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April 17, 2005 by AK

Confusion over words

American media are good at parrotting key words to the whole world but bad at exporting concepts. Part of the problem is linguistic and cultural flippancy. Two words spelled almost the same in two languages do not have to have the same meaning in both. When ideology-peddlers ignore this well-known fact, absurdity ensues.

Take “individualism.” To its Anglospheric proponents, it means taking responsibility for one’s actions and well-being. To many Russians, the word embodies a different worldview: “I want it all for myself. I don’t give a sh*t about you guys.” In Russia, Dillinger would be called an individualist but Bill Gates’ one-word description would more likely be smart, risk-taking, enterprising, lucky. He might as well turn out an “individualist,” but not necessarily.

“Collectivism” to many American freedom-preachers is being told what to do by a group one happens to belong to. Often enough in Russia, it means team spirit, helping one’s friends, pulling resources to achieve a common goal.

To be properly understood in Russia, one has to use “responsibility” to convey the notion of individualism, and I can’t think of a good word to describe the “bad” variety of collectivism. For its totalitarian extremes, the first thing that comes to mind is what the good old Vladimir Zhirinovsky (yes, the one who seems an ultrachauvinistic clown) said when he announced his support for Yeltsin in 1996: “Communists got into every Soviet citizen’s bed.”


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