinary Russians adore Putin's earthy indiscretions for the grit
and defiance of convention that they convey.
For many, they carry echoes of Nikita Khrushchev, the most boorish of
Soviet leaders who took off his shoe at the United Nations and banged it on
Prof Robert Russell, the head of the Russian department at Sheffield
University, said: "Like Khrushchev, Putin has an earthy turn of phrase. It
means people see him as one of their own. He's always controlled and
usually rather unemotional but there's something else Russians respond to,
something more visceral. I think he does these things deliberately for that
Mr Putin had only just come to power when he uttered his first corker,
saying he would deal with Chechens by "wiping them out in the shit house".
Last year when a French journalist asked a hostile question at a European
Union summit in Brussels, the Russian president said: "Come to Moscow. We
can offer you a circumcision. I will recommend a doctor to carry out the
operation in such a way nothing else will ever grow there again."
When the translation was released, European Union officials expressed their
fury. In Russia it ruffled few feathers.
In recent history, the Kremlin has not been blessed with great orators.
Joseph Stalin, who had a gruff Georgian accent, was repetitive and
uninspiring. Leonid Brezhnev was interminably hard on the ear, especially
after his first stroke. Mikhail Gorbachev spoke bureaucratic, convoluted
Russian. Boris Yeltsin's tone was annoyingly familiar and his words often
Mr Putin, by contrast, has shone.
"He is the first president we can call a professional public speaker," said
Alexander Volkov, a linguistics lecturer at Moscow State University.
When the cameras stop rolling, Mr Putin is even reported to resort to mat,
the bawdy and highly taboo domain of Russian invective that forms the
mainstay of prison, military and teenage street slang.
According to the Russian writer Victor Erofeyev, Mr Putin told the veteran
Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov: "We don't fucking need a military base
Perhaps Mr Putin's vocabulary owes something to the example set by his
hero, Peter the Great. Mr Erofeyev says that while decapitating rebellious
Kremlin guards, Tsar Peter let out an immense stream of foul language, "a
legendary tapestry of 74 words woven together by the force of his wrath".
Nevertheless the diminutive judo black-belt continues to quarry the mines
of the vernacular with confidence.
At a recent meeting of leaders of the former Soviet states, he urged them
to work harder and to stop "just chewing snot from one year to the next".